In the 1980s, family farmers in Madagascar started to experiment with new practices in their rice fields. After many years of trial and error of adapting and applying lessons learnt, this resulted in big improvements in the food security of family farmers.
“For me this system means Merdeka (freedom),” says Pak Enseng, a small-scale family farmer in Indonesia. “I get a fair yield and am no longer dependent on buying seeds, chemical, fertiliser or pesticides,” he adds.
This agroecological practice is now known as the system of rice intensification (SRI). The techniques include transplanting young seedlings, spacing single plants more widely, and keeping the soil moist instead of flooded. Rice plants to create stronger tillers and roots and become much more efficient in the uptake of water and nutrients. The result is a crop
that is more resilient to droughts, pests and diseases. These methods raise, concurrently, the productivity of the land, the labour, the water and the capital that are employed in irrigated rice production. And they prove equally relevant for other crops like wheat, maize, millets, sorghums, vegetables and tubers.
SRI crossed the ocean to Asia in 1999, including to India. Today SRI principles are being applied in different ways by millions of farmers in over 50 countries on different crops, contributing substantially to the food security and food sovereignty of family farmers.
SRI is just one example of a broad range of practices that are part of an approach to farming and food systems that is also called ‘agroecology’: ecological practices to increase productivity, improve soil fertility and reduce pests, guided by the aspirations of the farmer. Agroecological practices range from recycling nutrients and energy, integrating crops and livestock, to using few external inputs and diversifying crops. Because of their direct relationship with nature and their other characteristics, family farmers are well equipped for these practices. It is estimated that more than 1.4 million family farmers across the world are applying agroecological principles.
Agroecological farming systems have a high degree of local specificity and require much local innovation. Moreover, agroecology allows family farmers to use their in-depth knowledge of the local ecosystem and resources. It also reduces farmers’ dependence on external inputs. For these reasons, agroecology works especially well for small and medium-sized family farms.
What farmers can contribute?
With agroecology, the productivity of family farmers often increases. As well as high productivity levels, agroecological farming systems provide other benefits, which act as a counterweight to many of the factors responsible for the crisis in conventional farming. They have a positive energy balance and low fossil fuel energy use. They are economic in their use of water. They recuperate and conserve soil fertility without the use of external inputs, and are resistant to soil erosion. They function as carbon sinks and emit very little in terms of greenhouse gases. They are functionally integrated with the natural vegetation, providing greater stability to local microclimates. And they do not generate chemical or genetic contamination.
Taken as a whole, these positive effects indicate that promoting agroecology is a strategy that can provide not only benefits for family farmers themselves but also a comprehensive structural response to the crises in the world. It meets the challenge of feeding an expanding world population while respecting sustainability and biodiversity, and providing climate-resilient solutions. Director General José Graziano da Silva of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization highlighted agroecology as a ‘promising way to move food production onto a more sustainable path’.
The main challenge to achieving a wider spread of agroecology is not technical but political. As stated recently in the so called Nyeleni Declaration, endorsed by small scale producers from all around the world: “Agroecology is political; it requires us to challenge and transform structures of power in society. We need to put the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, water, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of the peoples who feed the world.”
Although family farming continues to survive in highly adverse conditions, positive policies can help enormously in ensuring that family farming reaches its full potential. Family farmers’ rights and resources need to be secured, especially for women. In addition, access to regional markets, public procurement, fairer trade policies and support for farmer organisations is key. Agriculture should be made more attractive for young people. Farmers must be supported to experiment and accumulate knowledge, so they can use their special qualities to increase productivity and build a sustainable future for themselves, while contributing in many ways to society as a whole.
All of this involve the need to overcome the political, economic and ideological power of agribusiness and governments that drives the continued expansion of the industrial farming model. Among the many well-documented negative effects of this approach, it has been the main factor behind the disappearance of small-scale family farmers worldwide.
Family farming holds the promise of developing productive, sustainable, responsive, innovative and dynamic agricultural systems and for contributing to resolving the food, finance, fuel and climate crises prevailing in the world today. Agroecology can help unlock this potential. Supporting agroecological approaches will require fundamental change in governments, international agencies, research organisations, political parties, social movements and civil society as a whole.
The challenges faced by humanity as a whole are enormous. Yet, we still have family farmers with the knowledge needed for developing sustainable, agroecological systems that can ensure healthy food for rural and urban communities worldwide. The sooner we implement measures for promoting agrifood systems based around agroecological family farming, the less painful the transition from an economy based on fossil fuel energy to effectively sustainable societies will be.
Author: Janneke Bruil, Coordinator, Learning and Advocacy, ILEIA