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UN: Eco-Farming Feeds the World

For years now, the most-asked question by detractors of the good food movement has been, “Can organic agriculture feed the world?” According to a new United Nations report, the answer is a big, fat yes.

The report, Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, released yesterday, reveals that small-scale sustainable farming would even double food production within five to 10 years in places where most hungry people on the planet live.

“We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations,” Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report, said in a press release. “The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”

The report suggests moving away from the overuse of oil in farming, a problem that is magnified in the face of rising prices due to unrest in the Middle East. The focus is instead on agroecology, or eco-farming. “Agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry,” reads a section.

The report shows that these practices raise productivity significantly, reduce rural poverty, increase genetic diversity, improve nutrition in local populations, serve to build a resilient food system in the face of climate change, utilize fewer and more locally available resources, empower farmers and create jobs.

Of 57 impoverished countries surveyed, for example, yields had increased by an average of nearly 80 percent when farmers used methods such as placing weed-eating ducks in rice patties in Bangladesh or planting desmodium, which repels insects, in Kenyan cornfields. These practices were also cost effective, locally available and resulted from farmers working to pass on this knowledge to each other in their communities.

While the report admits that agroecology can be more labor-intensive because of the complexity of knowledge required, it shows that this is usually a short-term issue. The report underscores that agroecology creates more jobs over the long term answering critics who argue that creating more jobs in agriculture is counter-productive. “Creation of employment in rural areas in developing countries, where underemployment is currently massive, and demographic growth remains high,” states the report, “may constitute an advantage rather than a liability and may slow down rural-urban migration.”
Mark Bittman put it aptly in his column on the UN report at the New York Times, saying:

Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual—much research remains to be done—and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization.

This is not the first time such a report has declared more productive ways to feed the world other than leaving that important task to large corporations. In April 2008, the IAASTD report (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development)–which was supported by the World Bank, the UN Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, among others, with the participation of over 60 world governments and 400 experts–found that not only would industrial food production not be able to feed the world in the long term, but the practices being employed are actually increasing hunger, exhausting resources and exacerbating climate change. However, the U.S., under the Bush Administration, was one of the countries that decided not to endorse the findings.

Though agroecological farming has benefits for industrialized countries too, both reports focus largely on what to do in the least-developed nations on the globe. The status quo for U.S. foreign policy in agriculture up until now has been to leverage our political muscle to force countries to except our subsidized crops, even if it meant destroying local agricultural economies. (Former President Bill Clinton apologized for this policy last year, saying that it has “failed everywhere it’s been tried,” and “we should have continued to work to make sure [Haiti] was self-sufficient in agriculture.”) Will the Obama Administration be more receptive to these findings and could there be a change in the way we work with other countries in our support for agriculture?

Looking back at this (proudly pro-business) administration’s follies in hiring a pesticide lobbyist as our Agricultural Trade Representative, maintaining the USDA in the confusing role of promoting and regulating agriculture, and focusing on “improved seeds,” which usually means funding for the development of genetically modified crops for poor countries and you might be discouraged.

But De Schutter argues that real change to improve the livelihoods of rural farmers requires governments to be on board. “States and donors have a key role to play here,” he said. “Private companies will not invest time and money in practices that cannot be rewarded by patents and which don’t open markets for chemical products or improved seeds.” In other words, feeding the worlds hungry should not be left to the market alone.

The report makes these specific recommendations for governing bodies:

  • making reference to agroecology and sustainable agriculture in national strategies for the realization of the right to food and by including measures adopted in the agricultural sector in national adaptation plans of action (NAPAs) and in the list of nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) adopted by countries in their efforts to mitigate climate change;
  • reorienting public spending in agriculture by prioritizing the provision of public goods, such as extension services, rural infrastructures and agricultural research, and by building on the complementary strengths of seeds-and-breeds and agroecological methods, allocating resources to both, and exploring the synergies, such as linking fertilizer subsidies directly to agroecological investments on the farm (“subsidy to sustainability”);
  • supporting decentralized participatory research and the dissemination of knowledge about the best sustainable agricultural practices by relying on existing farmers’ organizations and networks, and including schemes designed specifically for women;
  • improving the ability of producers practicing sustainable agriculture to access markets, using instruments such as public procurement, credit, farmers’ markets, and creating a supportive trade and macroeconomic framework.

The report also gives recommendations for donors seeking to decrease hunger and improve rural livelihoods and for research organizations.

You can read the full report here [PDF]

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