Agroecology, Agribusiness and Food Crisis. Dialogue with Miguel Altieri and Marc Dufumier

Agroecology, Agribusiness and Food Crisis. Dialogue with Miguel Altieri and Marc Dufumier

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By Sally Burch

There is a growing interest, not only in the rural world but also in the urban population, for organic farming, due to its potential to ensure a healthy diet with less environmental impact. However, until now it has been seen rather as a marginal option of the food system, while the vision continues to be imposed that only large-scale agriculture could respond to the world's food needs. But what is true in all that?

A first fact to note is that the chronic hunger that is suffered in the world is not due to a shortage in food production. In this the figures are clear. Each person needs to eat about 2,200 kilocalories per day, for which it is necessary to produce about 200 kilos of cereals per inhabitant per year, or its equivalent in the form of potatoes, cassava, or the like. Current world production is 330 kilos per inhabitant, that is, there is an overproduction of food, enough to feed 9 billion people, the estimated world population figure for the year 2050.

These data were provided to us by two researchers, in interviews we conducted to delve into the causes of the food crisis and the alternatives offered by agroecology. This is Miguel Altieri, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who is also president of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology -SOCLA-; and Marc Dufumier, professor at the National Agroeconomic Institute of Paris, AgroParisTech.

Dufumier acknowledges that the food crisis has worsened in the last 4 years, "but in 2006 there were 800 million people who were hungry. Now there is a little more, but it is structural, it is not a conjunctural crisis," he says: "It is a Poverty problem in monetary terms. People don't have purchasing power. " In the same sense, Altieri emphasizes: "a third of the human population earns less than two dollars a day, so they do not have access to food. In Europe and the US, approximately 115 kilos per person per year of food are thrown away. , enough to feed all of Africa. " Other contributing factors to the food crisis, noted by our interviewees, include increased agricultural production to feed cars rather than people; the increase in the consumption of meat (which is now spreading in countries with large populations such as China and India), since three to ten vegetable calories are needed to produce an animal calorie; the food distribution system, and other structural problems related to multinational control over the food system.

For Altieri, the food crisis, coupled with the energy, ecological and social crisis, "is a crisis of capitalism, of an industrial model of agriculture that was based on premises that are no longer valid today." He explains it in these terms: "when the green revolution was created in the 1950-60s, a Malthusian model of agriculture was created, which perceived the problem of hunger as a problem of a large population and little food production; and that it was necessary to close the gap by bringing technologies from the North to the South, such as improved varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. They assumed that the climate was going to be stable, that oil was going to be plentiful and cheap, that water was always going to be abundant and that the natural limitations of agriculture, such as pests, could be easily controlled. And so we find today with an agriculture that occupies approximately 1,400 million hectares in monocultures highly dependent on external products, in which the costs of Production varies according to how the oil rises, where we have more than 500 types of pests resistant to more than a thousand pesticides. " One of the results is that there are currently "approximately one billion hungry people in the world and, on the other hand, one billion obese people, who are direct victims of the industrial model of agriculture."

It is true that this model, being highly mechanized, significantly lowers direct production costs per hectare; therefore it allows food to be sold at a lower price while increasing profits. However, Dufumier emphasizes that this is a trap, since it does not take into account indirect costs: social, environmental, public health, etc. He cites the example of cheap powdered milk, which "costs us extremely dearly, due to soil contamination, due to excess nitrate in groundwater, due to hormones in milk. So there are what economists call negative externalities. ", which will impact a lower life expectancy and the health of the population. Altieri estimates that in the case of the US, if these costs are internalized, they would add up to about $ 300 per hectare of production.

Agroecology as an alternative

Faced with this model, the question arises: to what extent agroecology can offer viable solutions; and if it would be partial or marginal solutions, or if it has the capacity to solve hunger. Miguel Altieri clarifies: "I do not like to fall into the argument of whether agroecology could feed the world because, as I said, it is not a production problem. With agroecology we can produce enough food to feed the world, but if inequities, Structural forces that explain hunger are not solved, so hunger continues, no matter that we continue to produce with agroecology. "

Agroecology - he reminds us - "is a science that is based, on the one hand, on traditional peasant knowledge and also uses advances in modern agricultural science (except for transgenic biotechnology and pesticides, of course), but it does use advances that they have to do with ecology, with soil biology, biological pest control, all of this is incorporated into agroecology, and a dialogue of knowledge is created. In the world there are approximately 1,500 million peasants who occupy some 380 million farms, that occupy 20% of the lands, but they produce 50% of the food that is being consumed at this moment in the world. Imagine if these people had 50% of the lands through a process of agrarian reform: they would be producing food in a plentiful way, even with a surplus ".

At the same time, agroecology brings other advantages that the green revolution does not have. "For example - says Altieri- it is socially activating, because to practice it it has to be participatory and create exchange networks, otherwise it doesn't work. And it is culturally acceptable because it does not try to modify peasant knowledge or impose, but rather uses peasant knowledge and It tries to create a dialogue of knowledge. And agroecology is also economically viable because it uses local resources, it does not depend on outside resources. And it is ecologically viable because it does not intend to modify the peasant system but to optimize it. The green revolution sought to change that system and impose western knowledge on peasant knowledge. That is why it has had a great impact on the grassroots, "he concludes.

An important factor to consider is that large-scale agro-industrial production is lower when total production is considered. In other words, monocultures are more productive in terms of labor; but peasant agriculture produces much more per hectare. "If you make a graph of total production vs. area -indicates Altieri-, the production curve goes down in relation to the area of ​​the farm. Because we are not comparing production of corn with corn, but we are comparing the total production of the farm. And what does the farmer produce? He produces corn, beans, potatoes, fruits; he raises pigs, chicken, ... And when we analyze the system like this, we realize that it is approximately 20 to 30 times more productive. That gives a very important basis for thinking. in agrarian reform ".

Another advantage is its better resistance to climate change. Not only because it does not generate global warming - unlike industrial agriculture, with its high consumption of fossil fuels - but there is evidence that it better resists phenomena such as droughts. Monocultures, which increasingly dominate the world's agricultural landscapes, "are highly susceptible because they have genetic homogeneity and ecological homogeneity," as evidenced by last year's drought in the Mid-West US, the largest in 50 years, where GM corn and soybean farming lost 30% of all yield, according to Altieri.

Public politics

What, then, would be the key public policies for a country to seriously promote and develop agroecological production? Our interviewees agree that agroecological production, because it is artisanal and involves more labor, has higher production costs and must be better paid; then promotion policies and subsidies are required that protect agroecology and small farmers. In this way, it is possible to ensure that healthy food is available to the majority, and that it is not only a luxury consumer product of the wealthy sectors (as is the case, for example, with organic products that are exported to the North).
Miguel Altieri highlights, in this sense, the experience of Brazil, with the program of the Ministry of Rural Development that buys 30% of the production from the peasantry, recognizing its strategic role. It is a healthy food that is intended for social consumption, in schools, hospitals, prisons. "Family farming in Brazil has 4.7 million farmers who produce 70% of the food on 30% of the land; it is a fundamental role for food sovereignty." They understood that to protect it, they could not put the small producers to compete with the big ones, or with the US or European production "which is totally unfair competition." The researcher considers it a success that this country has created two ministries of the sector: the one of agriculture, for the big producers (that evidently will continue to exist), and the one of rural development for the small ones, with projects of investigation, extension, agrarian policies specific to the peasant farmer. He even says that the latter ministry has more resources than agriculture. "What does not work is when the Ministry of Agriculture has only a small office or secretariat of the family farmer", something that happens in most countries.

Supporting agroecological practices with research and agroecological outreach is another key element. "Many people ask: can agroecology feed the world, can it be so productive? But look, all the national agricultural research institutes, international research centers, universities, for 60 years have funded research in conventional agriculture. What What if they gave us 90% of that budget to support agroecology? The story would be different ", reflects Altieri. He points to Cuba as the most advanced country in this regard, due to the situation it faced in the special period. One advantage was that it had the human resources to do it, it had trained agroecologists; and through the National Association of Small Farmers -ANAP-, 120 thousand farmers in 10 years incorporated agroecology, with high levels of production and energy efficiency.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the lack of political will, combined with multinational interests "that are always pushing in the wrong direction." Altieri believes that climate change is what is ultimately going to put the limits on industrial agriculture. In the case of countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, whose constitutions already establish food sovereignty, the researcher considers that they have "a historic opportunity: if not now, when?" He has proposed that they establish a pilot territorial project, since "territorial management implies landscape ecology and other dimensions of design that go far beyond the design of the private farm. Because if there are peasants who practice agroecology but are dispersed, they do not You can do a territorial conversion. So let's learn, because we don't have all the answers. "

Small-scale agriculture?

We wonder if agroecology can be applied at any scale, or if it is basically for smallholder agriculture, and if that is a limitation. Marc Dufumier considers that, by its essence, it is useful for family farming, although he acknowledges that it is more accessible to medium-sized family production than to smallholders, due to their limited capacity to save and invest in animal traction, carts, manure production and fertilization by the organic route. Medium-sized family units would also be optimal for generating employment and avoiding rural exodus. The large agricultural producers, on the other hand, "have the investment capacity, but they do not have the interest, because they want to maximize the profitability of the financial capital invested, and amortize the investment on large areas, then their interest is monoculture, which is the opposite of agroecology ".

For Miguel Altieri, on the other hand, agroecology is a science that provides principles on how to design and manage agrarian systems, of any scale, but with different technological responses, depending on the case. "I have shown examples of farms of between 500 and 3000 hectares that are managed agroecologically. I am talking about a redesign of the agroecological system with functional biodiversity, with rotations, with polycultures, which take other forms on a large scale, because you have to use Of course, machinery is not going to handle 3,000 hectares with chuzo or animal traction. So there are many examples that it can be done on a large scale. What happens is that in Latin America, given the strategic importance of small agriculture, Agroecology has always been dedicated to solving the problem of family and peasant agriculture, but that does not mean that it cannot be applied on a large scale "

- Sally Burch, journalist, is a member of ALAI.

Video: Organic Regenerative Farming is the Future of Agriculture. The Future of Food (July 2022).


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