UN Report on Agro-ecology

Agriculture which mimics natural processes rather than industry has a role in ensuring global food security, according to a report presented in Geneva to the UN Human Rights Council on 8 March 2011 by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

The UN report defines agro-ecology as the ‘application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems’. Based on a review of scientific literature published in the last five years, it emphasises that agro-ecology aims to provide the most favourable soil conditions and to introduce soil management practices that safeguard soil organic matter and raise the level of biotic activity. The core principles underlying agro-ecological practice are the recycling of nutrients and energy on the farm rather than using external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; and diversifying both species and genetic resources within agro-ecosystems. These can be complementary to better-known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties.

The core principles underlying agro-ecological practice are the recycling of nutrients and energy on the farm rather than using external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; and diversifying both species and genetic resources within agro-ecosystems.

The report stresses that agro-ecology will deliver optimal responses to three goals of the global agriculture today – to produce enough food for everyone, to increase the income of small farmers, and to develop management options which neither undermine biodiversity, water and soils nor compromise the natural resource base of agriculture in the long run.

The recently published Foresight study by the UK government underlined the imperative of speeding up ‘sustainable intensification’ through industrial agriculture. In contrast, this UN report on agro-ecology states that it is often labour demanding practices such as agro-forestry, leguminous cover crops and mixed cropping that have proven potential to reduce the use of inorganic fertilizers whilst substantially improving yields. The UN report does make explicit reference to the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’, citing with a nod of approval the findings of the UK Foresight study on projects in Africa involving crop breeding improvements, integrated pest management, soil conservation and agro-forestry. However, the overall message of the UN report points in a quite different direction from advanced agro-industrial techniques.

It notes experiences from Nicaragua where simple agro-ecological methods were a major factor in preventing loss of soil in landslides after a hurricane. These techniques included using green manure, mulch, legumes, zero-tillage, no-burn and crop rotations; ploughing parallel to the slope, and incorporating stubble; and protecting soil with ditches, terraces, barriers, trees and hedges. This is just one example from the evidence base for the argument that agro-ecology improves resilience to climate change by cushioning the impacts of extreme weather events. Furthermore, by maintaining and enhancing carbon sinks in soils and thus contributing to climate change mitigation, agro-ecology can decouple food production from reliance on fossil fuels.

Scaling up these experiences of agro-ecology is the main challenge, according to the report. Public support is needed for investment in agricultural research and extension services, and in forms of social organization that encourage partnerships, including farmer field schools and innovation networks for famers. Appropriate public polices can empower women and create a more favourable macro-economic environment, enabling links between sustainable farms and fair markets.

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