Science in Society Archive

Corporate Hijack of Sustainable Agriculture

Editor's Note:

I first heard the term ‘ecoagriculture' used by a Chinese scientist on Australia's Radio National to describe an approach combining the best that modern science has to offer, i.e., genetic modification of plants, with traditional sustainable agriculture.

A few days later, a motion to promote ecoagriculture appeared on the agenda of the upcoming 3 rd IUCN (World Conservation Union) World Conservation Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, (17-25 November 2004). Angry critics had described it as “an organic agriculture that is very friendly to agribusiness”. A protest letter from civil society participants at a recent ecoagriculture conference organised by IUCN in Nairobi maintained that, “ecoagriculture is fundamentally incompatible with food sovereignty” and hence unacceptable.

Suddenly, it seems, agribusiness is taking over ‘sustainable agriculture' in a big way. Biotech giants Syngenta (as Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture) and BayerCropscience, together with Croplife International, a global network representing the plant science industry, and another agribusiness, Sustainable Agriculture Initiative, have become members of ‘Ecoagriculture Partners', a consortium that includes 12 non-government organizations - among them, IUCN, Rainforest Alliance, Stakeholder Forum for our Common Future and World Association of Soil and Water Conservation - 9 research and education organisations - among them, International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program and M.W. Swaminathan Foundation - and 4 inter-government organizations, among which, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The Ecoagriculture Partners define ‘ecoagriculture' as “sustainable agriculture and associated natural resource management systems that embrace and simultaneously enhance productivity, rural livelihoods, ecosystem services and biodiversity.”

The ‘Nairobi Declaration', made by participants at the recent conference in Nairobi, Kenya, similarly, called for “a framework that seeks to simultaneously achieve improved livelihoods, conservation of biodiversity (genetic resources, ecosystem services and wild flora and fauna), and sustainable production at a landscape scale”; and to ensure

“ that large-scale development and adoption of ecoagriculture contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals on hunger, poverty alleviation, gender equality, environmental sustainability and partnerships, and enhance implementation of global environmental conventions by all nations.”

Prof. Miguel Altieri at University of California, Berkeley, in the United States tells us why ecoagriculture is miles away from the agroecology that can truly deliver food security and sustainability, alleviate poverty and enhance biodiversity.

Agroecology versus Ecoagriculture

Agribusiness is embracing ‘sustainable agriculture' in the form of ‘ecoagriculture'. Prof. Miguel Altieri explains why it isn't the genuine approach

‘Ecoagriculture' short on ecology

At first glance, no one could fault ‘Ecoagriculture' (ECOAG): the idea of transforming agricultural systems so that they support healthy populations of wild species while simultaneously improving productivity and reducing poverty is a win-win situation. This seems particularly important in the biodiversity hotspots of the developing world where most of the poor live, who often have little choice but to exploit wild habitats for survival.

Proponents affirm that the best way to reduce the ecological impact of modernizing agriculture is to intensify production in order to increase yields per hectare, thereby sparing natural forests from agricultural expansion. This requires evaluating the role that emerging technologies may play in helping meet food needs at a reasonable environmental and social cost. Although they embrace alternative, low input agricultural systems, ECOAG practitioners do not forego chemical-based, high-yielding, intensive agricultural systems as part of their strategy for protecting wildlife while feeding the world's population. Their vision is based on two pervasive assumptions: (a) that alternatives to a chemically-based crop production system necessarily requires more land to produce the same amount and (b) that the adverse ecological and health consequences of industrial farming are minor in comparison to those that would be wrought by bringing more land under cultivation. It is well known that widespread adoption of chemical-based, intensive crop production systems have major negative impacts on biodiversity, but less known is the fact that such a production model actually hinders attempts to provide adequate food for a growing world population.

The massive increases in production of five major commodities (soybean, rice, cacao, coffee and oil palm) were achieved by increasing the area planted as well as the crop yield per unit area [1]. Both strategies resulted in environmental degradation and decrease in biodiversity through loss of natural habitats, but more importantly, through pollution from the heavy use of agrochemicals. More than 500 million kg of pesticides are applied annually on the world's monocultures – 91% of the 1.5 billion hectares of arable lands are under grain monocultures - to suppress insect pests, diseases and weeds. The environmental impacts on wildlife, pollinators, natural enemies, fisheries, etc, and social costs in human poisonings and illnesses from pesticide-use reach $8 billion each year in the US alone. Such costs are much higher in the developing world where banned pesticides imported from the North are still being widely used.

Transgenic crops and large-scale plantations: can they advance the goals of ecoagriculture?

Large-scale plantations and transgenic crops are among the tools of the Ecoagriculture arsenal to reach the twin goals of meeting future global food needs and conserving biodiversity. In their Ecoagriculture book, McNeely and Scherr [2] provide many examples of interventions that, according to them, can simultaneously achieve conservation and food production. They cite a large (3 300 has) Costa Rican orange plantation that belongs to Del Oro Company, in which big patches of dry tropical forest are left within or adjacent to the farm, thereby benefiting biodiversity while bringing substantial economic gains to the company. It is difficult to see how a conservation strategy for large mammals and birds that requires extended territories can be compatible with an agricultural development agenda for small farmers who only have small plots of land to grow their crops. Given that in most parts of the developing world, poor farmers have little access to productive land, it may be argued that it is precisely those very large biodiversity friendly farms such as Del Oro that need to undergo land reform to reduce social inequities, an important pre-requisite to launching any meaningful conservation project. In fact, breaking up large plantations into a patchwork of thousands of small farms produces the highly heterogeneous landscapes that are a key to enhancing biodiversity. In Mexico, half of the humid tropics is utilized by indigenous communities and ‘ejidos' featuring integrated agroforestry systems aimed at subsistence and local-regional markets. Recent research confirms that cacao and coffee-based agroforestry systems managed with low inputs by smallholders harbour significant biodiversity, including a substantial number of species of plants, insects, birds, bats and other mammals. Biodiversity is highest in the more rustic tree-diverse and multistrata systems interspersed in a matrix of tropical forests [3].

There is no scientific basis to arguments in favour of consolidating land holdings to take advantage of greater productivity and efficiency, as well as conserving biodiversity. The opposite may be the case, according to existing data. Small farms are far more productive than large farms. In most developing countries, smaller farms produce more per unit area – by 200 to 1 000 % - than larger ones. In the US, the smallest farms - 27 acres or less - have more than ten times greater the dollar output per acre than larger farms. While in the US this is largely because smaller farms tend to specialize in high value crops like vegetables and flowers, it also reflects relatively more attention devoted to the farm, and more diverse farming systems [4]. Recent surveys of small-scale coffee producers in Chiapas, Mexico, reveal an important relationship between farm size and the technology used in production. Conventional coffee producers have larger landholdings averaging 7 hectares, and devote most of their land to coffee production. As their system uses shade trees, they conserve some biodiversity but their dependence on external markets for cash, food and inputs is very high, making such farmers very vulnerable to the vagaries of an economic system beyond their control. In contrast, small organic producers with an average farm size of 4 hectares have the highest coffee yields, and they devote about 30-50% of their land to maize and beans for food security, pasture for animals and part for forest reserve. The heterogeneous patchy nature of such farming systems contributes significantly to biodiversity without sacrificing the farmers' autonomy and food security [5].

Reflecting the views of the Future Harvest Foundation, other donors and the CGIAR, advocates of ECOAG argue that biotechnology is biodiversity friendly because engineering crops for high yields will avoid advancing the agricultural frontier. This view is a legacy of the Green Revolution, which assumed that progress and development inevitably require replacing local crop varieties with improved ones, thereby disrupting the biodiverse traditional agricultural patterns, leading to the erosion of landraces and wild relatives along with indigenous knowledge. It also presumes that the economic and technological integration of traditional farming systems into the global system is a positive step that enables increased production, income and well-being of the community.

As a new form of industrial agriculture, the rapid spread of transgenic crops threatens crop diversity by promoting large monocultures that result in further environmental simplification and genetic homogeneity. Worldwide, the areas planted to transgenic crops jumped more than thirty-fold in the past seven years, from 3 million hectares in 1996 to nearly 67.7 million hectares in 2003 [6], an unprecedented move towards increased agricultural uniformity [7], impacting adversely on the direct benefits of biodiversity to agriculture in improving nutrient cycling, pest regulation and productivity. For example, it is known that the polyphagous natural enemies of insect pests that move between crops frequently encounter Bt-containing non-target herbivorous prey in more that one crop during the growing season. Natural enemies may come in contact more often with Bt toxins via non-target herbivores, because the toxins do not bind to receptors on the midgut membrane in the non-target herbivores [8]. These findings are problematic for small farmers in developing countries who rely on the rich complex of predators and parasites associated with their mixed cropping systems for insect pest control [9].

Recent studies in the United Kingdom [10] showed that in herbicide resistant crops there was a reduction of weed biomass, flowering and seeding of plants within and bordering sugar beet and spring oilseed rape crops, reducing the abundance of relatively sedentary herbivores including Heteroptera, butterflies and bees. There were also fewer birds and predatory carabid beetles that feed on weed seeds in transgenic fields.

Another key problem with introducing transgenic crops into biodiverse regions is that the spread of transgenes to local varieties favored by small farmers could compromise the natural sustainability of these races. Traits important to indigenous farmers are resistance to drought, food or fodder quality, competitive ability, performance on intercrops, storage quality, taste or cooking properties, compatibility with household labor conditions, etc; whereas transgenic qualities such as herbicide resistance are not important to farmers [11].

Agroecology versus ecoagriculture

The ECOAG proposal of “greening” the green revolution will not be enough if the root causes of poverty and inequity are not confronted head-on; tensions between socially equitable development and ecologically sound conservation are bound to accentuate. Organic farming systems that do not challenge monocultural plantations and rely on foreign and expensive certification seals, IPM systems that only reduce insecticide use while leaving the rest of the agrochemical package untouched, or fair-trade coffee systems destined only for export, may in some cases benefit biodiversity, but in general offer very little to small farmers. Fine-tuning input use does little to move farmers towards the productive redesign of agroecosystems, keeping them dependent on an input substitution approach. Niche markets for the rich in the North, in addition to exhibiting the same problems of any export scheme, create stratification within rural communities as only a few members can capture the benefits from the limited markets of gourmet products for the northern elite.

Deep differences on the above issues define the divide between Agroecology (a truly pro-poor farmers science) and Ecoagriculture. For agroecologists, environmentalists should no longer ignore issues relating to land distribution, indigenous peoples and farmers rights, nor the impacts of globalization on food security, and of biotechnology on traditional agriculture. It is crucial to transcend the Malthusian view that blames the poor for environmental degradation. In fact their impact on nature is low compared to the damaging effects of the economic activities of large landowners, mining and timber companies. Social processes such as poverty and inequity in the distribution of land and other resources push the poor to become agents of environmental transformation, and as long as such processes are not addressed, prospects of an ecoagriculture approach are limited. It is also important for ecoagriculturalists to understand and respect the fact that values of indigenous people may be different from the global conservation community, although species and habitats valued by local people have global significance. Much of the concern for the global community is the alarming loss of biodiversity and associated environmental services; while for local communities such issues may also be important, their real concerns, needs and perceptions usually remain hidden to outsiders who, despite their good intentions , can at time embrace a sort of eco-imperialist perception of conservation.

The agroecological approach to conservation

A key challenge for agroecologists is to translate general ecological principles and natural resource management concepts into practical advice directly relevant to the needs and circumstances of smallholders. The strategy must be applicable under the highly heterogeneous and diverse conditions in which smallholders live, it must be environmentally sustainable and based on the use of local resources and indigenous knowledge. Emphasis should be placed on improving whole farming systems at the field or watershed level rather than the yield of specific commodities.

The enhancement of biodiversity at the heart of the agroecology strategy is the idea that agroecosystems should mimic the biodiversity levels and functioning of local ecosystems. Like their natural models, such systems can be productive, pest resistant and conservative of nutrients. Agroecology uses biodiversity to enhance agroecosystem function, allowing farms to develop the ir own soil fertility, plant health and sustained yields, therefore eliminating completely the need for external agrochemical inputs or transgenic technologies. As a result of the biodiverse designs and absence of toxic chemicals, non-functional biodiversity - wildlife species of interest to EACOAG - thrive in such systems.

Thus, in agroecological systems, conservation is a product of the assemblage of productive agroecosystems rich in functional biodiversity - the collection of organisms that play key ecological roles - and not as in ECOAG, the result of deliberate attempts to improve wildlife habitat within agricultural areas. Wildlife rich, but functionally biodiverse poor systems do not necessarily meet the needs of small farmers for food diversity, productive self-sufficiency, low inputs, etc.

The benefits of agroecological integrated farming systems extend beyond conserving biodiversity as they produce far more per unit area than do monocultures. Though the yield per unit area of one crop - maize, for example - may be lower on a small farm than on a large monoculture farm, the total production per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops, trees and various animal products, can be far higher. In most multiple cropping systems developed by smallholders, productivity in terms of harvestable products per unit area is higher than under sole cropping with the same level of management. Yield advantages can range from 20 to 60%, due to reduction of pest incidence and more efficient use of nutrients, water and solar radiation. And all this happens while conserving native crop genetic resources and overall biodiversity. It is not a matter of romanticizing traditional agriculture or to consider development per se as detrimental, but if the interest lies in “improving” local agriculture, researchers must first understand and build on that agriculture that is to be changed, rather than simply replace it. It is important to highlight the role of traditional agriculture as a source of agrobiodiversity and regenerative farming techniques, which constitute the very foundation of any sustainable rural development strategy directed at resource-poor farmers. Moreover diverse agricultural systems that confer high levels of tolerance to changing socio-economic and environmental conditions are extremely valuable to poor farmers, as diverse systems buffer against natural or human-induced variations in production conditions.

A case study: harmonizing biodiversity conservation and cacao production

The main goal of this project was congruent with ECOAG goals: to improve the sustainable production of cacao while conserving biodiversity in small organic cacao farms managed by indigenous peoples in Talamanca, Costa Rica. The project's main strategy was to find ways of simultaneously enhancing cacao production in a sustainable manner while conserving biodiversity. The focus on cacao is justified by the fact that in addition to being culturally and economically important to local indigenous groups of the area, it is well known that highly diverse and multistrata cacao agroforestry systems (CAFS) support higher levels of biological diversity than most tropical crops [12]. A major problem is that the permanence of these systems is threatened by low yields and low prices of cacao. By improving the productivity of cacao, the project aims to increase the farmers' income without shifting to other less biodiversity conserving crops such as banana [13].

After training a number of local farmers to monitor CAFS, researchers confirmed that CAFS harbour significant biodiversity, including 55 families, 132 genera and 185 species of plants, as well as insects, birds (190), bats (36) and various mammals, some of which seem to be declining. Biodiversity is highest in the more rustic tree diverse and multistrata systems (about 55-60% shade cover) and lowest in CAFS with simple strata (maximum two shade tree species with 35-40 % shade).

Researchers at the Centro Agronomico Tropical de Investigacion y Ensenanza (CATIE) proposed a number of interventions aimed at improving cacao production: pruning, introduction of clones, enrichment with fruit trees, shade management, etc, while at the same time preserving biodiversity. After three years of project interventions there was no evidence that newly designed CAFS conserved or enhanced biodiversity. Apparently, biodiversity declines as plant diversity and structural complexity of CAFS decreases, although lower diversity in CAFS may be more desirable from an agronomic point of view. Productivity in rustic systems is lower than in the less diverse CAFS, suggesting a negative relationship between conservation and production and presenting a major challenge to researchers and managers because as CAFS are renewed or intervened to enhance production (especially through pruning, elimination of shade trees and genetic homogenization with clones), biodiversity levels apparently may be sacrificed. When replacing existing trees with new timber or fruit species or reducing shade through pruning or thinning, it is important to consider that such practices can reduce habitat complexity for wildlife. Likewise enrichment with forest or fruit trees may compete with existing cacao trees, and some trees may be sources of insect pests or diseases.

By only focusing on production enhancement and wildlife diversity, researchers failed to consider in their surveys a key relationship in peasant agriculture: the relationship between farm size, diversity levels and productivity. Smaller farms (<1 ha) were more biodiverse and also seemed more productive than larger ones, indicating that given labor and cash constraints there may be an optimal size for efficient production (in terms of labor allocation and returns per unit of labor).

In situations like this, agroecologists would recommend harmonizing conservation and production in farms over 1 ha in size, by enhance production (pruning, grafting, etc) in a small optimal area of each farm (0.5-0.7 has), leaving the rest of the area under low input management, with high levels of plant diversity and multistrata designs for conserving existing biodiversity. In a well-managed 0.5 ha farm, farmers may be able to obtain higher productivity per unit of labour than in a badly managed 1- 1. 5 ha. In this way a mixed strategy featuring intensification of production and conservation enhancement may be reached.

As farmers become aware of biodiversity components it would be useful that they also are able to distinguish among the various types and functional groups of biodiversity and the roles they play in the CAFS:

  1. ecologically functional groups that mediate important processes such as biological control, pollination or organic matter decomposition;

  2. conservation functional groups that protect soil and water;

  3. livelihood functional groups that produce timber, fruit, cash, etc and

  4. destructive biota that reduces production and other processes.

  5. Non functional biodiversity (wildlife species, etc)

Thus, farmers may be able to target specific biodiversity groups according to the functions they want to emphasize to maintain healthy and productive CAFS. The question that remains what mechanisms are in place to compensate farmers for the environmental services of interest to ECOAG advocates (non functional biodiversity)? Many farmers maybe trained to monitor biodiversity, and although they would appreciate this new knowledge and skills which help to raise conservation consciousness in the communities, most farmers would doubt whether non-functional biodiversity conservation would bring them direct economic benefits

Finally, an approach directed at increasing cacao production while conserving biodiversity must transcend the cacao farm to the total farming system. Most farms in the hillside areas have an average size of 42 ha whereas cacao occupies about 1.6 ha, the rest devoted to forest, fallow, pasture and annual crops. In such areas, farm designs should be directed at maintaining or enriching the surrounding environment conducive to biodiversity conservation (forest patches, etc), enhance food security (re- introducing the practice of growing beans, rice, corn, cassava, etc), and promoting other productive activities to generate income (honey, fish, wood for crafts, medicinal plants, etc), including ecotourism but under local control. Farm designs should promote integration among sub systems so that outputs from one subsystem become inputs into the other, creating efficient bio-resource flows, as well as synergisms that may aid in sponsoring the soil fertility, plant protection and productivity of cacao and the other crops of the total farm.

Spreading the agroecological approach

In order for agroecological approaches that lead to food security and biodivesrity conservation to spread, major changes must be made in policies, institutions, and research and development to make sure that agroecological interventions truly benefit small farmers by giving them access to land and other resources, equitable markets and alternative technologies; and more importantly, empowering them to become actors in their own development. It is clear that macro economic reform and sectoral policies promoted by trade liberalization have not generated a supportive environment for small and poor farmers. In most cases, agricultural growth was concentrated in the commercial sector and did not trickle down. Trade liberalization reduced protection at a time when commodity prices were at historic lows, leaving small farmers incapable of competing in domestic markets. The drop in price of many crops and the lack of credit as well as long distance from markets are all factors that have led to increased pauperization of the small farm sector. Moreover, government programs and subsidies have concentrated on medium and large commercial farmers and small farmers have remained limited in their access to services, infrastructure and markets. Such negative trends must be halted so that they do not continue drastically affecting the viability of peasant and family agriculture

Despite the current anti-peasant trends, the evidence shows that sustainable agricultural systems can be economically, environmentally and socially viable, and contribute positively to local livelihoods as well as conservation of biodiversity [14]. But without appropriate policy support, they are likely to remain localized in extent. Necessary changes include land reform, protection of prices for food crops, appropriate and equitable market opportunities, and equitable partnerships between local governments, NGOs and farmers replacing top-down transfer of technology models with participatory technology development and farmer to farmer research and extension.

There is no question that small farmers located in biodiversity hotspots throughout the developing world can produce much of their needed food in ways that are compatible with conservation goals. The evidence is conclusive: new approaches and technologies spearheaded by farmers, NGOs and some local governments around the world are already making a sufficient contribution to food security at the household, national, and regional levels. A variety of agroecological and participatory approaches in many countries show production increases through diversification, improving diets and income, contributing to national food security and even to exports and also to conservation of the natural resource base including biodiversity [15].

Feeding a growing world population without further endangering the natural environment depends upon public support of sustainable agriculture research, education and extension. Alternatives to both chemical-intensive, high-yield agriculture and to land extensive sustainable agriculture can be expected to result from participatory scientific endeavors dedicated to their discovery and development. Only a fraction of the billions of agricultural research dollars spent over the last fifty years has been devoted to increasing the productivity of sustainable and/or organic production systems. It is time to bet on a truly agroecological approach.

Article first published 16/11/04


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