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.
poverty
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.

prices
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.

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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.

Grazing on Struggle Street: Conventional

Morning Internet! 

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Internet is totally ready for some science. PHOTO: cutespaw.com

My assignment is still lurking around in the shadows of my Wednesday, so here we go, back into my developing field report.

So this morning we’re going to talk about grazing, specifically we’ll be talking about the merits of conventional versus organic versus time controlled grazing. I then have to decide which is the most sustainable, economically and environmentally, and then justify that decision. 

Oxton Park, Buronga and Tulgani: Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these various agricultural practices, and therefore which is the most sustainable (both environmentally and economically).

So grazing. Yeah. 

Conventional Grazing

We saw a conventional grazing system at Oxton Park. It’s an 8000 ha property with 200 ha set aside for grazing.

They had their soils classed and they have classes 1 – 5. Soil classing works like this; hazards are used to assess capability; the potential consequences of a hazard and the likelihood that that consequence will be realised. The LSC is based on the most limiting hazard. Soil classes go from 1-8. You can do anything you like with 1 but 8 is rubbish country. The assessment scheme is the major tool to assess the sustainability of land management practices. It follows on from one made for the Central West of NSW in 2008 (which was itself based on the US Dept of Ag scheme from the early 1950s).  A Land and Soil Capability (LSC) assessment scheme is most suitable for broad scale assessment of land capability particularly for low intensity dry land agriculture-less so for high intensity use or irrigation. 

classes
Class 7 isn’t great at all, class 4 is good for grazing class 2 is beautiful. PHOTO: NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

So they graze on class 5. They crop for four years on classes 2 – 4 then graze for 15. This very long term thinking is in place as the farm is not a family farm but a business. They are playing with huge amounts of money and every paddock has a plan for it; they know what they will be doing there every year for about the next 20 years. 

They run about 30 000 merino, mostly for superfine wool. 16 000 are pure merinos and 6000 are a quicker growing crossbreed that they use for meat, which is now worth more than wool. The meat sheep are exported if they’re more than 11 months old. 

bigmerino
The Big Merino in Goulburn, NSW. Legit. PHOTO: weekendnotes.com
merino
Merions, man. Note the wrinkly neck, their most recognisable feature. PHOTO: farmadvisor.com.au

 

Wait, what’s superfine wool? How is it different to normal wool?

Good question Internet. Superfine wool is 18-19 microns thick, which is the diameter of the wool. Wool is also measured on it’s tensile strength, but the diameter is the most important factor and is dependant on the sheep’s age, breed, health and so on. Merinos are known for their superfine wool, which is used in thermal and luxury products. 

icebreaker-clothing
Clothes made from superfine wool are really soft, warm and dry quickly, so they don’t get smelly. These properties make them ideal sports clothes. PHOTO: gearforgirls.co.uk

They shear every ten months, generally in April and January. You need about 70mm of wool to make it worthwhile and you shouldn’t shear them in winter (really?!) or when they’re lambing. 

This way of raising sheep is very high input, both in terms of money and time. You have to drench them and crutch them; you have to shear them, you have to move them from one paddock to the next. 

The advantage is that you get a consistently high quality product, but the disadvantages are that if you run out of money or inputs the system will collapse. Also, because they’re grazing their sheep on class 5 land, it is reasonable to expect that the sheep’s diet isn’t great as the pasture in those paddocks may not be very varied. If this system was hit by a serious drought the farm would probably be fine financially but it’s anyone’s guess how the land would go after being managed to produce meat and wool rather than to produce pasture with the sheep as by products. 

So what’s your conclusion?

Well Internet, it’s probably only sustainable financially as long as you have enough money to put into it and aren’t hit by a big drought; it’s very dependant on inputs. Environmentally it’s probably not that resilient, although good on them for understanding their soils and utilising them correctly. 

Tune in next time for the same again, but with organic grazing!

Soils on Struggle Street Part Two

Alrightly folks (and Internet).

The assignment doth continue so once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more …

The third thing to chat about soils at Gunyah is erosion.

erosion

Sodic soils (which we all know know are caused by too many sodium ions floating around) are also really prone to erosion.

This is because the soil has lost it’s structure and is really dispersive so when it gets wet it will run away easily. This also causes erosion.

Because water cannot infiltrate into sodic soils, the water moves laterally just under the surface, creating drains. These can’t be seen until they collapse into tunnels, and if they keep getting worse they may become erosion gullies (i.e. have a depth of >30cm).

Lastly, sodic soils may lose some topsoil due to dust.

So what did the farmer do?

Well Internet, he basically did the same as for salinity and sodicity; encouraged plant growth through the addition of manure, grazed lightly, and added lime in some places.

Lime is sort of the opposite to gypsum in that it raises pH rather than lowers it. In the case of Gunyah lime was most likely added as the soil was too acidic after years and years of super phosphates being added to perennial crops.

Soil pH is super important in agriculture as crops and pasture take up nutrients best when the pH is about 6.5.

The plants are important as their roots hold the soil and provide protection to it from the eroding powers of wind and rain.

Once you’ve treated your soil with gypsum it will form those nice little peds and all will be well on the farm.

peds1
Peds! Look at all that soil structure! PHOTO: R. Patterson.

It’s kind of simple, once you think about it carefully!

The craziest thing about all of this is that in the majority of cases it’s cheaper to buy new land than to rehabilitate your own land. So if you have sodic soils just, you know, fence it off and buy some new land. Nuts.

(Also, a really bad philosophy to get into. If we don’t take care of our land it’s not going to take care of us, and where else do you want to grow your food?)

That was the soils part of my assignment.

Stay tuned for when it gets crazy and I compare conventional, organic and time controlled systems in terms of grazing and cropping.

Sustainable agriculture is great!