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The role of sustainable intensification and agroecology in achieving food security sustainably
As food prices rise around the world, food security is high on the political agenda. Sustainable intensification is advocated as a solution, but its meaning is much debated, with some advocating increased production ahead of curbing demand, reducing waste and environmental sustainability.
What contribution can organic/agro-ecological approaches make in this context and how do we ensure an alternative voice is heard in the policy debate?
Lawrence Woodward (ORC): Chair Presentation (370MB)
Speaker presentations and abstracts
Nadia Scialabba (FAO): Food security, sustainable intensification and the role of organic agriculture, agroecology and low external-input systems (200KB)
Within the international community, there is a general agreement on the need to transform the food and agriculture sector, but views are very divergent on the direction to be followed to achieve this target. The concept of sustainable intensification seeks productive cropping systems while respecting the natural recovery capacity of the ecosystem through the maintenance of undisturbed soil structure. The single most significant change in land management practices of sustainable intensification is the abandoning of mechanical soil tillage as a standard practice in crop production. Organic agriculture covers the whole food system, from production to labeling and commercialization according to precise standards, while agro-ecology and other low-input systems refer to production practices very similar to organic but without strict restrictions on input use. The opportunities and constraints of both systems are reviewed according to food supply, employment/ livelihoods and ecosystem services globally provided.
Through “sustainable intensification of crop production”, crop yields increase in the long-term. However, significant yield increases can also be achieved in the short term in low production systems on degraded soils. Sustainable intensification is an effective example of how increased productivity can be combined with decreased environmental impact, especially in areas endowed with large availability of natural (land and water) and economic (financial capital) resources, such as many areas in Latin America. However, much of the potential decrease of environmental impact is related to actual application of genetically-modified crops and weed control management. In addition, permanent no-tillage may result in soil compaction, particularly with large-scale mechanized systems that will most likely have to revert to controlled traffic concepts, for instance by confining all agricultural machinery to the least possible area of permanent traffic lanes.
Organic agriculture seeks to produce food while maintaining ecosystem integrity. While in developing countries, organic management is an option for ecological intensification, in industrial contexts, it becomes an extensification strategy. The issue is whether enough surpluses could be produced on a global basis to meet population demands and at which price, given the fact that currently organic product prices are higher on average. The issue of land availability for extensification might be of concern in some areas, while in others, organic agriculture might relocalize food systems where food is most needed, such as market-marginalized areas where hunger prevails (e.g. areas of sub-Saharan Africa). Despite increasing trends of adoption, concerns are raised on the actual capacity of organic farming to meet food needs on global scale. Models demonstrate that the potential of organic agriculture and agroecology is considerable, especially under scenarios of ecological intensification in developing countries and in those areas faced with degraded soils or lack of capital and low product prices.
Personal and societal values are an important factor in understanding and moving toward sustainability. The organic movement often expresses its values in terms of the IFOAM Principles of Organic Agriculture, which address not only ecological and health concerns, but also the social interactions and organizing activities that bind people and communities together. The Principles, when grounded in action, can be expressed as a set of best practices, which span a full spectrum of complementary Sustainability Dimensions, which comprise societal, ecological, economic, cultural, and communication aspects. Best Practice overall means holistically addressing all of these Dimensions in the most relevant way for each context and actor.
Best Practice is what leads to sustainability – or so that is the presumption. In order for one to embody best practice, one must combine vision and practicality, and honestly evaluate one’s own performance in the context of the system in which one lives and acts. Defining the boundaries of the system are thus a key factor to consider. Real and increasing limitations on the availability and quality of common goods – energy, water, soil, and biodiversity – are forcing systems to rethink the boundaries of the systems in which we operate and live. Local sustainability versus global sustainability – what are our priorities and possibilities? Organic agriculture holds many answers to conserving and building our natural resources. It is the core around which sustainable agriculture can be built, but it needs continued innovation and increased productivity. This discussion offers a lens through which to view our actions, both for the short- and long-term.