Sunday, November 29, 2009

Can Ecological Agriculture Feed 9 Billion People?

I just finished reading the latest article I've come across about converting to a more ecologically-friendly agriculture.

It's good stuff -- reminding us of the challenges we face, and of the benefits of sustainable agriculture:

(S)ustainable agroecosystems...have positive side-effects, helping to enhance local environments, strengthen communities, and develop human capacities. Examples of positive side-effects recently recorded in various developing countries include:
  • Improvements to the ecosystem, including increased water retention in soils, improvements in water table (with more and cleaner drinking water in the dry season), reduced soil erosion combined with more organic matter in soils, leading to more carbon sequestration, healthier soils, greater productivity, and increased agrobiodiversity;
  • Improvements to communities, including more and stronger social organizations at the local level, new rules and norms for managing collective natural resources, and better connectedness to external policy institutions;
  • Improvements to human potential, including more local capacity to experiment and solve problems, reduced incidence of malaria in rice-fish zones, increased self-esteem in formerly marginalized groups, increased status of women, better child health and nutrition, and reversed migration and more local employment.
The article then details key remaining areas of uncertainty, as well as the complex psychological factors involved in motivating farmers to make significant changes to their ways of farming:
We do not yet know for sure whether a transition toward sustainable agriculture, delivering greater benefits at the scale occurring in these projects, will result in enough food to meet the current food needs in developing countries, let alone the future needs after continued population growth and adoption of more urban and meat-rich diets. But what we are seeing is highly promising, especially for the poorest. There is also scope for additional confidence, as evidence indicates that productivity can grow over time if the farm ecosystem is enhanced, communities are strengthened and organized toward positive goals, and human knowledge, nutrition, and health are improved.

One problem is that we know much less about these resource-conserving technologies than we do about the use of external inputs in modernized, more industrial agricultural systems. (Most of the agricultural research in developed countries has been focused on products used for input-intensive systems such as fertilizers, pesticides, new genetics, and new machinery — products that could be sold to farmers.) It is clear that the process by which farmers learn about technology alternatives is crucial. If farmers are forced or coerced, then they may only adopt for a limited period. But if the process is participatory and enhances farmers’ ecological literacy of their farms and resources, then the foundation for redesign and continuous innovation is laid.

Regrettably, successes are still in the minority. Time is short, and the challenge is enormous. This change to agricultural sustainability clearly benefits poor people and environments in developing countries. People involved in these projects have more food, are better organized, are able to access external services and power structures, and have more choices in their lives. But change may also provoke secondary problems. For example, building a road near a forest can help farmers reach markets to sell their produce, but also aids illegal timber extraction. Equally, short-term social conflict may be necessary for overcoming inequitable land ownership, so as to produce better welfare outcomes for the majority.

So where do we stand, and what does this author see as next steps?

At this time we are neither feeding all the 6.7 billion people in the world nor — with some notable exceptions — conducting agriculture in an environmentally sound way. It may be possible to feed the estimated 9 billion people living on earth by mid-century. However, this will take a massive and multifaceted effort that may include changing the way animals are raised (not feeding ruminants food that could be used for human consumption) and giving up the ill-conceived use of cereals and other foods for conversion to transport fuels. In addition, support is needed for the development of participatory groups of farmers that can try out a variety of practices and learn from each other as well as technicians as they explore new techniques that will enhance sustainability.

I'm sure I'll get back to this one as a reference for future writings...

Read the full article>>

More on this question from Grist>>

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:52 PM

    Hey, there.

    Have you read a book by Ben Hewitt, called "The Town That Food Saved"? I highly recommend it!