(Beyond Pesticides, June 7, 2016) A wholesale change in agricultural practices is necessary to ensure protection of human health and the environment over the long-term, according to a wide-ranging report authored by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), “a fully independent panel, without financial or organizational ties to any corporations, governments or intergovernmental agencies.” The report, From Uniformity to Diversity, calls for a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems.
According to the report, diversified agroecology focuses on maintaining multiple sources of food production, and farming by applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of food systems. Industrial agriculture, on the other hand, requires highly-specialized production of a single food crop, and, through scale and task separation, focuses on increasing productivity through intensification. While monocultures and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are characteristic of industrial agriculture, agroecological practices embrace spatial and temporal diversification (through practices like crop rotation and intercropping), and focus on multiple outputs.
Oliver De Schutter, Ph.D., former United National special rapporteur on food and co-chair of IPES, notes to The Guardian: â€śMany of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.â€ť
Although the report explains that organic farming practices are often synonymous with agroecological principles, as many organic farms are diversified enterprises that focus on holistic management practices, organic certification does not require this approach. However, Beyond Pesticides points out that there is neither a legal nor standardized definition of agroecology or sustainable agriculture, while certified organic is accountable to a public rulemaking process and defined by law, the Organic Foods Production Act, which Â requires an “organic systems plan. . .that includes written plans concerning all aspects of agricultural production or handling described in this title including crop rotation and other practices as required under this title.” Furthermore, by law, synthetic fertilizers are specifically prohibited in organic systems, as are other synthetic materials, except those in limited Â categories [7 USC 6527(c)(1)(B)(i)] that are “not harmful to health or Â the environment,” are essential to organic systems because of the “unavailability of a wholly natural substitute,” and is “consistent with” organic farming. While the principles of organic can be applied to large-scale operations, the crop production farm plan Â “shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.” Â A Â study published earlier this year by researchers at Washington State University deemed organic agriculture essential to a sustainable food system.
There are efforts underway to attach a social justice component to organic. The Agricultural Justice Project seeks to “ensure fair treatment of workers, fair pricing for farmers, and fair business practices” in organic production. View Â speech, Social Justice Labeling -From Field to Table, or written version, on this subject by Michael Sligh, Rural Advancement Fund International. Similarly, the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at University of California Berkeley functions Â to research, develop, and advance sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.
From Uniformity to Diversity argues that industrial agriculture persists due to a concentration of power that â€ślocks inâ€ť the current structure, allowing relatively few large companies to dominate markets and profits. â€śFood systems in which uniform crop commodities can be produced and traded on a massive scale are in the economic interests of crop breeders, pesticide manufacturers, grain traders and supermarkets alike,â€ť says the report. â€śThe mismatch between the potential of agroecology Â to Â improve Â food Â systems Â outcomes, and its potential to generate profit for agribusinesses, Â may Â explain Â why Â it Â has Â been Â so slow Â to Â make Â its Â way Â onto Â the Â global Â political agenda.â€ť
The authors do identify opportunities and recommendations to begin shifting the current paradigm toward a healthier, ecological based food system. This includes changing the way productivity is measured to reflect resiliency, resource efficiency, nutritional quality, biodiversity, provision of ecosystem services, and impacts on livelihood and equity rather than simply net calorie production, yield and income. Also imperative is a switch from long to short supply chains by way of local markets, which can be facilitated by food policy councils, local exchange and trading systems, and farmerâ€™s markets. Public support must be shifted toward diverse agricultural systems, social movements around sustainable farming systems must coalesce, and holistic approaches must become part of education and research agendas. The report asserts that, “[T]he vicious cycles of industrial agriculture must be replaced with new virtuous circles; the various steps in favour of diversified agroecological systems can and must lock each other in, just as current dynamics act to lock them out.â€ť To counter the industrial model, the report calls for â€śjoined-up food policiesâ€ť at the regional, national, and global level.
Beyond Pesticides is working to strengthen organic farming systems by encouraging biodiversity and holistic management practices, and upholding the spirit and values Â on which the organic law was founded. Underpinning the success of organic in the U.S. are small-scale producers who focus on fostering biodiversity, limiting external inputs, improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and using integrated holistic approaches to managing pests, weeds, and disease. As a 2014 University of California Berkeley study determined that Â diversified organic agriculture can and must be the approach used to feed the world into the future.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.