Eco-Farming's Promise for Poverty Alleviation

On March 8, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapportuer on the Right to Food released the report “Agroecology and the Right to Food,” arguing that conventional agricultural methods (i.e. the fertilizer intensive industrial system currently in place) should be ditched in favor of sustainable agricultural (often grouped under buzz words such as the organic movement, eco-farming, or, now, agroecology). Much to the delight of hipsters and local foodies the world over, the report contends that organic, small-scale producers can feed the world with improved agricultural practices that increase production without being as resource intensive. Not only would it mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing dependence on fossil fuels, but, if carried out properly, agroecology is also the best choice for poverty alleviation.

According to the report, “Most [agricultural development] efforts in the past have focused on improving seeds and ensuring that farmers are provided with a set of inputs that can increase yields, replicating the model of industrial processes ...” The authors instead advocate a knowledge-intensive approach that incorporates natural defenses, integrated farm management, and increased crop diversity. The natural processes of a local ecosystem are most efficient at renewing the soil and controlling local pests, and land should be cultivated in a way that maximizes those outcomes to dramatically increase production.

For example, in one agricultural development project, a government agency in Panama introduced improved pinto bean seeds that better withstand the affects of climate change, which indicates that the dry season will be rainier. As a result, bean crops, an important source of income for rural farmers, will have lower annual yields. The agency made a commitment to provide three farming groups with “improved seeds” for two planting seasons, along with chemical fertilizer and herbicide.  When all the numbers are crunched, the farmers will have a surplus to sell and turn a reasonable profit. At the end of the project, they will also have better beans adapted to the affects of climate change. So, why doesn’t this work?

The authors of the report may criticize that the above example requires the temporary provision of external inputs that exhaust, rather than renew, soil and is unsustainable in the long-term when agency sponsorship ends. Project planners should have used organic fertilizer made from local waste, and pest control based on integrated agriculture that employs planting trees and other crops that naturally deter unwanted creatures. But, that would require a lot more involvement and financial commitment from the agency and its donors.

One limitation of eco-farming is that knowledge-intensive agriculture implies greater investment in research to identify and develop best practices in each and every micro-climate. Additionally, changing farming practices that have been employed for generations is difficult in conservative cultures and entails long-term investment in capacity building, or education and training for poor farmers to adopt new techniques.

While the report may quell conventional opponents who contend that organic agriculture could never feed the world, it certainly does not offer to do it more cheaply or quickly. Regardless, the proposal is still viable. Rather than channeling development dollars toward the purchase of energy intensive inputs imported from abroad, as in our example from Panama, investment would be redistributed to on-the-ground research programs and rural extension services that require more participation from poor farmers. Better seed varieties can help farmers adapt to climate change, but without eco-farming, they will remain dependent on purchasing external inputs.

The challenge is to complement better beans with better farm management practices, and then feed the world. Rather – so the world can feed itself.

Photo Credit: Jessica Rudder