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When Antony John first started growing organic produce on a quarter acre of land for restaurants near his farm in Stratford, Ontario, he met with the perplexed reactions of loan officers at the bank. “They were willing to lend us money, but you had to prove yourself to them every year with a cash flow statement and lean on them to lend enough so we could expand,” he recalls. “One said to me, ‘We don’t know organic market gardens. We know pig farms.’”
Now with 20 acres (eight hectares), several greenhouses and more than 100 different varieties of vegetables, “what we produce equals the cash generated by a 500-acre cash-crop operation,” he says. “We’ve expanded every year for 27 years and have seen three cycles of bankruptcies in the local pork industry.”
Like John’s business, organic and agroecological farming has gained both prominence and profitability over the past decades. By now, the global market for organic products is worth over USD 1 billion, according to a 2018 study by the Research Institute of Organic Farming. In terms of area, 71.5 millions hectares of land are devoted to organic agriculture around the world, a 2.9 percent increase from 2017, cultivated by 2.8 million farmers, a 55 percent increase from 2009.
The study comprised statistics from 186 countries. But millions of small-holder farmers, especially in underdeveloped countries, also practice agroecological methods, in large part either because they can’t afford chemical fertilizers and pesticides or because they are still adhering to the traditional practices of their ancestors.
Writing on the wall
The concepts of organic agriculture were developed about a century ago by pioneers like Albert Howard and Rudolf Steiner, who believed that the use of animal manures, cover crops, crop rotation and biologically based pest controls resulted in a better farming system, says Gabor Figeczky, head of global policy at IFOAM – Organics International, the global umbrella organization for organic agriculture movements. Around the middle of the century, advocates like J.I. Rodale and his son Robert, began publishing a number of texts on organic farming, elevating the concept.
But it was in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that saw demand for organic food rise considerably, raising crucial questions about the environmental effects of the unbridled use of pesticides. “That’s when the idea that farming could be harmful to the environment and human health really came up,” says Figeczky.
At the same time, scientific focus on understanding organic and agroecological practices has evolved from a fields-and-farms level to encompass landscape ecology and, more lately, entire agricultural systems.
Last year, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released a report looking at how organic and agroecological agriculture can transform the entire agri-food system, improving the global farmer’s bottom line while boosting the health of both consumers and the planet. At its heart, the report recognizes that food systems are at a crossroads, and that a profound transformation is needed to reduce the role farming plays in emitting carbon and destroying biodiversity and, at the same time, produce enough to feed a growing population.
Graziano da Silva, the former director general of the FAO says that while agroecological methods have played a marginal role in the past, “it is growing fast, and many countries have already assigned research resources and some funding for agroecological approaches, especially in organic farming.
“We have now a kind of alternative to promote another model of rural development and for agricultural development.”
At first glance, the challenge facing agroecological agriculture is how to produce enough to meet global food demands that, under a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, are estimated to rise by 50 percent by 2050. Studies referenced in the 2019 report indicate higher crop yields in some contexts, and in others, a decrease.
One 2018 study, for example, modeled the potential for agroecological farming systems in Europe, including the elimination of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers; a shift to healthier diets; and the development of hedges, trees, ponds and other habitats for increased biodiversity. It estimated a 35 percent decline in production but a 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet, as many researchers have pointed out, a funding bias means far more resources are being allocated to monoculture farming than to its environmentally friendly counterpart. “Nowadays almost all the money for research in agriculture goes to Green Revolution practices,” says da Silva. “In the future, if we are able to channel part of those resources for a more agroecological approach, certainly we will get better technologies and find ways to improve productivity. And these can provide many more products coming from that approach.”
It is a matter, he says, of “how to better use the money that is now going only for promoting [agriculture that is] intensive in chemicals and machinery.”
For Figeczky and others, it is also a question how to change agri-food systems to more strongly emphasize sustainable production and consumption, support balanced diets, equitably distribute of food and productive farmland, and reduce food waste.
“If food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet,” he says. “With about 30 percent of our food going to waste, we should look at what it means in terms of exacerbating climate change, loss of a biodiversity and ecosystem services, resource efficiency and so on. Food insecurity can’t only be seen as a production issue. It is at least as much a problem of distribution. People go to bed hungry because they don’t have access to food.”
Indeed, according to the FAO report, the world is dealing with an untenable food paradox: 870 million people suffer hunger, 2 billion suffer from obesity and another 2 billion lack essential nutrients in their diet. “There is a growing awareness,” the report states, “that hunger and malnutrition may not be only a matter of food production, but mainly of different entitlements, leading to unequal access to food, to natural resources, inputs, marketing and services.”
“The problem is not how to produce more,” da Silva agrees, “but how to produce more without damaging nature, without losing natural resources, like soil, water, and forests that we cannot replace in time to face the challenge of 2050.”
At IFOAM – Organics International, a new initiative called Organic 3.0 aims to make sustainable farming systems and markets based on organic principles more widespread, by expanding participation options and positioning organic as a modern, innovative farming system that integrates local and regional contexts.
Resource regeneration; responsible production; and the ethical development of human values, practices and habits are concepts that can guide the building of what Figeczky sees as a new organic culture that can drive societal development. “This is how we want to lead the whole organic movement,” he says, “in a way that we, as organic, become more socially sensitive by adding more social requirements to the most widely used organic standards and regulations.”
For Antony John, meanwhile, who has counted 137 bird species on his land, including the threatened barn swallow and bobolink, agroecology and biodiversity are inextricably bound.
“The methods that we use to produce on our farm have an ancillary benefit that goes beyond just putting food on a plate for people,” he says. “There is an enhancement of the ecosystem that goes on, and it’s a win-win situation that, as the biodiversity of our farm increases, it supports a wider range of organisms and birds. It’s like a spider web. Adding more and more strands into that web makes it more resilient and flexible. More secure.”