18 May 2020
5th European Agroforestry Conference

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21 September 2020
Organic World Congress 2020

20th Organic World Congress in France, September 2020

6 December 2019
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Closing plenary - Making agro-ecology work in practice

Chair: Lawrence Woodward (Whole Organic Plus)

Agro-ecological approaches including organic farming have been shown to increase production of food, fuel and fibre in many parts of the world, while reducing the use of non-renewable resources and maintaining producer autonomy and food sovereignty. Miguel Altieri has pioneered this approach and will provide extensive examples of how agro-ecology can work in practice and make a real contribution to global food security.

Session summary

The session was introduced by Martin Wolfe, referring to a long-standing common vision of the importance of diversity in the design of farm systems, which was reflected in a joint paper with Miguel Altieri to the IFOAM Copenhagen conference in 1196. As an example, Martin showed how using barley variety mixtures on 350,000 ha in East Germany in the 1980s had led to a substantial drop in plant disease incidence. Highlighting how Wakelyns Agro-forestry was trying to take this bio-diverse approach forward, Martin concluded with a quote from Darwin: “So in the general economy of any land, the more widely and perfectly the animals and plants are diversified for different habits of life, so will a greater number of individuals be capable of their supporting themselves.”

In this session, introduced by Martin Wolfe, Miguel Altieri from University of California, Berkeley, highlighted the global challenges facing agriculture, but questioned whether further development of industrialised agricultural approaches could meet the challenge. 50% of the world's food was produced by subsistence producers who had limited access to these technologies, while only 30% was produced using Western, commercial industrial models. He highlighted many examples of innovative agro-ecological approaches being used and developed by indigenous farmers in Latin America and other countries, including cover crop mulches which were effective at weed control in maize production, rice/fish combinations in China, coriander/tomato combinations to deter pests, and the diversity of local maize varieties in Mexico. The role of research, he argued, was to help identify how these systems work in practice. These approaches had the potential to increase yields in many parts of the world.

However, Altieri also emphasised that an agro-ecological approach was not just about biology or technology, but reflected a set of principles encompassing food sovereignty (which needed to include technology and energy sovereignty), social justice, environmental soundness, economic viability and cultural diversity. The Cuban example had shown that political change, including land reform so that more people had access to land, was a key element. He argued that in some situations, such as California, many organic farms were still focused on input substitution and had not fully engaged with these agro-ecological principles. At the same time, there were many farmers using agro-ecological principles who were not certified organic.

In the discussion, questions covered further aspects of the techniques described and political challenges to be faced. The challenge was to bring organic, agro-ecological and similar approaches closer together, building on significant common ground and taking inspiration from the examples of individual producers acting as 'lighthouses' or beacons to show the way forward. It was not just a case of small farms – there is potential to design larger farms to be more bio-diverse. But we need to be aware that farmers are on a (learning) journey and need to moderate risks from changing too radically at first. Consumers also needed to be aware of changes that might result from more biodiversity, which could be reinforced by more community involvement. Asked by Lawrence why we have not made more progress in the last 30 years, Altieri concluded that:

  • We can’t depend on public institutions to lead reform due to their penetration by corporations
  • Farmers need to organise to create new institutions (e.g. peasant universities) to meet their needs.
  • Organic farming needs to embrace food sovereignty and agro-ecology in their fullest sense.

Session presentations and abstracts

Prof. Martin Wolfe (Wakelyns Agroforestry): Introduction to the guest speaker and topic (PDF 199KB)

Prof. Miguel Altieri (University of California, Berkeley): Agro-ecology in practice around the world (PDF 8.3MB)
The climate, energy and food crises are becoming more severe, agro-exports are on the rise and the use of transgenic, biofuel crops is increasing globally, land grabbing is exploding and hunger intensifying. There are many visions on how to achieve a sustainable agriculture that provides enough food and ecosystem services for present and future generations in an era of climate change, increasing costs of energy, social unrest, financial instability and increasing environmental degradation. The realization of the contribution of indigenous, peasant and small farm agriculture to food security in the midst of scenarios of climate change, economic and energy crisis, led to the concepts of food sovereignty and agro-ecologically-based production systems gaining much attention in the developing world in the last two decades. Organic farmers in the North trapped in an input substitution approach and victims of an unequal global food system are starting to think critically about a new agricultural paradigm. New ap-proaches and technologies involving the applica-tion of blended modern agricultural science and indigenous knowledge systems and spearheaded by thousands of farmers, NGOs, and some gov-ernment and academic institutions are proving to enhance food security while conserving agro-biodiversity, soil and water resources throughout hundreds of rural communities in the developing world. Case studies from Cuba, Brazil, Philippines, Africa, Chile and California are presented to demonstrate how the agro-ecological development paradigm, based on the revitalization of small farms which emphasizes diversity, synergy, recycling, offers options to meet present and future food needs. Given the present and predicted near future climate, energy and economic scenarios, agro-ecology has emerged as one of the most robust pathways towards designing biodiverse, productive, and resilient agro-ecosystems available today.