Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Agroecological Benefits

Agroecology is the study of combining modern scientific knowledge with traditional local farming knowledge to produce the most sustainable and productive agricultural methods. Emphasis is put on the use of local resources and taking advantage of the natural ecological dynamics between all the biological components on the farm. It is a commensal approach to agriculture; designing new methods benefiting both the farmers and the environment. There have been many reports of agroecological methods being quite successful in the towns and villages where they have been implemented; with increased crop yields, restoration of crop land damaged by conventional methods, and great improvement of the local economy and welfare. However, agroecological methods have only been practised on a small scale. It is obvious that the current global food system isn't succeeding in eliminating world hunger, and is even contributing to the problem in its socioeconomic effects. Agroecology provides methods that are not only environmentally sound, but more importantly provide an economic framework that fosters growth of local economies and more equal farmers' rights which provide a more equal distribution of resources and profits that alleviates poverty and hunger.
Modern conventional methods take the approach of controlling nature, taking on a "Wal-Mart mentality" of producing the highest yields with minimal monetary investment at any (non-monetary) costs. Farming became industrialized with "super farms" growing vast monocultures covering thousands of acres and large meat plants raising thousands of livestock at a time. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are sprayed on the fields, antibiotics are given to each animal for the many diseases that come from such a large number living so close together. This has polluted the soil and water of many communities, even poisoning people and causing birth defects. Large corporations have taken over the industry, and have gained an inordinate amount of control on the entire agricultural system. Farmers and farm workers are at the mercy of the corporations; stuck in their employment contracts with minimal salaries and benefits. Farmworkers are seen as dispensable cheap labor, which is reflected by the high turnover rate and minimal pay. Few federal labor laws or worker unions protect them. Unable to store seeds in the modern conventional system, they are forced to buy seeds from corporations every year which decreases their profits. Internationally, Western food aid overflows the 3rd world markets with artificially low priced crops, which takes all the business away from local farmers who resort to growing cash crops for large corporations or simply giving up and moving to the cities. Under their contracts, farmers are obligated to follow the corporation's instructions on how to grow the crops. This the farmer's valuable knowledge of farming that many times has been passed down through the generations. This also puts the farmer in a lower social position; as more of a manual laborer than someone with skill. Because farmers' contracts or sparse business oppurtunities leaves them little choice than to use all their land to grow monocultural cash crops, the farmers are no longer able to provide food for themselves. This is a bizarre phenomenon in that very few (if any) times before in history has a farmer not been able to feed himself.The economic ruts that the current food system has put farmers in has put millions around the world into poverty, and thus hunger. The whole idea of traditional methods; of each component fulfilling its own niche as part of a larger system; has been replaced by a highly stratified and hierarchical system of industrial production of the few having control over the many.
Of course, agroecological methods replacing conventional methods would not be a panacea for world hunger or all the problems that conventional agriculture has caused, but would be a better alternative that would bring many improvements to the current situation. The agroecological system encourages small farms producing a variety of goods. Small farms mean more independence of the farmers. This would enable them to demand a higher price for their goods and to be free from binding contracts and punishments when quotas are not met.This would also free them from the obligation to purchase seeds every year and to be able to store their own seeds, which would greatly increase their profits as their monetary investments decrease. Other cuts in expenses would include chemical fertilizers and pest control, using generations-old "know-how" to do the same job.Simple traditional methods; such as seed storing, production of own compost and manure, rotating crops and interplanting and letting livestock roam freely; would cut out the need (and cost) for chemical fertilizers and pesticides and many antibiotics. Smaller animal holds would mean less disease in the livestock, and so a huge amount of antibiotics would not have to be used as they are in conventional animal raisin. Small farms would boost local economies, increasing local trade and development by selling their goods locally and using local resources. In using local resources, there is a boost for many local businesses, thus having a ripple effect throughout the local area. The incorporation of traditional farming knowledge would value the farmers' assets, and improve their position within society. Farmers would become skilled workers instead of just manual laborers. Growing many things on a small farm would also mean the farmer would be able to feed himself, which would boost their independence and stability. From an ecological standpoint, agroecology would provide many benefits. It would foster the natural restoration of damaged soils, and would ensure the conservation of good soil. Agroecology encourages biodiversity, providing for a healthier ecosystem and avoiding the vulnerability associated with monocultures. It would preserve and protect the environment for future generations. From the economic point of view, agroecology is quite favorable to the current conventional system. The diversity of the small farms would avoid the vulnerability that comes with monocultural production. The cost-benefit ratio with agroecological methods far exceed that of conventional mehtods simply because of the monetary investments involved with each system.
The main cause of hunger is not in the amount of food supplies, but the distribution of the food. Many are unable to afford food, and so go hungry. The conventional agricultural system replaces workers with machines, and reduces the total amount of farmers with the mass production "super farm" system. Agroecological methods would provide more livlihoods for more people, and would improve local economies so that more people would be able to afford food. The environmental benefits would conserve the land for future generations, ensuring stability and communal security. The hungriest places in the world are the places with little or no societal and economic structure, and agroecological farming methods would create an infrastructure to boost the economies and improve societies as a whole. In doing so, agroecological methods would be contributing to alleviating world hunger in providing the infrastructure necessary for economic security.

Sources:
http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~agroeco3/the_potential_of_agroecology.html
"The Omnivore's Dilemma", Michael Pollan, pp.208-255
"Organic Farming 'Could Feed Africa", Daniel Howden, The Independent
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