'Agro-ecology can feed the world!'
Irene Cardoso is vice-president of the Brazilian Agro-ecology Association (ABA), Soil Scientist at The Federal University of Viçosa (UFV), and Coordinator of the Center for Alternative Technology of Zona da Mata (CTA-ZM).
She actively promotes agriculture based on agro-ecological approaches in Brazil and internationally.
The Rio+20 conference aims at defining the pathway for the transition of the current economical system towards a ‘green economy’. Many suggest that sustainable agriculture should be an important pillar of a green economy. What is your opinion?
"For me, truly sustainable agriculture would be based on agro-ecological approaches. It relies on biodiversity for environmental services to farmers. In the green revolution, ecosystem services (nutrient cycling, pest controls, soil structure etc.) were replaced by chemical fertilizers, tillage and pesticides. The replacement of the environmental services by chemicals is key to understanding why agriculture, instead of benefiting, harms biodiversity.
Nature can also provide all necessary inputs for agriculture. Farmers can decide to be dependent on biodiversity or on the industries that produce expensive chemicals. Moreover, agro-ecology respects the knowledge of the farmers. Solutions should be built together: farmers, scientists, policy makers and also consumers. This leads to agriculture that is ecologically sound, socially and culturally responsible, and economically viable."
Do you think that sustainable agriculture can be a solution to global problems, especially hunger?
"The agro-ecological approach relies more on biodiversity to provide agricultural elements that are necessary to produce food. Industrialized agriculture relies on inputs produced by industry, such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers and on monocultures. All of these have very negative impacts on soils, especially in the long term.
Agro-ecology is not only one solution, it is THE solution.
I am convinced that unsustainable agriculture cannot feed the world. As the 2008 IAASTD report by Hans Herren shows, industrialised agriculture will not only fail to provide food to feed the world's population in the future, but it is also destroying the environmental basis of our food supply- our soil, water and biodiversity. Based on extensive literature review, the report, as well as the special rapporteur on the right to food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, concluded that agro-ecological approaches have the potential to feed the world. Why only the potential? Because the number of farmers using these approaches needs to increase.
To make that happen, sound public policies are required. For example, investments in research, appropriate technologies, subsidised credits and agro-ecological education at all levels for the farmers, consumers, agronomists, researchers. We need payment for environmental services provided by agro-ecological ecosystems, freedom to use seeds, laws that allows food processing at the farm level, better conditions for the commercialisation of agro-ecological products etc.
Brazil is an example of how specific policies can boost the development of sustainable agriculture. In our country there is a law that obliges public schools to buy at least 30% of their pupils' food from family farmers. This supports family farming, and favours agro-ecology.
Besides policies, farmers’ organisations are also very important for up-scaling agro-ecological approaches. We need strong farmers’ institutions, such as unions, associations, cooperatives. It is very difficult to work on an individual basis, it is better to develop ideas in groups, with groups of farmers."
Agriculture based on agro-ecological approaches is often advocated for marginal, less-suitable areas. Does it make sense to also introduce it in other areas?
"I can answer with another question: does it make sense to produce food of sufficient quantity and quality and at the same time protect biodiversity, the soils and the water? Or does it make sense to produce food and at the same time to destroy what produces food? Where is it better to diversify agriculture, for instance through the use of agroforestry systems, in less or more fertile soil?
Industrialized agriculture cannot produce in marginal areas, and this is why agro-ecology was developed, in many cases, in marginal areas - the 'leftovers' of the agricultural empire. But if you are succeeding in an adverse environment, you also can succeed in a more gentle environment!
In the Brazilian Zona da Mata, many farmers produce coffee using agro-ecological systems. They also grow banana, avocado and wood while caring for the quality of the soil and water. Those farmers state that their yields are the same as in conventional systems."
Small-scale farmers often face difficulties when they want to compete with large-scale farms. Should we focus on creating environmental policies that give small-scale farmers competitive advantage over large-scale farmers? Or should we rather support the up-scaling of small farms and at the same time provide farmers alternative employment opportunities?
"Both. It is necessary to create policies to favour small-scale farmers and at the same time to disseminate and replicate agro-ecological experiences. Scaling-up is considered here as more farmers producing in agro-ecological ways, which means a different type of intensification: not managing land intensely with pesticides and fertilizers but rather with knowledge and biodiversity!
I think the best employment opportunities for farmers is to give them the autonomy to be farmers. Agro-ecology provides them the space for that. Otherwise they will be dependent on, and in that way indirectly employed by, the companies that produce GMO, fertilizers, pesticides etc."
And what do you think about investing in sustainable agriculture based on biosynthetic technologies?
"It depends on the type of biosynthetic technologies, but for sure it can not be the focus. The focus has to be on environmental services to farmers that are provided by biodiversity."
Up-scaling agro-ecological approaches is often presented as a win-win situation for everybody. However, is it realistic to put so many hopes on this solution? And, in the current political environment, is it feasible?
"Agro-ecology is not only a solution, it is THE solution. However, agro-ecology consists of a package. We have to support and enhance the multiple ecological functions of agriculture, we have to find solutions that are adequate to suit the different problems and environments, while respecting nature and people. In the current international political environment it is not easy, but we can modify it, can’t we?
In Brazil, nowadays the political environment favors the agro-ecological approach more than 10 years ago. We changed the way people think! Of course, we still have a lot to improve, it is still not good enough, but it is better now than 10 years ago!"
What do you think about the Rio+20 conference? Can such conferences make a difference and start real transformation of the global economy?
"It can help. It is not the solution, but it can be part of it. We need a lot of pressure from the international social movement, because the current political environment favours agribusiness and its food empire.
Brazil is preparing to release the National Agro-ecology Policies in Rio+20. These policies are being discussed with farmers, scientists, technicians involved with Agro-ecology in Brazil. These can be an example for other countries to follow. For more details I recommend following this link http://www.timetoactrio20.org"
Are you going to participate in the Rio+20 conference?
"I am involved in the discussion of the National Agro-ecology Policies to be released during Rio+20. I will try to go to Rio, at least to observe the movement around the People´s Summit Rio+20."
Interview: Marta Dabrowska
The interview took place during the "Agroecology as a science, movement and a practice: can it feed the world?" event at Wageningen University on 13 February 2012. Download Cardoso's presentation.