When we think of farms, most of us picture never-ending fields of golden wheat or maize. Yet these vast farms are not anything like most farms worldwide. In North and Central America, approximately one third of farms are quite small – one or two hectares – and nearly half are less than five hectares. Globally, 75 per cent of farms cover less than two hectares, and 95 per cent of farms cover less than five hectares.
USC Canada’s work focuses on supporting the people who farm small plots of land such as these.
It is estimated that small-scale farmers (sometimes called “smallholder farmers” or “family farmers”) produce 70 per cent of the world’s food – and upwards of 80 per cent in Asia and Africa. And they produce it on less than 25 per cent of the Earth’s arable land.
In other words, small-scale farmers feed the world.
Small-scale farms also tend to be less environmentally destructive, nurture higher levels of biodiversity and provide more employment per acre than large farms. But small-scale farmers face a daunting set of challenges.
From corporate power over agriculture and government policy geared toward large-scale industrial farming, to climate change, farming communities are facing increasing pressure on every continent.
Guardians of biodiversity
Small-scale farmers are also the guardians of agricultural diversity and important genetic resources. Whereas large scale farms tend to grow vast swaths of a single crop (called monocultures) and require lots of costly inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, small-scale farmers plant a multitude of crop varieties in the same field — a technique known as intercropping. This allows them to nurture and sustain a wide diversity of food plants adapted to their local conditions. By saving their best seeds to exchange with others and sow the next year, these knowledgeable farmers also guide crops to co-evolve with nature and adapt gradually to changing growing conditions. By supporting small-scale farmers we not only build community, but also preserve the environment on which our food systems rely.
Agroecology is the science and know-how behind sustainable agriculture. It takes into account environmental impacts, animal welfare, and human social aspects. It combines scientific inquiry with the place-based knowledge and innovation of indigenous and peasant farming communities.
Agroecology’s core principles include:
- maximizing biodiversity
- recycling locally available natural resources to enhance soil fertility
- emphasizing interactions and productivity across the agricultural system
Agroecology uses farmers’ knowledge and experimentation as a starting place in contrast to the top-down delivery of agricultural science and technology. It is knowledge-intensive, emphasizing low-cost techniques that work with the local ecosystem. It takes a whole system approach to agriculture that considers a wide range of conditions and issues. Because it recognizes the particular nature of each ecosystem, agroecology can include methods such as organic farming, but does not specifically embrace any one particular method of farming.
Today, agroecology-based production systems are seen as a critical component of socially just food systems that promote food sovereignty and the conservation of valuable natural resources.
Cutting edge of innovation
Small-holder farmers produce most of our food: 70 per cent to be exact, and all of that on only 25 per cent of the arable land. In a world facing both increasing climatic changes and a growing population, feeding 9-billon people is the centremost question for our food systems. Studies have shown that small-scale farmers can double food production in the next 10 years simply by adopting agroecological methods.
The future of food production should rely not only on the use of environmentally sustainable approaches, but also on socially equitable technologies. Agroecology does exactly that. A cutting edge approach to agricultural production, agroecological principles ensure farms continue to exhibit the high levels of diversity, integration, efficiency, resilience and productivity they need to adapt and feed the world.
Can we scale up agroecology?
Perhaps the most important feature of agroecology lies in its ability to be scaled up.
This requires addressing several barriers currently constraining agroecological development efforts. These include a lack of information by farmers and extension agents, a lack of land tenure, infrastructural problems and market failures.
Access to land for small-holder and family farmers is of key importance for food sovereignty. Farmer-to-farmer exchange and workshops such as the Campesino a Campesino (CAC) movement that promotes a the sharing of experiences, ideas and information also plays a key part for the long-term sustainability for agroecology. Training, farmer field-schools, on farm-demonstrations, field visits all play a crucial role in scaling up agroecology.
These approaches must go hand in hand with participatory approaches that harness the rich traditional agricultural knowledge of peasant and indigenous populations. It also ensures the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and genetic resources found in these communities. At the same time, policy reforms are also essential to scaling up agroecology.
Links and Resources
- Altieri, M., et al. (2012). Nourishing the World Sustainably: Scaling Up Agroecology.
- Altieri, M. (2012), Agroecology Scaling Up for Food Sovereignty and Resiliency.
- De Schutter, O. (2011, Mar. 8). Report: Agroecology and the Right to Food.
- University of California, Santa Cruz (USA). (n.d.). Agroecology.
- Agricultural Transition. (n.d.). Agricultural Transition.
- Altieri, M. and Toledo, J. (2011). The agroecological revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(3), 587-612.
- The Christensen Fund. (2012). Soil to Sky: Of Agroecology vs. Industrial Agriculture[Infographic].
- Ensor, J. (2009). Biodiverse Agriculture for a Changing Climate.
- Pesticide Action Network North America. (n.d.). Agroecology: Productive, Resilient, Fair & Sustainable.
- Pretty, J. (2010), Agroecology in Developing Countries: The Promise of a Sustainable Harvest.
- El-Hage Scialabba, N. (2007). Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Organic Agriculture and Food Security.
- Holt Gimenez, E. Executive (Huffington Post, May 2012), Director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. We Already Grow Enough Food For 10 Billion People – and Still Can’t End Hunger.
- VIDEO: Miguel Altieri: How will agroecological farming achieve the necessary scale to feed the world?
- Jan Douwe van der Ploeg (2013). Peasant-driven agricultural growth and food sovereignty.
- A Haroon Akram-Lodhi (2013). How to Build Food Sovereignty.
- Wittman, H., Desmarais, A., & Wiebe, N. (2010). Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems.
- VIDEO – Feeding Nine Billion: A Solution to the Global Food Crisis by Dr. Evan Fraser; or visit their website at feedingninebillion.com
- USC Canada - Agroecology Will Feed the World. "Business-as-Usual" Will Not
Seeds have always been at the heart of a healthy food system.
For millennia, generations of family farmers have selected, saved and shared their best seeds, expanding seed diversity over time. They have nurtured thousands of varieties – 20,000 varieties of corn alone – each with their own unique strengths, adapting to changing conditions with each growing season. Some varieties are resistant to diseases or pests. Others are tolerant of weather extremes like drought or floods or early frosts. Some have better yields or better nutrition. We need all these traits – now more than ever.
Farmers have understood that seed diversity means food security: by planting a variety of seeds, at least some will produce food, no matter what.
Access to diverse seed can make or break farmers’ ability to recover after a bad season, especially in this era of climate variability and extremes. Ensuring access to the right seed ensures farmers can produce food and plan for seasons to come.
Our Diminishing Seed Bank
Modern agriculture has delivered high-yield crops to farmers around the world. Research on bread wheat in Canada has won our country worldwide recognition of its outstanding quality. But we have concentrated on too few crops, and only a few varieties of each. This narrow focus comes at a cost for our food system and our environment.
Over the last 100 years, global seed diversity has declined by 75 per cent. In North America alone, 90 per cent of fruit and vegetable varieties are gone. Canadians rely on just four plant species – wheat, maize, rice and potato – for 60 per cent of the calories in our diet.
Left with fewer and fewer options to deal with very real threats, our food supply becomes vulnerable.
Factors Affecting Global Seed Diversity
- Due to corporate consolidation in the seed industry, three companies now control 53 per cent of the global commercial seed market. The top ten seed companies account for 75 per cent of the world’s seed market.
- Plant breeding can have a major impact on nutrition: in the last 60 years, the average Canadian potato lost 100 per cent of its vitamin A content, 57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, and 28 per cent of calcium. Most of the world’s potatoes are bred for French fries.
- The organic sector is the fastest-growing market in agriculture today. Still, 95 per cent of the seeds that grow our major food crops are bred for uniformity, performance under controlled conditions and routine application of synthetic inputs.
Biodiversity hotspots around the planet are also centres of origin for most of the world’s food crops. And here too, seed diversity is diminishing rapidly. Hundreds of potato varieties in the Andes, rice varieties in Asia, ground nuts and cereals in Africa and vegetable varieties everywhere. Small farming communities are losing ground to larger corporate interests who can find more profit in large monocrop plantations destined for export markets like ours. According to a 2014 report by GRAIN, small family farms produce 70 per cent of the world’s food but on just 25 per cent of the available land. But that number is shrinking fast.
The Good News
Good seeds grow more than good food. They grow good communities. Around the world, most family farmers are still saving, using and even expanding the invaluable diversity of local seeds, adapted to all kinds of landscapes, climates and production systems. But they need support.
What Can We Do?
We can become ‘seed savers’ in a many ways.
Being a seed saver means restoring respect for local ecosystems and the environment. It means making better choices of the foods we buy. It means rebuilding closer relationships with our local food producers, no matter where we live in the world. It means supporting farmers who save and use diverse seeds to feed us.
Fundamentally, it means changing the way we grow our food because how we grow our food matters.
Global climate change has wide-ranging effects on every part of the world – from warming temperatures, to sea-level rise, to more extreme weather events. Climate change can be caused by a number of natural factors, but the last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal: the main driver of these climatic variations is greenhouse gases resulting from human activities. Among the most well known of the greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide (CO2).
Industrialized countries have historically contributed the most to the production of climate changing greenhouse gases. But developing nations in the global South and the tropics will bear the brunt of the adverse effects of this change. Small island nations in these regions of the world are particularly at risk.
The IPCC report shows climate change will have especially negative consequences for food and water systems. Farming communities will feel a disproportionate impact, chiefly in tropical areas dependent on rain-fed agriculture and pastoral production. Extreme weather and rising temperatures are already shifting crop-growing seasons and affecting food production around the planet.
Women and men farmers have adapted to the vagaries of local climates for millennia. They have developed many strategies to adapt their farming practices to climate-related stresses – varying cropping patterns, using soil management techniques and using the vast genetic resources in seed the varieties they have nurtured over time, to name a few. Their expertise will prove even more crucial to enhance resilience in the face of changing climates.
Here is a library of resources making the case for agroecology as a key response to climate change. Tell us what you’re reading too and share your documents on social media by tagging us: @usccanada OR use this hashtag: #ag4climate.
- Grain. (November 24, 2015). The Great Climate Robbery: How the Food System Drives Climate Change and What We Can Do About It.
- Development and Peace. (2016). Small Family Farmers: At the Heart of Climate Justice.
- International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems (IPES). (2016). From Uniformity to Diversity: A Paradigm Shift from Industrial Agriculture to Diversified Agro-Ecological Systems.
- Anderson, C. R., Pimbert, M. and C. Kiss (2015). Building, Defending and Strengthening Agroecology: Global Struggles for Food Sovereignty. Agroecology Now.
- Canadian Food Grains Bank (2015). Sustainable Harvests: How Agriculture Can Help Farmers Address Environmental Challenges.
- Christian Aid. (2015). Climate-Resilient Agriculture: what small-scale producers need to adapt to climate change.
- Elver, Hilal. (2015) Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
- De Schutter, Olivier. (2010). Report Submitted by the Special Raporteur on the Right to Food.
- FAO. (2015). Agroecology To Reverse Soil Degradation And Achieve Food Security.
- GRAIN. (2011). Food and Climate: the forgotten link.
- IFAD. (2015). Food, Migration and Climate Change: The Untold Story.
- Kissinger, G., M. Herold and V. De Sy. (2012). Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting: Vancouver, Canada.
- Via Campesina. (2009). Small Farmers are Cooling Down the Earth.
- Altieri, M. A., P. Koohafkan and C. Nicholls. (2014). Strengthening resilience of modern farming systems: A key prerequisite for sustainable agricultural production in an era of climate change. Third World Network. Briefing Paper 70.
- Altieri, M. A., & Nicholls, C. I. (2013). The adaptation and mitigation potential of traditional agriculture in a changing climate Climatic Change, 1-13.
- Altieri, M. A., Funes-Monzote, F. R., & Petersen, P. (2012). Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: contributions to food sovereignty.Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 32(1), 1-13.
- Altieri, M. A., & Koohafkan, P. (2008). Enduring farms: Climate change, smallholders and traditional farming communities. Third World Network. Vol. 6.
- Gonzalez, C. G. (2010). Climate change, food security, and agrobiodiversity: Toward a just, resilient, and sustainable food system.Fordham Envtl. L. Rev., 22, 493.
- Lynch, D. H., MacRae, R., & Martin, R. C. (2011). The carbon and global warming potential impacts of organic farming: does it have a significant role in an energy constrained world?.Sustainability, 3(2), 322-362.
- Martinez-Alier, Joan. (2011). The EROI of Agriculture and How It Is Used by Via Campesina. Although it does not refer specifically to agroecology, it explains the scientific basis behind the claim that peasant agriculture can help curb climate change.
- Nakashima, D.J., Galloway McLean, K., Thulstrup, H.D., Ramos Castillo, A. and Rubis, J.T. (2012). Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation. Paris: UNESCO, and Darwin: UNU.
- Scherr, S. J., & Sthapit, S. (2009). Farming and land use to cool the planet. Wordwatch Institute. State of the World.
- Wheeler, T., & von Braun, J. (2013). Climate change impacts on global food security. Science, 341(6145), 508-513.
Press Releases and Statements
- Climate Smart Concerns. (2015, September). Don’t Be Fooled! Civil Society Says NO to ‘climate Smart Agriculture’ and Urges Decision-Makers to Support Agroecology.
- FAO. (2015, October 14). FAO and France urge including agriculture in global climate change debate.
- Via Campesina. (2015, September 3). Peasant agriculture is a true solution to the climate crisis.
- Ouya, Daisy. (2015, December 3). It’s time to stop talking and start acting: Agroecological farming for people and the planet. World Agroforestry Center.
- FAO (2015, December 1). 10 Reasons Why Agriculture Is Key To Combating Climate Change.
- Ortiz, D. A. (2015, August 27). Water, Climate, Energy Intertwined with Fight Against Poverty in Central America.Inter Press Service News Agency.
- Bell, B. with M. Ramirez. (2015, August 16). Agroecology as a Tool for Liberation: Transforming Industrial Agriculture in El Salvador. Truthout.org.
- Agroecology Now. (2015) Agroecology – Vision, Practice, Movement: Voices From Social Movements.
Time To Choose
- Charles Ferguson. (Nov. 30, 2015). Time To Choose.– From Oscar-winning filmmaker, this documentary featuring Michael Pollan will be shown at COP-21 and is available to watch for free by Huffington Post, Nov. 30-31, 2015.
- The Climate Reality Project. (2015). 24 Videos that turn the tide on Climate.
- IFOAM Organics International (Nov. 24, 2015). What We Want From The Climate Agreement. (1 min 58 sec.)
Agroecology Will Feed The World
- Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Good Soil: Strenghtening Support for Small-Scale Farmers.
- World Resources Institute. CAIT Climate Data Explorer.
- USC Canada. Agroecology Will Feed The World.
Coined by La Via Campesina in 1996, food sovereignty is defined as "the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems."
In a nutshell, food sovereignty puts producers and democracy at the centre of our food systems.
The concept was further defined the First Forum for Food Sovereignty held in Sélingué, Mali in 2007. The resulting Nyéléni Declaration established six pillars for food sovereignty:
- Focuses on Food for People
- Values Food Providers
- Localizes Food Systems
- Puts Control Locally
- Builds Knowledge and Skills
- Works with Nature
In Canada, a large consultation process has resulted in the addition of a seventh pillar: Food is Sacred, which recognizes that Indigenous people have long identified food, water, soil and air as sources of life, and not as resources.
Food Sovereignty or Food Security?
The term food sovereignty was born as a result of dissatisfaction with the assumptions behind the term food security. Though widely used, food security does little to challenge ‘business as usual’ thinking in our global food systems. As a concept, it means that people can access adequate amounts of food and nutrition regardless of procurement or production methods. That is to say, food security makes no distiction between local production or international trade and global imports.
Louisa Gomez, a Honduran farmer and FIPAH leader in Honduras
For Louisa Gomez, a Honduran farmer and leader with the Foundation for Participatory Research with Honduran Farmers (FIPAH), USC Canada’s partner organization in Honduras, “food security is the government making sure there’s enough food in the stores, whether or not people have enough money to buy it. Food sovereignty is people with the ability to grow their own food and feed themselves.”
If food security is about the consumer, food sovereignty puts the focus on the importance of producers and insists on their democratic rights in decision making. Small-holder farmers produce 70 per cent of the food consumed worldwide on only 25 per cent of the arable land, a number continuously decreasing as large-scale land grabs intensify.
Food sovereignty also recognizes food as a right and a public good, not as a commodity, and food production as about relationships between community and with nature, not trade and commerce.
The concept also understands hunger not as a result of insufficient food production, but as a problem of food governance, unequal distribution and injustice. Studies also show that food produced through traditional farming techniques and agroecology provide enough nutrients and calories to feed our growing populations. Food waste, unsustainable models of food production and unequal terms of trade that disadvantage the small food producer are also part of the world’s chronic hunger problems.
As a transformative concept, food sovereignty challenges the notion of food as commodity, focusing on producers. At its core, food sovereignty aims to reclaim decision-making power for citizens, producers and consumers and to localize food systems.
To date, eight countries have embedded food sovereignty in their constitution: Ecuador, Venezuela, Mali, Bolivia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Senegal.
- In 2005, enough food was produced to provide 2,772 calories for every person in the world
- In sub-Saharan Africa where 27.6 per cent of people suffer from hunger, there was enough to provide everyone with 2,238 calories a day
- In South Asia, where 21.8 per cent of people are hungry, there was enough for all to enjoy 2,293 calories a day (Roberts, 2013, 13)