Poverty, Agroecology and Gobalised Food

If current population trends increase, global production of food will have to increase by 70-100% by 2050.

With current food production practice, meeting this demand is highly unlikely and yet the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN MDG) seek end poverty and extreme hunger. The  humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa (in July 2011 the UN declared a state of famine in Somalia, the first in the 21st century) is testament to three things:

  • Poverty reduction is currently one of the most pressing global issues;
  • Food production systems need to be overhauled in order to promote equal distribution of food; and
  • Food sovereignty should be strongly encouraged in all countries.
The first UN MDG is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. It’s currently 2014.

A possible way to address the above points is encouraging the growth of agroecology.

If there are any doubts regarding the need for countries around the world to independently source their food, one story from the 2007-2009 global recession will remedy this.

In late 2007 food prices rose dramatically around the world and the price of staple foods such as maize and rice almost doubled, causing food riots in more than 20 countries. This wasn’t because of drought or poor crop yields – there was plenty of food for sale – but because food has become a product on the global market and so is subject to fluctuations in the world economy.

In 2007 global food prices rose dramatically…
oil and food
… but not because of a lack of food.

So although there was enough food available few could afford it due to the collapse of the worldmarkets. The food sovereignty offered by agroecology would go a long way buffer this by the strengthening of local markets; food prices in Africa and Asia would no longer be intrinsically linked to the prosperity of banks in America.

Agroecology is a more sustainable agricultural system than conventional ones as positively it address three big drivers of change: climate change; biodiversity; and food security. The system is also more resilient to change, needs less human input, has more stable net productivity, and are better equipped to take full advantage of the ecological services in place.

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The triple bottom line is the point of agroecology. I really could just picture this one photo and do away with all the hundreds of words of explanatory text.

The best examples of working agroecology systems can be found in Latin America and the practices there can be used as examples of how to implement this system.

Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (MCAC)(Farmer to Farmer Movement) is a movement that has established itself in Central America over the last three decades. It promotes farmers learning from other farmers, sharing information between them in order to find the best possible ways to produce food. This has been found to be the most effective way of communicating sustainable practice quickly and on a large scale, and it offers good results small landholders are more likely to listen to and connect with their peers.

Flowcharts are nice. Information flows in conventional vs campesino systems.

For example, when soil conservation practices were introduced into Honduras through MCAC yields for hillside farms rose from 400kg per hectare to 1,200 – 1,600kg per hectare due to healthier soils. This easily accessible network of information is a central part of agroecology as currently one of the biggest barriers to food production in developing countries is a lack of available knowledge/technology.

As an agricultural system, agroecology should be broadly implemented on a global scale to stabilise food security, use natural resources sustainably, protect biodiversity, and alleviate poverty through the formation of stable markets.

To do this, governments must take responsibility in engaging with farmers, research facilities, NGOs and industry to ensure that the system works in the most efficient way possible. Several recommendations have been made on the subject;

  • Governments must put in place mechanisms to empower small farmers (such as partnerships and financial aid). This also ties in with article 1(B)(6) of the International Food Security Agenda (1993).
  • Current subsidies on conventional agriculture must be dismantled so agroecology becomes more economically rational on an industrial scale than conventional systems
  • Equitable markets should be developed, emphasising fair trade to create both income for farmers and sustainable food supplies for their regions.
fair trade
Of course, it’s not all up to governments. As a consumer, you can chose what you buy and therefore what kind of industry and philosophy you are supporting.

Sustainable agriculture should be developed with emphasis on local knowledge and involving farmers directly in formulating research agendas and technological innovation. Solutions must be site-specific be focused on information systems rather than capital.

For this, systems thinking must be used in order to ‘work smarter, not harder’ using practices like agroforestry and polycropping in order to boost yield with minimum input. Most recommendations focus on policy change  which could be difficult to implement in capital focused countries like Australia. This is because of three things;

  • Agroecology has often be branded as anti-capitalist by supporters of an entirely unregulated market
  • Implementation would require an overhaul of current food production systems in Australia
  • Demand for food that cannot be produced locally is high; would require a large social shift in ways of thinking.

Agroecology should be encouraged and supported in developing/more socialist countries with current knowledge and understanding while more research is needed to develop a viable way for industrialised/neo-liberal countries to do the same.

Sequestering Carbon in Native Forests Part IV

Here’s the next instalment of the Sequestering Carbon in Native Forests series. It’s fairly acedemic (I have to be serious sometimes), so get your acedemia on! If you haven’t read any of the previous posts in the series maybe check them out first; they are best read in order.

Pre-existing forests can be managed to sequester carbon through measures such as having a mix of species, managing fire regimes and keeping the forest at an ideal mix of age-classes. A mixture of species in a forest makes the system more resilient and overall better at storing carbon (Böttcher and Linder, 2010).

This plantation looks really cool but in terms of sequestering carbon it’s not great as it doesn’t have a mix of species or age classes. PHOTO: wood report


As outlined above, different species react differently to factors such as water availability so in this way a resilient tree community would be made up of a variety of species so that whatever the rainfall pattern at least one species was still able to actively sequester carbon.

In the Australian bush the constant possibility of fire means that landholders with a large number of trees on their property need to have a fire management plan with efforts such as controlled burning to reduce fuel loads. (Böttcher and Linder, 2010).

Although this releases carbon dioxide, it can greatly reduce the risk of large, uncontrolled fires later and can actually help with the sequestration process if the ash goes back into the soil. For the purposes of sequestration the ideal age-class structure of a forest is fairly mixed (Böttcher, 2007).

Controlled burns are important in Australian forest management. PHOTO: abc.net.au

If a system cannot self-regulate to achieve this, the forest should be managed; trees that are all relatively young and still growing sequester large amounts of carbon but there will be a lesser extent of the natural process that use dead roots, branches and twigs to lock up carbon in the soil as these processes take decades to fully establish.

However, if the forest comprises only of mature trees that have stopped growing the sequestering potential for that forest will largely have been reached.

Thus, once a forest has been established it should be managed (if it can’t self-regulate) so there is a mixed age-class with a mind to disturbing the ecosystem as little as possible. While it takes around 100 years for this point to be reached (possibly longer in low rainfall areas) the potential of forests to mitigate against climate change, even in those low rainfall areas, is good.

Sequestering Carbon in Native Forests Part III

Using trees to sequester carbon in low-medium rainfall areas has high potential because those areas are not widely used for agriculture and often are in need of regeneration.

However, which species can be planted will depend on the amount of water available and how specific species react to factors such as long drought periods, sudden floods and random cycles of wet and dry periods.

The main species used for sequestration are eucalypts, most of which have various adaptations to Australia’s unpredictable weather patterns but a tree that is stressed due to lack of water will stop growing, thus stop sequestering carbon, and may even die.

An eight year old planting of e. sideroxylon. PHOTO: NSW Department of Primary Industries.

A study done by Walsh et al (2008) found that E. globulus and E. botryoides are both highly suited to sequestering carbon, but while both species can sequester during short periods of little or no rainfall neither can handle extended drought, which is all too common in low rainfall areas during el Niňo years. This makes those species suitable but not ideal.

The same study found that while E. camaldulensis, E. sideroxylon and C. maculate are not as efficient in sequestering carbon they can handle long periods of drought far better than the above two and so are better suited to low-medium rainfall conditions. This shows that while it is not ideal to plant in such conditions compromises can be made.

Above all, it is important that these planted forests are not competing for land with agriculture or pre-existing forests.

Of course, unlike plantations, these forests need not be in one big clump; they can be spread along fence lines or creeks, they can be a patchwork across paddocks or public land, anything so long as they are large enough (≥0.2 ha) to qualify as a forest. Spacing plantings like this can also minimise water needed in any one place (Battaglia, 2011).

If you want to learn more about eucalyptus plantings, the NSW Department of Primary Industries has a lot to say on the issue.