Politics of Poverty

Distributing seeds, fertilizer and pesticides to poor farmers is OUT. Agroecology is IN.

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Food vendor Dado Sade cultivates onions in the kitchen garden at her home in Kolda, Senegal in 2012. Photo: Holly Pickett / Oxfam America

Agroecology enables us to grow food in ways that cut emissions, create more resilient landscapes, and ensure ample yields – all while reducing the use of non-renewable resources.

Gina Castillo is the Agriculture Program Manager at Oxfam America.

I’m always astounded by the expertise that smallholder farmers demonstrate. The diversity of what they are able to produce using little to no inputs is downright elegant.

I visited the farm of Jacinta Navarro in Chalatenango, El Salvador last year. She is a member of a woman’s savings group that Oxfam has been supporting there. The women had requested training from Oxfam so they could start kitchen gardens and could improve their families’ nutrition. They learned to make organic compost and to control pests using natural biological methods. In her kitchen garden, Jacinta was growing different types of beans, tomatoes, cilantro, and an assortment of chilies. Most of the produce went straight to her pot. Some she bartered or sold to neighbors. When we met, she recounted proudly to me how much better her family was now eating.

I’ve also visited farmers in Brazil and Ethiopia who use similar techniques to grow a range of crops in their plots, which tend to range in size from half a hectare to a hectare. Like Jacinta, they felt immensely proud of mastering new techniques, providing more and better food for their families – all by reducing or eliminating synthetic inputs, which also meant saving money.

These farmers all practice agroecology. Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. Its most important underlying principles are diversification of both crops and animals, crop rotation, and organic matter cycles. In order to increase production while maintaining the natural resource base, farmers practice: agroforestry, water harvesting in dry-land areas, livestock integration into farming systems, reduced tillage, green manuring, systems of rice intensification, and a whole variety of other techniques. Using a combination of these techniques and linking these to market outlets can put more money in farmers’ pockets.

Today Oxfam released a new paper, Building a New Agricultural Future: Supporting Agroecology for People and the Planet, which seeks to contribute to the on-going debate about sustainable agriculture. The paper shows how an agroecological approach provides a range of social, economic, and environmental benefits that—with the right policy support and associated investments—can be scaled up to enable smallholder farming communities to achieve food security and additional benefits. More importantly, the paper shows what needs to be done to scale-up agroecological farming practices around the world. This short paper builds on a larger literature review undertaken by Oxfam on the benefits of agroecology.

So if agroeology makes so much sense, why hasn’t it taken hold more firmly as the pathway forward for agricultural development?

Firstly, skeptics are stuck in thinking that a lot of these agroecological practices cannot be scaled up. They are wrong. The Regreening Initiative in the Sahel is an example of what can achieved when farmers and development partners tap into farmers’ potential. By pruning shoots that periodically and naturally sprout from the ground, farmers promote forest growth and take advantage of a naturally occurring source of fuel, food, or animal fodder. Another example is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which Oxfam and a range of development partners and research centers have been supporting to enable farmers to produce more with fewer chemical inputs and less water. The alternate wetting and drying in irrigated rice production that SRI promotes also helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Secondly, agroecological practices have not taken hold at a grand scale because there is nothing to sell. With agroecology, there are no pre-formulated packages to peddle to farmers. Most of the discussions on raising productivity particularly in Africa are all premised on how to get fertilizers to farmers to replace the nutrients being lost every day, and how to give them access to the seeds and pesticides. Seldom are there robust discussions on the effects of the fertilizers and pesticides on people’s health and ecological functions. Agroecology is an alternative to industrial agriculture’s product-driven business plan that pushes the latest brands of seeds and pesticides. This may be perceived as “modern” farming, but agroecology is a knowledge-intensive practice, based on science and farmer experimentation and reclaiming lost—and more sustainable—farming practices.

Those of us who believe that agroecology is the way to go have constant obstacles to face. But increasingly I am sensing that consumers in developing countries want to support small-scale farmers and agroecological production primarily out of health concerns. Whatever the reason may be, smallholder farmers could be selling their produce if they are supported by good extension, information, and marketing services. This cannot be left to governments and businesses alone.

Agroecology can help reimagine rural landscapes and our agricultural future. Farming can no longer be focused solely on food production, but also on how it can promote diverse and healthy ecologies in which people want to live and invest.

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