How to feed the world: agroecology

This post is a rough transcript of a short talk by Miguel Altieri, a professor of agroecology at the University of Berkely, on how agroecological methods can be used to feed the world. You can also watch this video on YouTube.

We know one thing for sure, we know that industrial agriculture has already failed to feed the world. We have one billion people that are starving, and in addition to that the ecological costs of industrial agriculture are huge. It produces one third of the greenhouse gases, it produces a combination of pesticides and fertilizers that are causing all kinds of environmental problems and health problems worldwide. It’s calculated that just in the United States the environmental and health cost of modern agriculture is 4 million dolars per year. So it’s a huge cost. And there’s no other alternative, but agroecology, to be able to produce enough food that is going to be healthy, but it’s got to be accessible too.

Today we know that peasants, which are more or less 350 million farms worldwide, feed 50% of the world population. And most of those peasants, I would say 80% of them, are producing with agroecological methods, that is, methods that are based on their traditional knowledge, ancient knowledge that has been passed from generation to generation, and some of them have been influenced by NGOs and other organisations that have been working with agroecology to optimize the productivity of small farming systems throughout the world. Obviously we know that the problem of feeding the world doesn’t have anything to do with production. So, I agree that we can enhance productivity and we can feed the world with agroecological methods. The matter of scale, it’s not the area, it’s the number of farmers, and also the productivity per hectare. For example in Cuba, which is the only post-peak oil agriculture in the world, you have farmers which belong to the ANAP, which is the National Association of Small Farmers (Asociacion Nacional de Pequenos Agricultores). In one hectare the grow enough food to feed between 15 and 30 people, based on protein or based on carbohydrate, it depends on what they’re producing, with energy efficiencies between 15 and 30. That means they put in one kilocalorie and they obtain 30 kilocalories. The average efficiency of industriel agriculture is 1.5.

So we’re talking about very efficient, very biodiverse systems, and also very resilient systems, because we are seeing that, everywhere studies have been done on the impacts of extreme climatic events on productivity, monocultures are the first to go. Polyculture systems, agroforestry systems, diversified farming systems that farmers have, are the ones that resist the impact, and they are the ones that recover faster from the impact. So industrial agriculture is not only going to be limited by the ecological problems that it’s causing or by the cost of petroleum, but also by not having ecological diversity that provides resilience, so they’re going to collapse with climate change. So what we need is an alternative, which is agroecology, and that agroecological system has already been tested by thousands of farmers, La Via Campesina, the largest peasant organisation in the world, has already adopted agroecology as their scientific/technological approach to productivity within their Food Sovereignty framework, and it’s a matter of time as these methodologies, this knowledge, starts being transfered from farmer to farmer, the campesino to campesino methodology, it will reach thousands of farmers, not only in the rural areas, but in the urban areas.