Leaders of the G20 met last week to talk about why we need more support for agricultural research.
This follows the June "action plan" that advocated more food production "on a sustainable basis" and "improving the quality and diversity of agricultural production".
We cautiously welcome the G20's acknowledgement of the importance of agroecology for the future of farming. The United Nations' (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food made similar findings in his report, released in March this year.
Environmental sustainability is one important consideration. The intensification and industrialisation of agriculture over the last few decades has brought a factory-style approach to farming. Monocultures have replaced biodiversity; chemical inputs have replaced natural fertilisers and pest control; crops and livestock are segregated. These developments have accelerated the depletion of our natural resources and have undermined the profitability of farming for large numbers of farmers.
The UN acknowledges that the world's food needs will best be served by agroecological systems, which are both low-carbon and resource-enhancing.
Agroecology - 'the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems', in the words of world expert Miguel Altieri - enables agriculture to mimick natural systems and to use the beneficial relationships between components of the agroecosystem. Some of the key methods and practices in agroecology include "recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species".
Agroecology should be a key focus of the G20 discussions on support for agricultural research if we are to move to sustainable farming systems worldwide. Agroecology is knowledge-intensive, so farmers need support, training and research to develop these systems. This is particularly true in countries like Australia, where the average age of farmers is continually increasing, and valuable knowledge, skills and expertise are rapidly disappearing with passing generations. An estimated 60% of Australian farmers are expected to retire in the next decade, and disturbingly little thought has been given as to who will replace them.
Australian farmers face some of the greatest challenges in agriculture. Dryland salinity covers one–third of farming land in Western Australia. Reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides is costing farmers more and more, and killing the life in our soils. Water scarcity and poor water quality is a growing problem in places like the Murray-Darling basin. Climate change promises to bring more extreme and variable weather events.
While there is no quick fix, the good news is that Australians are among the world's leaders in agroecology. Permaculture, with its emphasis on polycultures, micro-climates, companion planting and nitrogen-fixing, is one of our home-grown versions. Bio-dynamic agriculture, and mixed cropping and livestock systems are another. Innovative farmers and researchers around the country are finding many new ways to farm and to develop more resilient agricultural and natural systems. (Check out this video of livestock rotation in Victoria to restore soil fertility.)
Unfortunately, the research agenda for agriculture in Australia, as in many other countries is driven by the interests of multinational agrifood / agrichemical companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and others. For example, research on plant breeding trends in Australia shows that programs for most of the major crops, such as wheat and canola, are increasingly dominated by private interests. A lack of government support for science drives university and other public researchers into partnerships with industry, meaning that research priorities are driven for the profit of these companies rather than for the benefit of farmers and communities.
Agroecology reduces chemical use and the costs of inputs for farmers. As Altieri says, the whole philosophy of agroecology is to build 'agricultural systems in which ecological interactions and synergisms between biological components provide the mechanisms for the system to sponsor its own soil fertility, productivity and crop protection'. It is explicitly intended to foster greater levels of autonomy and self-determination amongst all farmers, but most especially small-scale and peasant farmers, based on increasing levels of shared knowledge, contextualised to specific localities and ecosystems.
Genuine agroecology, as conceived above by Altieri, therefore reduces the dependency of farmers on expensive purchased external inputs: seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fossil fuels. As such, it comes into direct conflict with the profit and accumulation interests of the agri-chemical giants that dominate the input end of the global capitalist food system. For this reason, agroecology as a genuinely liberating practice should not be simplistically confused with certified organic production, or fair trade labels. Altieri makes the point well:
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