The escalation of food prices in 2007-2008, alongside a prognosis by FAO that by 2050 there will be another 2 billion mouths to feed, generated alarming predictions about the future of food. Some analysts predict that we will have to increase production by 70% to cope with increasing demand.
However, many experts claim that the increasing population is not the main challenge. Although there is already enough food in the world, it is actually the poorest, small-scale producers that cannot afford to buy it. As Eric Holt-Gimenez argues, ‘hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity’. Therefore, the issue ‘is not how much we invest in agriculture; it’s how we do it, and who does it’.
Advocates of a second Green Revolution argue that developing countries should adopt an agro-industrial model. Such a model relies on standardised technologies and the never ending use of fertilizers and pesticides in order to provide food supplies for growing populations.
On the other hand, many farmers, NGOs and analysts insist that developing countries should embrace an agro-ecological model, which emphasizes biodiversity, recycling of nutrients, synergy among crops, animals, soils, and other biological components, and regeneration and conservation of resources.
The agro-ecological model
Agro-ecology is the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems. It is based on traditional indigenous farming knowledge and selected modern farming technologies in order to manage diversity, incorporate biological principles and resources into farming systems while increasing agricultural production. This form of farming offers:
There are enough cases around the world, where smallholder producers, in partnership with NGOs and other organizations, promote ’resource-conserving yet highly productive farming systems’. However, critics claim that these farming practices result to lower crop yields, compared with high-input conventional systems.
More often than not, such views derive from the emphasis on yield of a single crop. As a result, they fail to observe the greater productivity per area that results from integrated agro-ecological systems, which feature many crop varieties, animals and plants. In fact, a report by Olivier De Schutter presents 286 agro-ecological projects where yields increased by 79% on average compared to conventional methods.
Agro-ecology as part of the agricultural industry
According to Michael Pimbert, agro-ecology does not concern only small-scale farmers of the developing world, but large-scale production in temperate countries as well. ‘The relevance of agro-ecology for the future of large-scale industrial farming is becoming more apparent as policymakers, scientists, farmers and citizens realize that business as usual is no longer an option in the face of peak oil, climate change, water scarcity and the social, public health and environmental costs of industrial and Green Revolution farming.’
Therefore, the real challenge for the future of farming is to scale up agro-ecological systems. Although there is plenty for the governments to do, this is a great opportunity for forward-thinking businesses, by supporting agro-ecology and resilient local food systems.
With climate change being a recurring topic for many governments, its implications on food production is next in line. Many western countries depend on food importation from developing countries, making the current agricultural model unsustainable as it meets the needs for only one part of the world.
Agro-ecology seems to be the next step for agriculture, and while governments find ways to support farmers who incorporate such techniques, it is the private industry that should promote such initiatives.
Charles El-Zeind is passionate about communicating environmental issues such as climate change and sustainability. Charles is currently involved in a grassroots community project with the Fiveways and Hollingdean Transition Network and writes regularly for the Sustainable Business Toolkit. He holds a bachelor degree from the University of Brighton in Environment and Media Studies.