In a presentation delivered at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) on 27 May 2013, Prof. Miguel A. Altieri and Prof. Clara I. Nicholls of the University of California, Berkeley (USA), shared insights on how agroecology can help solve the current global challenge of food security and agricultural sustainability.
Prof. Altieri identified three overarching crises — economic, energetic and ecological — that are affecting the livelihoods and well-being of human populations the world over. Not only climate change but widespread soil erosion and ocean acidification, among other crises, correlate with global peaks in overall consumption, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and species extinctions that have already led to system-level collapses in multiple forestry and fishery industries. Moreover, such collapses are associated with serious socio-economic problems including ecological refugees, poverty, hunger and inequity. As our troubled economic and ecological systems give way to further difficulties for accessing petroleum and achieving environmental security, the implications for worldwide food security are disturbing.
The need to increase agricultural production to cope with a rising population, but doing so on the same amount of arable land while using less petroleum, water and artificial nitrogen — all within an atmosphere marked by climate change and other forms of global turmoil (e.g., financial) — poses the vital question: “Who will feed a planet in crisis?”
While some believe that conventional agriculture can successfully address the situation, Prof. Altieri pointed out that this relies on a set of basic assumptions that may not be valid . As a result of conventional agriculture, we are depleting fossil fuel resources, water is becoming an ever-more scarce and contested resource, climate change is having more devastating effects, and we are only beginning to see the potential impacts of biotechnology together with the well-known negative impacts of widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers on both humans and the environment.
Instead, Prof. Altieri suggested that agroecology is the answer for feeding a world in crisis. Despite the tall order of increasing production while using less energy/resources, he claimed that with sounder ecological results not only is this possible, but that there are strong precedents of success. He pointed out that small peasant farmers continue to feed 70 percent of the world today, with 1.5 billion people across 380 million small farms producing half of the world’s food. As a result, we should consider how productive and effective these small farmers actually are.
In looking to the future, Prof. Altieri said that we should speak not only of producing enough food, but also of food sovereignty: the right of peoples to define and operate their own food production systems. In this, entities like local governments can play an important role — for example, by subsidizing local agricultural products sold at local markets, or by encouraging small-scale local agroindustry through contracts with institutional markets like schools and hospitals.
In a brief post-lecture summary, Prof. Nicholls emphasized the need for non-linear solutions that are demonstrable in the field. “The debate ends in the field, when you demonstrate that it is possible to do it”, she concluded.
For a longer report, including a link to videos of this seminar, see the UNU-IAS website.