October 1, 2014
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — A young man selects produce displayed in wicker baskets at the Solidarity Economy Bonpland Market in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. He picks up fruits and vegetables one by one and presses them softly. He smells each item and places the ones he likes in a big bag.
Some of the items he selects have little spots or bug marks.
The young man approaches the counter, ready to pay. He asks the seller to confirm that the produce is agroecological – that is, grown in accordance with the principles of ecology and sustainable agriculture.
“They do not have any chemicals,” says Norma Araujo, a farmer and vendor. “You may have noticed it by the small holes the leaves of this chard have. We watch them every day so the ants do not eat them. But still, they got ahead of us.”
Araujo used to be a homemaker in Florencio Varela, a city in Buenos Aires province, and didn’t know how to work the soil. Ten years ago, ready for a lifestyle change, she moved with her husband to the city’s countryside.
She works for the Agricultural Cooperative of Family Producers, growing natural food for the co-op’s farm animals. The 43 members of the co-op, a commercial organization, produce and sell vegetables, chickens, piglets, eggs and other agroecological food.
Araujo embraces cooperativism, she says. The co-op makes group decisions and sells its products without intermediaries. With the help of other co-op members, she has learned to work the soil and raise chickens.
Agroecological farmers view their gardens and orchards as holistic ecosystems and strive to preserve natural resources. In Argentina, many small-scale farmers use agroecological methods, which exclude the use of agrochemicals that produce greenhouse gases and cultivation techniques that cause soil erosion, to ensure their food supply and preserve the environment.
The Solidarity Economy Bonpland Market is one of 470 markets in Argentina that offer products from cooperatives that espouse agroecology, a farming approach that is becoming more common even though it requires more work – and produces less profit – than farming techniques that use industrial machines and chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Because industrial-style food production systems contribute significantly to climate change, a shift to agroecological production systems is “urgently called for,” according to “The Transformative Potential of the Right to Food,” a report presented last January to the Human Rights Council of the U.N. General Assembly.
Agroecology benefits poor families by enabling them to produce their own food without depending on external supplies, according to the FAO.
About 11 percent of the world’s population is hungry, according to “The State of Food Insecurity in the World,” a 2014 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Just under 6 percent of the world’s undernourished people live in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to 2011-2013 data from the FAO.
Just under 5 percent of the Argentine population is undernourished, according to the FAO. The prevalence of food inadequacy in Argentina rose from 5.4 percent in 1992 to 8.4 percent in 2013.
Over the same period, the prevalence of food inadequacy throughout Latin America and the Caribbean dropped from 21.8 percent to 14.1 percent.
Agroecology also reduces the risks that industrial farming poses to the environment.
Conventional farming uses chemical fertilizers and pesticides, most of which contain nitrogen, one of the main greenhouse gases; greenhouse gases cause global warming by trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. It also includes the use of hybrid seeds; monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop on a plot of land; and an intense watering system that flushes nutrients out of soil and causes soil erosion.
Every year, intensive tillage causes the loss of 25,000 tons of topsoil worldwide, according to the FAO. Between 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) and 7 million hectares (17.3 million acres) of farmland become unproductive because of soil degradation.
In contrast, agroecology seeks to protect the soil to keep it fertile and cultivable.
Agroecology practitioners fertilize the soil with compost, herbs and organic fertilizers, returning nutrients taken up by previous crops. They also avoid growing the same kind of vegetable in consecutive growing seasons on the same plot of land. To prevent soil erosion, they disturb the soil as little as possible.
The practice has shown to improve food security across the globe.
In a 2010 U.N. study that spanned 57 countries and 37 million hectares (91.4 million acres), researchers found that agroecological methods increased food productivity on 12.6 million farms.
For 4.4 million farmers growing cereals and root vegetables, average household food production grew by 73 percent, according to the study. In Africa, agroecology was even more effective: Crop yields grew by 116 percent.
But despite broad successes for small farmers globally, some researchers question whether the world can produce enough food without industrial farming.
A 2012 study by McGill University in Canada and the U.S. University of Minnesota found that, despite grand successes in places like Africa, organic production overall yields 25 percent less food than conventional methods.
Producing enough food for everyone on the planet will require a combination of farming methods, including organic, industrial and hybrid systems, the report states.
However, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva reiterated at the U.N. Climate Summit 2014 in late September that agroecology is a promising approach to moving foodproduction onto a more sustainable path.
“There are many paths to food security and sustainable development,” Graziano da Silva said, according to the FAO webpage. “Governments need to choose the solutions that best respond to their specific needs.”Lucas Morini, a neophyte vegetarian and a regular at the Bonpland Market, says he eats only agroecological products. He knows they do not contain agrochemical products, and he prefers to pay rural farmers rather than big companies.
“When I stopped eating meat, then I started to pay more attention to my nutrition,” he says. “And I realized that the right thing, not just for my health but for all the environmental, social and political issues, was to choose agroecological products.”
The National Institute of Agricultural Technology works with agroecological farming cooperatives to raise awareness among family farmers about the health risks associated with agrochemicals. They also offer training in agroecological farming techniques that can be used instead of agrochemicals.
“It provides the family with a healthy way of living,” says José Catalano, vice president of the institute. “It allows them to self-supply a varied diet, rich in nutrients and vitamins, according to their likes and traditions.”
It also allows producers to avoid contact with agrochemicals and gain economic independence, since they can reproduce their seeds and take care of their crops with resources at their disposal, he says.
In treating infestations, for example, agroecological farmers use such resources as fermented herbs and helpful insects instead of poisons and contaminants.
Rosa Fernández, an agronomist on the staff of the institute’s Agroecology Network, says many consumers have come to appreciate the quality and safety of agroecological products.
“People are becoming increasingly aware, and either for health reasons, taste or both, they consume agroecological,” Fernández says. “That preference is reflected in the exponential growth of the number of family farming markets, where it is common that the commercialized products are agroecological.”
The popularity of agroecological products is rising rapidly. The number of Argentine markets offering agroecological goods increased from 140 in 2009 to 470 in 2013, according to an institute report.
Since 1991, the institute has taught 3.4 million farmers how to use soil management technology, compost, prepare biological insecticides and manage weeds without using herbicides, Fernández says.
However, some Argentine farmers recognize the growth potential conventional farming has over agroecology.
Conventional farming has significant advantages over agroecology, says Sergio Maya, a farmer in Chacabuco, a municipality in Buenos Aires province about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the capital. He has lived through the transition from ancestral agroecological farming to modern conventional farming.
Crops mature in half the time and yield 30 percent more, he says in a phone interview. Furthermore, conventional farming requires only a third of the time that agroecology demands.
Conventional farming does have one clear drawback, Maya agrees.
“The costs increased 100 percent because homemade, manual work was used much more before,” he says. “Now you depend on the supplies, the seed and the fertilizer.”
Maya believes agroecology can work in orchards and small plots but not on 200-hectare (494-acre) farms such as the ones conventional farmers like him cultivate.
Despite the benefits of agroecology, it is difficult to persuade a conventional farmer to stop using agrochemicals, says Raúl Ojeda, an agroecological researcher for the nonprofit Ecumenical Center of Popular Education.
“We are working with traditional producers, trying so that they go to the healthy, agroecological production,” he says. “But it is very difficult to be able to convince them because the earnings are completely different.”
The potential revenue to be realized from agroecological farming is difficult to estimate because prices vary, Maya says.
Not everyone who tries agroecological products prefers them to conventionally produced foods.
Carlos Rodríguez is a client of the Bonpland Market, but he just buys one product there.
“I always come to buy royal jelly at the market,” he says. “I only buy that here because I live in front (of the market). It is comfortable for me, and they always have (the jelly). But it is the same that they sell anywhere else. At least I cannot tell the difference.”
The surge in the number of markets selling agroecologically produced fruits proves that agroecological techniques work in orchards, Fernández says. Expanding application of the methodology will require further research and innovation.
“Now the big challenge is to bring it to cereals and oilseeds, to the big extensions (of land), because it requires a lot of manual labor,” she says. “But we are already developing specific machinery thinking of those much bigger spaces.”
If more consumers chose agroecologically produced goods instead of products that are harmful to the environment, big companies might change their production approaches, Morini says.
GPJ translated this article from Spanish.