Olivier De Schutter on why we need to shift to agroecology

This piece in today’s Guardian by Olivier De Schutter and Emile Frison, spells out the dangers of the so-called “technological advances” in industrial agriculture. That they “simply give industrial agriculture a new lease of life and delay the inevitable shift to a fundamentally different model of agriculture.”

For “there is a risk that these technologies blind us to the very real problems facing modern agriculture – problems that are rapidly undermining the previous round of technological advances.

While global crop yields rose rapidly in the early decades of the “green revolution”, productivity is now plateauing in many regions of the world. A 2012 meta-study found that in 24%-39% of areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soybean, yields either failed to improve, stagnated after initial gains, or collapsed.

Only slightly more than half of all global rice and wheat areas (57% and 56% respectively) are still experiencing yield increases. The areas where yields have stagnated include some of the wealthiest, most industrialised and most hi-tech production systems: more than one-third of the wheat crop in the US (mostly in the Great Plains) is affected, along with more than a third of the Argentine wheat crop, and harvests all across Europe.

Meanwhile, rice yields are plateauing in California and most European rice-growing areas. This trend is also evident in some 80% of rice crops in China and Indonesia – two of the world’s major rice producers. Worryingly, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.

The reason the productivity of industrial agriculture is now under threat is because it has been systematically degrading the human and natural capital on which it relies. Pests, viruses, fungi, bacteria and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management faster than ever: 210 species of herbicide-resistant weeds have been identified. Meanwhile, synthetic fertilisers are fast destroying the soil biota and its nutrient-recycling potential. This creates a dangerous treadmill effect: increasing resistance leads to increasing pesticide use, generating mounting costs for farmers and further environmental degradation. This in turn requires additional doses of nutrient application to keep squeezing productivity out of the soils.”

De Schutter and Frison then describe the vital role of agroecology:  that it’s a way of “diversifying farms and farming landscapes – replacing synthetic chemical inputs, optimising biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic and regenerative strategies to build long-term soil fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods.”

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