Global food issues are grabbing our attention and for good reason: the industrial system of the last 60 years is fraying at the edges, causing cascading environmental and social problems. More than 12 per cent of the world goes hungry. And yet humans are producing more food than ever before. What gives?
Food production is not under the control of hungry people. Nutritional diversity around the world is decreasing, replaced by a few dominant starches. As a result, chronic diet-related diseases are on the rise across the globe.
Care about the environment? Our industrial food system is one of the single biggest drivers of global climate change, with its inefficient distribution systems, energy intensity and petro-chemical inputs. It doesn’t play nice with the rest of the planet’s living organisms, including those that reside in the soil.
We need a new approach – one that can more effectively feed the planet and simultaneously undo the damage that conventional agriculture has inflicted on the environment. That approach is agro-ecology, a roots-up effort that has the power to positively impact key areas of philanthropic concern: poverty and hunger, health, climate change and the environment, community and culture.
Agro-ecology is one of the nature-based solutions called for by the recent Congress of the IUCN (World Conservation Union). It integrates scientific knowledge about how particular places work – their ecology – with farmers’ understanding of how to make their local landscapes useful to humans.
This approach involves diverse and complex methods of land stewardship by re-integrating livestock, crops, pollinators, trees and water in ways that work with the land. In other words, agro-ecology harnesses the power of nature and local knowledge to produce food sustainably.
Here’s one example. Farmers in Kenya have created a ‘push-pull’ system to control parasitic weeds and insects without using pesticides. The system involves planting insect-repellant species among corn crops, ‘pushing’ insects away. Plots of Napier grass, which excretes a sticky gum that attracts and traps insects, are planted nearby to ‘pull’ the insects away from the crops. ‘Push-pull’ has doubled corn and milk yields and is now used on 10,000 farms in East Africa.
The potential for applying these techniques elsewhere is enormous. ‘Large-scale studies show potential production increases from 79 to 132 per cent [from small-scale farmers], while small-scale studies have shown the potential for a fivefold increase in production,’ concluded a report produced by the Norwegian foundation Utiklingsfondet last year. A report from the United Nations recently trumpeted that ‘eco-farming can double food production in 10 years’.
The world is ready to make this shift. Despite all the policy emphasis on large-scale agriculture, there are still 3 billion small farmers around the world who produce 70 per cent of the world’s food supply. Further, an estimated 75 per cent of the billion chronically hungry are marginalized food producers. Agro-ecology can provide these farmers with the tools they need to feed their families – and their communities.
Many foundations, especially in the United States, have already experienced how support for small-scale sustainable agriculture can revitalize local economies and communities – through farmers’ markets and other approaches – and transform diets and health. Groups such as the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders are helping to scale such work.
We need to redouble our efforts to expand this movement internationally and link it more explicitly to agro-ecological approaches. One such effort is the International Fund to Amplify Agro-Ecological Solutions, a multi-donor fund that represents some of the most effective actors in the field in Asia, Africa and South America.
These evolving alliances are exploring how the fields of conservation and agriculture can work more effectively together. A similar effort is needed to integrate agriculture into the climate change agenda. Howard Buffett’s call for a ‘brown revolution’ that recognizes the central importance of living soils to planetary well-being is a step in the right direction.
All of these efforts should be embraced by foundations as parts of an agro-ecological approach to fitting within our shrinking, but still delicious, planet.
Dr Kenneth Wilson is the executive director and chief executive officer of the Christensen Fund.