How to Leave Industrial Agriculture Behind: Food Systems Experts Urge Global Shift Towards Agroecology

(Brussels / Trondheim: 2nd June) Input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must be consigned to the past in order to put global food systems onto sustainable footing, according to the world’s foremost experts on food security, agro-ecosystems and nutrition.

The solution is to diversify agriculture and reorient it around ecological practices, whether the starting point is highly-industrialized agriculture or subsistence farming in the world’s poorest countries, the experts argued.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), led by Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, released its findings today in a report entitled ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’.

De Schutter said: “Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates.”

He added: “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms.”

The report was presented today at the 8th Trondheim Biodiversity Conference (Norway) by lead author Emile Frison, former Director General of Bioversity International.


Special Report: US Organic Farming Hotspots – an Opportunity for Rural Communities?

Author: Marilyn Borchardt

“For us, cheese has always been a vehicle to achieve this other thing,” Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm said.

“A vibrant community that’s not completely dependent on globalization. This is our response to globalization: We have the opportunity to extract wealth and redistribute it in our community in a different way.”

Mateo and his brother Andy of Jasper Hill Farm, like all resourceful farmers, understand that making a living in rural America today requires more than just milking cows. And just like the California winemakers of an earlier generation, they set a lofty goal to challenge the best of European cheesemakers.

Can Organic Agriculture Contribute to Increasing Income for the Larger Community?

Do clusters of organic farming activity lead to higher income for farmers as well as others in their community? A recent study suggests that producing organic foods is correlated with lower poverty and increased household incomes in rural communities.

In their economic analysis, Pennsylvania State University agricultural economist, Ted Jaenicke and then-student Julia Marasteanu (who now works at the U.S. Federal Drug Administration) identified counties around the country with high levels of organic agricultural activity where a neighboring county also has high organic activity. Their analysis suggests that clusters of two contiguous hotspot counties is correlated with increased median household income by an average of $2,094 – and reduced poverty levels overall.3

This income increase in organic hotspot counties averages 4.7 percent in relative terms for all people residing in hotspot counties.

At a time when most workers in the U.S. are experiencing stagnant or declining income, what economic development official wouldn’t want to promote such a dramatic improvement in income?


Farm Input Subsidy Programmes (FISPs): A Benefit for, or the Betrayal of, SADC’s Small-Scale Farmers?

This paper reviews the farm input subsidy programmes (FISPs) within countries belonging to the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), to ascertain whether input subsidies have benefited small-scale farmers, have increased food security at the household and national levels, and have improved the incomes of small-scale farmers.


Organic Beats Conventional Agriculture in the Tropics

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A long-term study by the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Kenya has shown clearly that organic agriculture not only generates comparable yields, but also produces more income and health benefits for farmers than conventional methods.

The 10-year study conducted in Thika and Chuka, sub-counties in Kenya, was conducted with local partners since 2007. It demystifies the myth that organic agriculture needs more space to achieve comparable yields to conventional agriculture. With input costs lower for organic agriculture and higher prices on the markets, incomes for organic farmers start to be higher after five years of cropping and reach a 53% higher benefit in the sixth year.

Another important factor revealed by the study is the significant improvement in soil fertility in organic farming. Additionally, the non-use of chemical inputs in organic farming systems generates beneficial effects on farms’ ecosystems as well as on the health of people since there are no harmful chemical residues. Parallel studies in India and Bolivia on the production of cotton and coffee respectively showed similar positive results for the organic methods.

The research of long-term Farming Systems Comparison in the Tropics (SysCom) is aimed at providing scientific evidence on the benefits and potential of organic versus conventional farming systems. The objective is to support the development of relevant policies and strategies to guide programmes that foster the adoption of sustainable land use practices at local, regional and international levels.

The study in Kenya has been designed very fairly; it does not compare industrial agriculture with highly specialist outputs of organic farming, but rather conventional agriculture involving staple cereal (maize) and includes crop rotation and other sustainable aspects. As a result, some of the findings are very close between the two systems, but as a whole the study shows clearly that the organic approach is a viable strategy in the tropics, with knowledge dissemination and training in organic farming being areas requiring greater attention.


New Report: Farming for the Future

The science is clear: Feeding the world sustainably requires that we protect the ecological resources that are essential for producing food now and in the future. What’s more, research consistently shows that hunger is not a problem of overall supply of food, but results from poverty, lack of democracy and unequal access to land, water and other resources. Rather than producing more food under unequal and ecologically destructive conditions, the solution to hunger hinges on creating a more sustainable, democratic and fair food system for all.


Biochars multifunctional role as a novel technology in the agricultural, environmental, and industrial sectors

Authors: Jeff Novak, Kyoung S Ro, Yong Sik Ok, Gilbert C Sigua, Kurt Spokas, and Sophie Uchimiya

1. Introduction

The utilization of biochar as an amendment to improve soil health and the environment has been a catalyst for the recent global enthusiasm for advancing biochar production technology and its management (Atkinson et al., 2010; Verheijen et al., 2010). This rapid rise in understanding biochar technologies is a pro-active response to the anticipated stresses of meeting future global nutrition demands while also sustaining environmental quality. Hearty research efforts using biochar are focusing on improving soil health characteristics to obtain higher crop yields. Moreover, there is increasing realization that sustainable food security will be difficult to maintain considering future climatic shifts and the impact on agronomic and environmental systems. Employment of biochar as a specialized soil amendment provides a practical approach to address these anticipated problems in the agronomic and environmental sectors (Mukherjee and Lal, 2013; Zhang and Ok, 2014).

Biochar is produced by thermal pyrolysis of organic feedstocks under a very low oxygen atmosphere (Laird, 2008) or through hydrothermal carbonization of wet organic material by high pressure and mild temperatures (Libra et al., 2011). The thermal and hydrothermal processes, respectively, results in a product referred to as biochar and hydrochar. Both of these materials are highly porous, carbon [C] rich solids that contain a myriad of organic structures as well as inorganic elements. Biochars have been characterized using 13 C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy as having a high proportion of highly-condensed aromatic graphene-like structures (Baldock and Smernik, 2002; Novak et al., 2009; Cao et al., 2011), which are known to increase soil C sequestration because of their resistance to microbial oxidation (Glaser et al., 2002; Sigua et al., 2014). The inorganic chemical composition of the ash material is an important soil fertility characteristic since
the ash is comprised of plant macro (e.g., N, Ca, K, P, etc.) as well as micro-nutrients (e.g., Cu Zn, B, etc.;Spokas et al., 2012; Ippolito et al., 2015). Besides boosting soil fertility conditions, biochar application to soils can increase their nutrient retention (Laird and Rogovska, 2015), improve water storage (Kinney et al., 2012; Novak et al., 2012), bind with pollutants (Uchimiya et al., 2010; Sun et al., 2011; Ahmad et al., 2014; Mohan et al., 2014), and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG;
Cayuela et al., 2014). These reports demonstrate that biochar can have multfunctional roles in the agricultural and environmental sectors.


The Role of Ruminants in Reducing Agriculture’s Carbon Footprint in North America

Authors: W.R. Teague, S. Apfelbaum, R. Lal, U.P. Kreuter, J. Rowntree, C.A. Davies, R. Conser, M. Rasmus- sen, J. Hatfield, T. Wang, F. Wang, and P. Byck

Abstract: Owing to the methane (CH4) produced by rumen fermentation, ruminants are a source of greenhouse gas (GHG) and are perceived as a problem.We propose that with appro- priate regenerative crop and grazing management, ruminants not only reduce overall GHG emissions, but also facilitate provision of essential ecosystem services, increase soil carbon (C) sequestration, and reduce environmental damage. We tested our hypothesis by examining biophysical impacts and the magnitude of all GHG emissions from key agricultural production activities, including comparisons of arable- and pastoral-based agroecosystems. Our assessment shows that globally, GHG emissions from domestic ruminants represent 11.6% (1.58 Gt C y–1) of total anthropogenic emissions, while cropping and soil-associated emissions contribute 13.7% (1.86 Gt C y–1).The primary source is soil erosion (1 Gt C y–1), which in the United States alone is estimated at 1.72 Gt of soil y–1. Permanent cover of forage plants is highly effective in reducing soil erosion, and ruminants consuming only grazed forages under appropriate management result in more C sequestration than emissions. Incorporating forages and ruminants into regeneratively managed agroecosystems can elevate soil organic C, improve soil ecological function by minimizing the damage of tillage and inorganic fertilizers and biocides, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat. We conclude that to ensure long- term sustainability and ecological resilience of agroecosystems, agricultural production should be guided by policies and regenerative management protocols that include ruminant grazing. Collectively, conservation agriculture supports ecologically healthy, resilient agroecosystems and simultaneously mitigates large quantities of anthropogenic GHG emissions.


The Rise of Regenerative Agriculture

Imagine a world in which industrial crop production supports healthier air, water and soil; a time when rural communities thrive thanks to their local farms; a world where foods are rife with nutrients and the future of agriculture is a thing of beauty and promise …

This is the vision that grows within regenerative agriculture—a practice of farming, based on ecological principles, that builds soil health and recaptures carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

Regenerative agriculture is building on the principles and practices of organic to help communities and soil thrive. “There is an international movement afoot today that says it’s time to take things a step further,” says industry veteran Tom Newmark, founder and chair of Carbon Underground—a nonprofit dedicated to restoring soil health and helping to address climate issues. Regenerative Agriculture is that step, according to Newmark and a growing number of vocal advocates.

Many modern farming systems, which often include the use of heavy machinery, excessive tilling and harmful chemicals, disrupt the organic matter in the soil. Once the carbon molecules in the soil get exposed to the air, they combine with oxygen to create carbon dioxide, turning a natural carbon exchange system from healthy and fertile soil into a toxic atmospheric gas. These unnatural processes have sickened the living systems within the soil, and in many cases have cut off vitality completely—ruining the health and sustainability in all too many agricultural ecosystems.

The healthy side of dirt

In her recent book, The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale Press, Inc., 2014), author Kristin Ohlson writes about the relationship that plants have with microorganisms in the soil, and the impact that disturbing the soil through unnatural, modern methods is having on our food, our climate, our local communities and our future as a whole.

In a teaspoon of healthy soil, Ohlson says, there are billions and billions of microorganisms, all interacting with plants in a “complex and crucial” ecosystem. “Because it’s not visible to the naked eye, humans have only sort of become aware in the last couple of decades what’s going on down there,” she explains.

Organic carbon in soil is a reservoir for plant nutrients—those that are essential to the health of humans that consume them, as well as the ecosystem they are meant to thrive within. These nutrients include calcium, nitrogen, phosphorous, magnesium and micro-nutrients, which are released in the decomposition though microbial processes.

Carbon in the soil ensures these processes become a vital part of nutrient storage, soil structure, microbial activity, water retention, soil temperature and biodiversity—all elements that contribute to nutrient-rich soil and foods from that soil and the living ecosystem they sustain.

Known by scientists as agro-ecological farming, the principles of regenerative agriculture create healthy farms through practices such as crop rotation, cover cropping, composting and reduced tillage.

Healthy farms can be just as productive, if not more productive, than industrial farms, but are much better for the environment, the economy and the people who plant, harvest and eat the food.


Healthy Soils are the Basis for Healthy Food Production

[ Italiano ]

Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production. The most widely recognized function of soil is its support for food production. It is the foundation for agriculture and the medium in which nearly all food-producing plants grow. In fact, it is estimated that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils. Healthy soils supply the essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support that our food-producing plants need to grow and flourish. Soils also serve as a buffer to protect delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature.

What is a Healthy Soil?

Soil health has been defined as the capacity of soil to function as a living system. Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of soil organisms that help to control plant disease, insect and weed pests, form beneficial symbiotic associations with plant roots, recycle essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure with positive effects for soil water and nutrient holding capacity, and ultimately improve crop production. A healthy soil also contributes to mitigating climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content.

Download the Report from FAO

What Do We Really Know About the Number and Distribution of Farms and Family Farms in the World?

Authors: Sarah K. Lowder, Jakob Skoet and Saumya Singh


The agricultural economics literature provides various estimates of the number of farms and small farms in the world. This paper is an effort to provide a more complete and up to date as well as carefully documented estimate of the total number of farms in the world, as well as by region and level of income. It uses data from numerous rounds of the World Census of Agriculture, the only dataset available which allows the user to gain a complete picture of the total number of farms globally and at the country level. The paper provides estimates of the number of family farms, the number of farms by size as well as the distibution of farmland by farm size. These estimates find that: there are at least 570 million farms worldwide, of which more than 500 million can be considered family farms. Most of the world’s farms are very small, with more than 475 million farms being less than 2 hectares in size. Although the vast majority of the world’s farms are smaller than 2 hectares, they operate only a small share of the world’s farmland. Farmland distribution would seem quite unequal at the global level, but it is less so in low- and lower-middle-income countries as well as in some regional groups. These estimates have serious limitations and the collection of more up-to-date agricultural census data, including data on farmland distribution is essential to our having a more representative picture of the number of farms, the number of family farms and farm size as well as farmland distribution worldwide.

Download the Report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations