catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 3 :: 2008.02.08 — 2008.02.22


The past is the future

A small farmer in the Midwest, a conservation biologist in the Amazonian rainforest and impoverished peasant in the mountains of India—what do these three people have to do with each other?  They show the connection between agriculture, biodiversity and poverty.  Often considered three separate issues that have their own entourage of government agencies, non-governmental organizations advocates and arguments, these three issues are highly integrated into each other as well.

In the years following the Green Revolution, questions about modern agricultural practices increasingly have been raised.  These questions have recently gained a place of prominence within Northern countries amidst popularized discussions about organic produce, genetically modified foodstuffs and “mad cow” disease.  The questions remain important in Southern countries as structural adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund and similar institutions attempt to move agriculture in these countries toward the modern model.  The solutions of sustainable agriculture have never been as important as now in answer to these questions. 


Biodiversity and agriculture

Although bio-conservationists and agriculturalists have historically been arranged in a dichotomous relationship, agriculture can both house biodiversity and protect it.  Even agricultural ecosystems have diverse species with diverse functions.  For example, one cubic meter of soil in Denmark had 50,000 earthworms, 50,000 insects and mites, 12 million roundworms, 30,000 protozoa, 50,000 algae, 400,000 fungi and billions of individual bacteria.  Other parts of the agricultural ecosystem include diverse plants, farmland birds and other wildlife, and of course the nutrients that are vital to life growth such as carbon, nitrogen, and water.  In addition to including biodiversity within the actual agricultural ecosystem, agriculture can also protect biodiversity in areas such as hedgerows, pastures, tree groves, etc.  In fact, conserving biodiversity on the farm through allowing part of the farm to go wild or creating spaces where wildlife can thrive can also boost production.

Vandana Shiva, an outspoken activist and academic in the fields of agriculture and biodiversity, refers to the finding that “the chief contemporary cause of the loss of genetic diversity has been the spread of modern, commercial agriculture” (from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture). Brian Halweil, senior researcher for Worldwatch Institute, agrees saying that “industrial farming will rival climate change as a source of massive, irreversible environmental impacts.”  One of the primary reasons for this devastating impact is the argument from modern methods that diversity goes again productivity and since productivity is given the highest value, diversity is eliminated.  This elimination is evident in the changes that have occurred in agriculture in the last 100 years.  For example, the United States Department of Agriculture in 1897 listed 275 varieties of apples while today there are less than twelve.  Domestic livestock breeds are disappearing at a rate of 5% per year and in Europe, 80% of farmland grows four crops.  In India, rice varieties have decreased from 100,000 to ten.  Pesticide use has also led to the elimination of useful insects along with insects perceived as pests.  Monocropping and destruction of natural pest control results in crops that are extremely vulnerable to disease and insects.  In addition to destroying the biodiversity within agricultural ecosystems, modern agricultural practices such as large irrigation demands also have impacts on other parts of the environment such as rivers and wetlands.


Rural poverty and agriculture

Not only have modern agricultural practices decreased biodiversity, but in many places, they have also increased rural poverty.  There is also a connection between biodiversity loss and poverty increase.  Shiva writes, “As biodiversity disappears, the poor are further impoverished and deprived of the healthcare and nutrition that biodiversity provides.”  Rural poverty was already prevalent in most of the world and continues to increase.  Of the 1.2 million people who earn less than $1 a day, 75% live in rural areas. In the United States the rural poverty rate is 23% higher than urban rates.

The examples of poverty increase following modernization of agricultural practices are unfortunately all too prevalent.  Following the North American Free Trade Agreement the portion of food supply imported by Mexico increased from 20% in 1992 to 43% in 1996.  In that time 2.2 million Mexicans have lost jobs and 40 million have fallen into extreme poverty.  In India after 1991, as part of the structural adjustment package of the International Monetary Fund, cotton production increased by 1.7 million hectares, replacing food crops.  In addition, seeds were advertised to farmers along with pesticides, which increased the debt required to plant crops and risk involved in crop failures.  A more specific story in India involved the replacement of native bulls with high milk production Jersey bulls in an attempt to reduce poverty.  Along with a variety of other issues, the scheme resulted in a loss of diversity of cattle species, the nearly complete loss of dairy herds in the region and a corresponding increase in poverty.

One of the major causes of increased poverty is the increase of needed inputs.   An industrial system of farming will require 300 inputs in order to produce 100 units of food.  That shows an obvious result of debit, not credit.  Alternatively, a polycultural system will produce 100 units from five units of inputs.  Most of the units in industrial farming are chemically produced pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.  In addition, because the current food system involves a lot of processing and long distance traveling to markets, most of the money goes to the cities and factories, not to the farms.  Finally, the current system of government subsidies to farming means that attempting to diversify crops results in loss of significant form of incomes from government payments.

The increase in poverty is not only monetary however.  Modernization of agriculture also results in impoverished human and social capital.  Scientists who work in a laboratory are now considered the agricultural experts and often ignore the human capital of farmer knowledge.  For example, in West African farming, termites are used both to help recognize good land and to manage the soil.  The extensive pesticide use of modern agriculture would wipe out termites along with all other insects, and thus actually reduce their potential to assist with growth, along with killing the social knowledge and meaning that termites have had for centuries.  Additionally, social capital is lost as farmers become increasingly reliant on themselves, machines and chemicals rather than on each other.

The problems of modern agriculture are not just problems of the global North or the global South; instead, they are the problems of farmers everywhere, and the loss of biodiversity has become the problem of the entire world. Halweil explains, “In the first seven years of NAFTA, all three participating nations saw commodity prices and farmer incomes plummet, as the companies that trade and process agricultural commodities reaped the windfall profits.  As farmers depend on markets that are farther and farther away, moving storing, processing and brokering of food begins to assume greater importance than production.” 

Sustainable agriculture allows the opportunity to break down the dichotomy between the North and South and asks for the space to develop a both/and rather than an either/or system.  It is not that agriculture needs to become sustainable in either the South or the North, but in both, and in becoming sustainable in both, they will complement each other.  In addition, sustainable agriculture in many ways reverses the dichotomy of developed and undeveloped.  Because of the modernization of agriculture in the North, farmers have already forgotten many of the ways of sustainable agriculture and it is often more undeveloped than it is in many parts of the South.  In addition, the South has much to teach Northern farmers about organizing for their rights. 

The importance will be in the sharing of methods in sustainable agriculture that allow for farmers to experiment and develop sustainable methods.  Farmers need to be the ones experimenting and evaluating, empowered to learn, adapt and do better, rather than scientists coming from the outside and telling them how to do things.  Farmers need to analyze their situations, make choices by getting needed information, choose their preferred option, and finally by experiment in the fields with these options.  Farmers need to be given the space to experiment with genetic material, principles, practices and methods to satisfy their curiosity, solve problems and adapt technology.  Farmers also need to play a primary role in evaluating these experimentations, which requires a decentralization process, a loosening of control from the top down.  There needs to be a move from simplification of problems and setting to finding diverse solutions to diverse settings.  These opportunities for farmers are needed both in the North as well as the South, with opportunities for solidarity, co-learning and information sharing transferring between the two.


Sustainable agriculture’s solutions

Sustainable agriculture offers solutions to the compounded problems of biodiversity loss and rural poverty.  Jules Pretty, an academic who has researched extensively in the field of biodiversity and agriculture, defines sustainable agriculture as

the best use of nature’s goods and services whilst not damaging the environment.  It does this by integrating natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration, and natural enemies of pests into food production processes.  It also minimizes non-renewable inputs that damage the environment or harm the health of farmers and consumers.  It makes better use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, so improving their self-reliance, and it makes productive use of people’s capacities to work together to solve common management problems.  Through this, sustainable agriculture also contributes to a range of public goods, such as clean water, wildlife, carbon sequestration in soils, flood protection, and landscape quality.

By this definition, because sustainable agriculture focuses on not damaging the environment, it allows for protection and even proliferation of biodiversity.  In addition, by reducing non-renewable inputs it reduces farmers’ dependency on, and indebtedness to, external inputs such as chemicals.  Also, the focus on farmer knowledge addresses issues of poverty caused by seed purchasing as well as human and social poverty.

Sustainable agriculture’s impact on biodiversity is not just theoretical, it has been seen in practice as well.  According to a 2000 study done in the United Kingdom, organic farming greatly increased farm biodiversity, sustaining five times more wild plants, 25% more birds at field edge and 44% more in the field, 1.6 times the number of bugs, three times non-pest butterflies, one to five times the number of spiders.  Another example of the benefit from sustainable agriculture is the use of trees.  In general trees are not considered part of farming, but they provide important buffers for agriculture as well as providing important ecological services.  Using leguminous tree crops during fallow seasons were found to boost nutrients in the soils as well as providing homes and food for wildlife. 

Because of the emphasis on local production, sustainable agriculture also contributes to ecological literacy.  It allows people to be aware of where their food is coming from and thus how it is grown and the impact it is having on the environment, the farmers, biodiversity and poverty.

Sustainable agriculture’s impact on rural poverty reduction likewise is not simply theoretical, but also practical.  In the sustainable agriculture developed through a program called “Campesino a Campesino,” the corn yield in San Martin Guatemala doubled, and crops and topsoil during Hurricane Mitch were protected.  Sustainable agriculture is also providing an alternative for the 1.8 billion people who live rurally, but not in easily farmable areas such as forests, woodlands, arid regions, and steeply sloping hills.  Modern farming expects these farmers to give up and move out.  Sustainable agriculture is the best alternative for them, providing “free” biological alternatives.  Also, because of the increased need in labor input along with the increased food production, sustainable agriculture reduces rural to urban emigration.  In San Martin, emigration was reduced by 90%.

The role of farmers in sustainable agriculture is in many ways at the very base of its contribution to biodiversity and poverty alleviation.  As a result, a primary need in the move toward sustainable agriculture will be putting the control in the hands of the farmers.  Large percentages of farmers in most of the world lack ownership of the land they farm and thus lack the ability to make decisions over how farming happens.  In many cases this problem is because those working the land are women who are not owners or given decision-making authority.  The incentive for change comes from those experiencing the results of change.  Direct farmers will experience the results of improved health, improved production, and thus improved income moreso than remote landowners.

Agricultural practices, biodiversity and rural poverty are inextricably linked to each other.  Modern and industrial agricultural practices, while increasing production, have resulted in increased poverty for many rural areas and extremely depleted biodiversity.  Sustainable agriculture also can arguably be said to result in similar or even more productive yields through the process of maintaining and increasing biodiversity and also reducing rural poverty.   For example, Cuba is feeding its people without imports, without synthetic farm chemicals, without large-scale farming and without food aid.  Cuba is flying in the face of conventional modern farming wisdom and is succeeding with a much more sustainable approach.  In its most fundamental sense, sustainable agriculture requires local adaptations, experimentation and implementation, but Cuba provides evidence of the possibilities that lie before the world.  This hope is important, because the current method of modern agriculture provides no future.

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