by Nina Muller
We need a paradigm shift from the industrial farming model. It's constant need for finite resources and dependence on fossil fuels and chemicals render it as unsustainable as can be. Even though technological advances have enabled more efficient resource usages and gains in productivity, it does not suffice to render our current food production systems sustainable. The need for a complete paradigm shift is recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) which calls for "transformative change in agriculture and food systems". Our food systems must be made more inclusive, resilient and efficient. Therefore, we must look into socially innovative methodologies that can ensure food security for all, while also preserving the integrity and health of the world's ecosystems.
This video showcases how our food system can be made more sustainable by agroecology. It is the winning video of 20 finalists for the "Nature-based solutions for food and human health" category of The Global Youth Video Competition in 2019.
In the video featured above, we meet a group of smallholder farmers in the state of Paraná, in Brazil. These farmers are part of the land settlement Assentamento do Contestado, which was created in 2000 after a collective land occupation carried out by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), the "Landless Rural Workers’ Movement" (Lagier, 2018). The MST was founded in 1984 in response to numerous land issues such as policies of land concentration, expulsion of poor, rural population from their arable lands and forced urbanization (Friends of the MST, 2003). These smallholder farmers cultivate their land according to the principles of agroecology. The most basic principle underlying agroecology is biomimicry which refers to the observation and replication of natural processes to solve some of the human challenges we are facing today (Biomimicry Institute, n.d.). Agroecology is a sustainable way of farming that relies on ecological processes to support production systems (Mindegaard, 2020). For example, agroecology makes absolutely no use of pesticides or other agrochemicals such as synthetic fertilizers. This makes the farmers of Assentamento do Contestado a rare breed in Brazil. With over 370 000 tons a year, the South American country is one of the top pesticide consuming countries in the world. The country is struggling with a real pesticide culture, with over 90% of its farmers relying on pesticide use for their crops (Sharma, Kumar, Shahzad & Tanveer, 2019).
Agroecology's reliance on ecological processes makes it very context specific and therefore, it is not possible to give an exhaustive list of 'agroecological practices'. However, the FAO compiles the 10 elements of agroecology that can help countries in their transition. Agroecological agricultural practices rely on: (i) the diversification of crops; (ii) recycling for an agricultural production with lower environmental and economic costs; (iii) building synergies (e.g. thoughtful combination of crops, trees, shrubs, soils and livestock); (iv) producing more with less external resources; (v) building the resilience of crops (e.g. through diversification of crops). These practices can significantly reduce the negative impacts of agriculture on ecosystems by reducing erosion or soil depletion. More broadly, an agroecologically-inspired food production system is based on the respect for social values and the protection of rural livelihoods. This is achieved through the development of circular economies that reconnect producer and consumer to one another, the creation of responsible bottom-up, governance mechanisms and the co-creation of knowledge.
Agroecology seeks to optimize the relationship between humans and their food by supporting the transition towards healthy and culturally appropriate diets.
Education plays a vital role in achieving agroecological transitions all over the world. In 2005, the MST in partnership with the governments of Venezuela and Paraná, the Federal University of Paraná and the International Via Campesina, founded the Latin American School of Agroecology (Friends of the MST, 2005). Initially, the school aimed to create a network, throughout South America, of smallholder farmers engaging in agroecology. Today, students from all over the world travel to the school to learn about agroecology both in theory and in practice. During the 3-years of study, students form part of a smallholder farmer organization in South America and divide their time between classes and periods of community work. As such, the Latin American School of Agroecology engages with one of the fundamental elements of agroecology: the co-creation of knowledge. Local and/or indigenous knowledge on biodiversity or past agricultural experiences are crucial to ensuring the success of agroecological practices (FAO, n.d.). At the same time, scientific knowledge is also needed to provide answers to more technical questions such as methods of biological pest control. The co-creation process of knowledge combines both forms of knowledge to develop agroecological innovations. Although agroecology is highly context specific, the sharing of agroecological innovations is crucial to achieving a successful and inclusive agroecological transition process.
According to the FAO, agroecology is a "key part of the global response to this climate of instability, offering a unique approach to meeting significant increases in our food needs of the future while ensuring no one is left behind" (The 10 Elements Of Agroecology, p.1). Moreover, agroecology aims to provide holistic and long-term solutions to environmental and social issues emanating from our current food production systems.