Truth: Agroecological farming is the key to food security

Myth at a glance

The IAASTD report on the future of farming was a four-year project involving over 400 scientists and experts from 80 countries and sponsored by the World Bank and four United Nations agencies. The report, which was endorsed by 58 governments, did not endorse GM crops, pointing to variable yields, safety concerns, and restrictive patents on seeds that could undermine food security in poorer countries. Instead the IAASTD report called for a shift to “agroecological” food production systems.

Findings from agricultural development projects in developing countries confirm that agroecological and organic farming methods can dramatically increase yields, boost food security, and help alleviate poverty. Instead of the side-effects brought by chemically-based farming, these methods bring side-benefits, such as reductions in pesticide poisonings and less environmental damage.

Criticisms of the patents on GM seeds have prompted calls for publicly funded development of “public good” GMOs. But it would be difficult to justify spending large sums of taxpayer money on speculative “solutions” to problems that could be solved using methods that are simpler, cheaper, and available now.

In 2008 the World Bank and four United Nations agencies completed a four-year study on the future of farming. Conducted by over 400 scientists and experts from 80 countries and endorsed by 58 governments, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) did not endorse GM crops as a solution to world hunger. The IAASTD report pointed out that yields of GM crops were “highly variable” and in some cases there were “yield declines”. It added that there were lingering safety concerns over GM crops and that the patents attached to them could undermine seed saving and food security in developing countries.1

Asked at a press conference if GM crops were the answer to world hunger, IAASTD Director Professor Bob Watson (subsequently chief scientist at the UK food, environment and agriculture ministry Defra) said, “The simple answer is no.”2 The UK government is among the 58 governments that approved the IAASTD report.1

The IAASTD called for a shift to “agroecological” food production systems.1 Examples of such systems documented in IAASTD and other sources include:

  • Low-input, energy-saving practices that preserve and build soil, conserve water, and enhance natural pest resistance and resilience in crops: for example, crop rotation, intercropping, “push-pull” systems to control pests, and use of nitrogen fixing plants to enhance soil fertility
  • Use of thousands of traditional varieties of major food crops which are naturally adapted to stresses such as drought, heat, harsh weather conditions, flooding, salinity, poor soil, and pests and diseases3
  • Programmes that enable farmers to cooperatively preserve and improve traditional seeds
  • Use of existing crops and their wild relatives in traditional breeding programmes to develop varieties with useful traits
  • Use of safe techniques of modern biotechnology, such as marker assisted selection (MAS), to speed up traditional breeding.4 Unlike GM technology, MAS can produce new varieties of crops with valuable complex traits such as enhanced nutrition and taste, high yield, disease resistance, and tolerance to drought, heat, salinity, and flooding.

Dramatic yield increases from sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture projects in the Global South and other developing regions have produced dramatic increases in yields and food security.5,6,7,8,9,10

A 2008 United Nations report looked at 114 farming projects in 24 African countries and found that adoption of organic or near-organic practices resulted in yield increases averaging over 100%. In East Africa, a yield increase of 128% was found. The report concluded that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than chemically-based production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.8

The System of Rice Intensification, known as SRI, is an agroecological method of increasing the productivity of irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients. SRI is based on the cropping principles of reducing plant population, improving soil conditions and irrigation methods for root and plant development, and improving plant establishment methods. According to the SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice) at Cornell University, the benefits of SRI have been demonstrated in over 50 countries. They include 20%–100% or more increased yields, up to a 90% reduction in required seed, and up to 50% water savings.11

These results serve as a reminder that plant genetics are only a part of the answer to food security. The other part is how crops are grown. Sustainable farming methods that preserve soil and water and minimize external inputs not only ensure that there is enough food for the current population, but that the land stays productive for future generations.

Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food:

“Agroecology mimics nature not industrial processes. It replaces the external inputs like fertilizer with knowledge of how a combination of plants, trees and animals can enhance productivity of the land. Yields went up 214% in 44 projects in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa using agroecological farming techniques over a period of 3 to 10 years… far more than any GM crop has ever done.”12

“To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavorable environments. To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects. Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of 3–10 years. Conventional farming relies on expensive inputs, fuels climate change and is not resilient to climatic shocks. It simply is not the best choice anymore today. Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.”13

Small farms are more efficient

Research confirms that future food security lies in the hands of small farmers. Small farms are more efficient than large ones, producing more crops per hectare of land.1415,16

 Sustainable agriculture can reduce poverty

Studies based in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have found that organic and agroecological farming can combat poverty in an environmentally sustainable way:

  • Farmers growing organic crops for export and domestic markets in Latin America and the Caribbean had higher incomes than a control group of farmers using chemically-based methods. Reasons included the lower cost of organic technologies; the substitution of labour and organic inputs for more expensive chemical inputs that often require access to credit; premiums paid for organic products; and the strong long-term relationships that organic farmers developed with buyers, which resulted in better prices. As a bonus, organic production was associated with positive effects on the health of farm workers. Concern about pesticide poisoning was an important factor in farmers’ adoption of organic farming.17
  • The income of farmers in China and India improved after they switched to organic systems and was greater than that of farmers using chemically-based methods. The study concluded that the promotion of organic agriculture among small farmers can contribute to poverty alleviation.18
  • Certified organic farms in tropical Africa involved in production for export were more profitable than those involved in chemically-based export production. The result was decreased poverty and increased food security for farming communities, as people had more money to buy food. Also, organic conversion brought increases in yield.19
  • Organic systems in Africa were found to raise farm incomes as well as agricultural productivity. Reasons for the higher incomes included lower input costs, as expensive synthetic pesticides and fertilizers were not used; and use of local, inexpensive, and readily available technologies.8
  • The agroecological “integrated rice-duck” system of using ducks and fish to control pests in rice paddies in Japan, China, India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh has cut labour costs for weeding, reduced pesticide costs, increased yields by up to 20%, and boosted farm incomes by up to 80%.20,21

Who owns food?

“A key question for our scientists, and politicians to address, which we should have the courage to demand industry addresses too, is whether GM technology can and will co-exist in the global agricultural toolbox with other technologies, without destroying those other tools. Apart from more promise than delivery, and delivery of only private benefits like greater market share for their own chemical pesticides, GM has brought with it a marked narrowing of seed varieties available to farmers, a concentration of ownership of seed production and sales, and a concentration in ownership and control of the knowledge (intellectual property rights or IPRs) required for agricultural production.

“In 2002, the director of the Vietnamese government agricultural research centre told me that he could spend all of his annual R&D budget ($20 million, as I recall) just on lawyers, trying to sort out what materials his researchers could and could not use, and on licence fees for such IPRs, according to the IPR jungle which has grown on plant and crop materials and molecules. Is this kind of commercial restriction, and narrowing of diversity of agricultural innovation trajectories, helping such food-poor countries to gain food security?

“This concentration and narrowing, and the associated transformation of agriculture into industrialized monocrop production requiring more expensive and unsustainable inputs, which in turn ignores and externalizes entirely predictable pest and weed resistance, cannot be a sustainable technology. Nor does it seem that it could co-exist with other technologies in the so-called toolbox.”
– Professor Brian Wynne, ESRC Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics, Cesagen Lancaster University, UK22

Traditionally, most food crop seeds have not been owned by anyone. Farmers have been free to save seeds from one year’s crop for the next year’s crop. Around 1.4 billion people in the Global South rely on farm-saved seed for their livelihoods.23

But this ancient practice is being undermined, since the GM genes used in creating GM crops are patented and owned by GM companies. The patents forbid farmers from saving seed to plant the following year. They have to buy new seed each year.

While an increasing number of non-GM seeds are also being patented (in many cases by big GM companies such as Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta), GM seeds are easier to patent. The artificial genetic constructs used to develop GM seeds can be more clearly identified, the inventive step required for patenting is more obvious, and there are fewer legal grey areas.24 So for the time being, at least, GM will remain the technology of choice for the seed multinationals. It is possible that if non-GM seeds ever become as easy to patent as GM seeds, GM technology will be confined to the dustbin of history.

In the US and Canada, the presence of a company’s patented GM genes in a farmer’s harvest has been used by GM companies, particularly Monsanto, as the basis for litigation against the farmer. Contamination from cross-pollination happens readily, so the harvests of many farmers who have not planted Monsanto seed have tested positive for GM genes and Monsanto has sued them for patent infringement. This has pushed many farmers into switching to buying Monsanto’s seed, because then they are safer from litigation. Farmers’ claims that they have not intentionally planted GM crops have not protected them from having to pay large cash settlements or damages as a result of civil lawsuits.25

Patented GM seeds transfer control of food production from farmers to seed companies. GM companies co-opt centuries of farmer knowledge that went into creating locally adapted and genetically diverse seed stocks by adding one GM gene on top of the collective creation of generations of farmers.

Patents also transfer control of the food supply from the Global South to developed countries in the Global North. This is because most patents on food crops are held by companies in developed countries in the North.26There is widespread concern in the Global South about the “biopiracy” of its genetic resources by the Global North, with the consequent loss of farmers’ rights to save seed.

Some GMO proponents believe that the answer to these problems is for “public good” GM crops to be developed using public funds.27 But it is difficult to justify gambling taxpayer funds on speculative GM “solutions” to problems that can be solved using methods that are simpler, cheaper, and available now. Nor would any public or private entity have an incentive to fund the lengthy, expensive, and often inefficient process of GM crop development unless they owned a patent that would enable them to recoup their expenses and make a profit.

Patents have no place in the agricultural system. To protect the security of the food supply and to ensure food sovereignty for each nation, governments must establish policies that ensure that the control of food production remains in the hands of farmers.

Conclusion

The IAASTD report on the future of farming did not endorse GM crops, pointing to variable yields, safety concerns, and restrictive patents on seeds that could undermine food security in poorer countries. Instead the IAASTD report called for a shift to “agroecological” food production systems.

Findings from agricultural development projects in the Global South and other developing regions confirm that agroecological and organic farming methods can dramatically increase yields, boost food security, and help alleviate poverty. Instead of the side-effects brought by chemically-based farming, these methods bring side-benefits, such as reductions in pesticide poisonings and less environmental damage.

Criticisms of the patents on GM seeds have prompted calls for publicly funded development of “public good” GMOs. But it would be difficult to justify spending large sums of taxpayer money on speculative “solutions” to problems that could be solved using methods that are simpler, cheaper, and available now.

References

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