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‘Agroecology’ Could Help Stave Off World Hunger

March 9, 2011

Food production in many of the world’s poorest regions could as much as double with small-scale “eco-farming,” a system that could also help fight climate change, the United Nations reported Tuesday.

As the worldwide population continues to expand, world hunger is a growing fear, especially in underdeveloped countries. Currently, more than a billion people — roughly 14 percent of the world’s population — live on less than a dollar per day.

Food prices have surged in recent years due to climate-related natural disasters, with many staple foods reaching record levels in the past month, according to the UN’s food price index.

By 2050, when the world population sails beyond nine billion, food shortages will become even more critical as will the need for additional output and more resources.

The report suggests that the key to boosting output in poorer countries must be a shift from crops tainted with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to more sustainable techniques that can increase yields and repair the environment.

“We are not in a situation in which agriculture can only be about increasing production,” lead author Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, told AFP. “It must also be about limiting the impact on ecosystems … and preserving agro-biodiversity. It must be about increasing the income of the farmers.”

Conventional farming harms soil, adds fire to climate change, is vulnerable to weather fluctuations, and relies on expensive inputs, he said.

Looking to identify agricultural techniques that work best in poor countries, UN investigators found that small-scale and largely organic farms performed far better. In development projects examined in 20 African countries, crop yields doubled over three to ten years using these measures.

Similar methods boosted output, on average, by 80 percent throughout 57 developing countries.

By using a sustainable approach, farmers cut out the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which saved them more money and reduced pollution and allowed depleted soil to recover.

“It becomes essentially more affordable for poor farmers to farm because they will have to invest much less in order to buy the inputs they need,” said De Schutter.

Farmers in Malawi planted certain trees around their maize crops and saw yields double to triple. The trees helped absorb nitrogen in the atmosphere, and fertilized the soil with nitrogen-rich foliage. And the tree roots oxygenated the soil and helped maintain ground moisture for nearby crops.

And while the report suggests chemical fertilizer be replaced, farmers found, in some cases, that combining a modest dose of chemical fertilizer helped increase yields even more, suggesting the two techniques can sometimes complement each other.

Another program in Kenya used plants interspersed with crops to repel insects while other plants — planted further from the crop fields — were used to attract the pests away from the crops.

Crop variety can protect subsistence farmers from the disastrous impacts from pests and weather, the report argued.

“Diversity on the farm creates an ‘agro-portfolio effect’ — you don’t lose all the crops at once,” said De Schutter. But in rich nations, turning away from highly-mechanized industrial farming would likely reduce yields.

The report warns that current agricultural practices are ruining life-giving ecosystems.

“The new reality is that the world is only one poor harvest away from chaos,” said noted environmental expert Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, and author of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

Others approaches to curtailing a global food crisis include the use of genetically modified food, further industrialization, and reducing production of bio-fuel crops to make way for food crops.

“Agriculture is at a crossroads,” said De Schutter.

“The cost of food production has been very closely following the cost of oil,” De Schutter said. Turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia has been partly linked to the discontent in soaring food prices. Oil prices were around $115 a barrel on Wednesday.

“If food prices are not kept under control and populations are unable to feed themselves…we will have increasingly states being disrupted and failed states developing,” he said.

Better research, training and use of local knowledge are needed. “Farmer field schools” by rice growers in Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh had led to cuts in insecticide use of between 35 and 92 percent, the study said.

De Schutter also called for a push to diversify global farm output from reliance on rice, wheat and maize diets.

Developed nations, however, would not be able to make a quick shift to “agroecology” because of what he called an “addiction” to an industrial, oil-based model for farming.

Cuba is a prime example of how it can be accomplished. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off supplies of cheap pesticides and fertilizers to the small island nation, Cuba had a slight downturn in the 90s, but sharply risen after farmers adopted more eco-friendly methods.

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