Can Agroecology Feed The World?
Is world hunger caused by insufficient food production that can not keep up with a constantly growing population? No. ‘There is hunger because big companies possess 80% of the land in the world and they promote monocultural farming. This restricts the variety of food we consume and makes agriculture more vulnerable to climate change. Moreover, we only consume 30% of this food ourselves. Half of the world’s agricultural production is used to feed livestock and the biofuel industry: 89 million hectares of land in Africa have been purchased for this purpose. We need a new model that is based on new ethics to give small-scale farmers access to land and create an agriculture that is not dependent on fossil fuels,’ stated professor Miguel Altieri, during the conference Can Agroecology Feed The World at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto. He was joined by Anuradha Mittal, founder of the Oakland Institute, and the Burkinabe farmer Yacouba Sawadogo.
The solution is already there, waiting to be put into action: it is called agroecology, not to be confused with organic or biodynamic agriculture. Agroecology applies ecological principles to food production, overthrows agribusiness system, takes care of natural resources and values biodiversity. It aims to feed the poor and builds on the knowledge of those who have worked the fields for millennia: to this day, small-scale farmers produce 70% of the world’s food while they have just 20% of the land.
A thousand-year old technique can allow even the most difficult soil to be cultivated. Alfieri referred to the example of the milpa practice in Mexico, where maize, beans, pumpkin and chili pepper are cultivated together, achieving the same yield an industrial system with half as much land. He also cited the floating gardens of Sri Lanka that are resistant to flooding, and the Zai system in Africa invented by Sawadogo.
It is not by chance that Yacouba Sawadogo is known as the man who stopped the desert: he is the inventor of Zai method that increases soil fertility in dry lands through the use of holes in the soil, as he did in his native Burkina Faso, reversing desertification and reclaiming arable land for cultivation.
His story begins in the 1970s, when Burkina Faso had been hit by a severe drought that led to famine: ‘I was a trader and I was earning well but everyone was escaping from my land, even the herds were dying. Near my house there was a clearing so I was thinking, what can I do so that people wouldn’t have to flee? I started to plant trees and cultivate seeds. I wanted to have useful trees from a medical aspect, since there were no doctors.’ Today this clearing is 25 hectares large, and still green!
‘The individual dies but what is good for humanity remains. I started this all by myself but today many support my vision and they are driven by the same passion: there must be a unity of action and movement for the conservation of the soil. No single person can do this alone, but together it can be successful’, says Sawadogo.
However, the success story is under threat: like many farmers across the world, Sawadogo is a victim of land grabbing. He has been forced by the government give up a portion of his land, including the house that he built himself and his father’s burial place.
The world is suffering, as corporate interests dominate the economy. ‘The agroecology movement opposes land grabbing, and campaigns for land reform that will give property rights to small-scale farmers,’ explains Altieri. ‘Organic food, fair trade and Slow Food work in this way, but they operate within the small windows that capitalism has left open. Capitalism needs to be replaced by fair markets where direct agreements are made between producers and consumers. Capitalism doesn’t work, you can’t solve a problem with the same mentality that created it. Agroecology can really transform things, without accepting the crumbs from the table of the current system.’
‘Stories like Yacouba’s occur all over the world,’ says Mittal. ‘Bankers and politicians go around and tell farmers what to do or what not to do. But it doesn’t mean that they have won. There is resistance. We all need to do our part. We need to stop thinking of ourselves simply as consumers, feeling detached from who produces our food, we need to be connected to the food system. 80% of food consumption in developing countries come from small-scale production: do we really believe that those with white shirts in laboratories will manage to feed the world?’