The alliance between agroecology and the right to food

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An alternative to the classic « green revolution » approach is now being prepared in agronomy faculties and in farmers’ practices. Agroecology, born of the intersection of agronomic sciences and ecology, is the basis of a set of agricultural production techniques that aim to make more efficient use of resources, so as to better integrate agriculture with its ecosystems and reduce the ecological footprint of agricultural production(1). It consists for the farmer to try to imitate nature in his field. It relies on the complementarities between different plants and animals. It recognizes the inherent complexity of natural systems. It rewards intelligence and inventiveness, whereas industrial agriculture claims to break down nature into its elements and to simplify the farmer’s task, even if it means making it monotonous. Agroecology conceives of agriculture not as a process that transforms inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) into agricultural production, but rather as a cycle, where the waste that is produced serves as an input, where animals and legumes serve to fertilize the soil, and where even weeds perform useful functions. 

And above all, agroecology is a way to respond to the challenges of this century. Let’s recall some facts. Agriculture is responsible for 33% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, of which nearly half (14%) is the result of unsustainable agricultural practices, including the use of synthetic fertilizers, a source of nitrous oxide, one of the most potent greenhouse gases. In sixty years, the energy efficiency of industrial agriculture has been divided by twenty: according to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 1940 it took one calorie of fossil energy to produce 2.3 calories of food, in 2000 it took 10 calories of fossil energy to produce one calorie of food. Today’s petroleum-based agriculture is rapidly destroying the ecosystems on which it depends, and it has developed an addiction to energies that are doomed to become scarcer, and whose prices will be both more volatile and higher in the future. 

In contrast, agroecology is a source of resilience, both at the scale of a region or country and at the scale of the individual household. Africa, where attempts are now being made to revive a new ‘Green Revolution’, imports 90% of its chemical fertilizers, and an even higher proportion of the minerals used to fertilize the soil: this is a fragile basis on which to build so-called food security. Like countries, farmers who rely on expensive inputs for their production are not immune to economic shocks that can result from sharp price increases. Conversely, when biopesticides or organic fertilizers are produced locally — such as through compost or manure, or through the use of plants that can capture nitrogen and fertilize soils — the cost of production drops, and net incomes increase, sometimes dramatically. 

So why is agroecology not more widely used? How can it be understood that it is not at the top of the agricultural programs of countries that are trying to revive their agriculture today? There are several reasons why governments have been slow to make this a priority. Some mental blocks, no doubt: the conviction, strongly anchored in a certain conception of what agricultural « modernization » represents, that progress necessarily requires more inputs, and advanced irrigation and mechanization, along the lines of the Green Revolution of the 1960s. There is also resistance from some quarters, notably from input producers, who see the large-scale deployment of agroecological practices as a promising market that will wither away. Finally, some agroecological practices are labor intensive: they are easier to practice on smaller plots, where the farm worker is tied to the land, on which he or she invests for the long term. Agroecology is thus opposed to the idea that progress necessarily means increasing labor productivity, i.e. producing more with less labor and more capital. However, how can we fail to see that we urgently need to develop rural employment and to focus on better productivity?The question is not about the productivity of men and women, but about the rapidly depleting natural resources. 

But there’s more. Agroecology is not only labor intensive, it is also knowledge intensive: it requires knowledge transfer, it relies on exchanges between farmers, and it makes them experts — instead of good practice coming from laboratories, it has its source in these places of experimentation that are the fields we cultivate. In this way, agroecology is a source of emancipation for farmers: from being recipients of advice, it turns them into co-actors, and balances the relationship between the holders of knowledge and its users — and farmers are on both sides at the same time. In countries where the exclusion of peasants from political decision-making has been, for years, one of the major causes of under-investment in agriculture and, even more so, of choices in agricultural policies that have sacrificed both social equity and environmental sustainability, agroecology has powerful subversive effects. 

Olivier De Schutter
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food 

Notes et références
  1. Pour une discussion des liens entre pratiques agroécologiques et droit à l’alimentation, voy. mon rapport à la seizième session du Conseil des Droits de l’Homme, en mars 2011 (“Agroécologie et droit à l’alimentation”, Rapport présenté à la 16ème session du Conseil des droits de l’homme de l’ONU [A/HRC/16/49]).

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