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Sustainable Farming through Agroecology

Prachi Sharma's picture

Dear TECA members,

We would like to invite you to participate in the upcoming discussion on “Sustainable Farming through Agroecology”, particularly addressing the role of agroecological farming practices in contributing to sustainable agriculture and food systems. Agroecology is based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimize interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while considering the social aspects required for a sustainable and fair food system. The role of farmers in this context is extremely pivotal: apart from being responsible for food production, they can also play a crucial role in protecting the environment.

The objective of this discussion is to identify successful agroecological farming practices, and exchange knowledge and experiences among involved stakeholders. We encourage individual farmers, farmer organizations, extension services, NGOs, researchers and every individual interested in agroecology to participate in the upcoming discussions and share your practices which have given positive results.

We would like to start with an introductory post from 23-Jan-2017 to 10-Feb-2017 in order to ensure a common understanding of agroecology, offer the opportunity to get familiar with the topic and ask questions to our technical experts. This discussion will be structured along the following topics:

  • Need of sustainable farming and agroecology (available from 23 Jan)
  • Agroecology and sustainable agroecosystems (available from 25 Jan)
  • Elements of agroecology (available from 30 Jan)
  • Agroecological farmer practices (available from 1 Feb)

Upcoming discussions:

  1. Agroecology and soil fertility – 20 Feb, 2017 to 12 Mar, 2017
  2. Agroecology and nutrition – 20 Mar, 2017 to 10 Apr, 2017

We are happy to introduce our expert who will be able to answer your questions and share their experiences with us during this introductory discussion.

  • Carolina Starr, Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services, FAO
  • Mariane Carvalho Vidal, Empraba - Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply
  • David Ardhian, Research Analyst, Bogor Agricultural University

In your first post on TECA, kindly introduce yourself and tell us something about your background (your occupation, your country). If you feel more comfortable to post your contributions in French or Spanish, we will try to translate or summarize your post in English. We are looking forward for your enriching contributions to the discussion on “Sustainable Farming through Agroecology”.

Hanna & Prachi

TECA Team

Disclaimer: Kindly note that the objective of this discussion is to identify and share farming practices. It is not a political debate on agroecology. The views expressed in the discussions do not necessarily represent FAO’s views.

Comments

Prachi Sharma's picture

Current conventional agricultural practices aim at maximizing crop yields through several activities considering short term benefits i.e. higher profits through higher crop yields. However, it neglects the negative side-effects of these practices on the surrounding environment. For example, extensive use of synthetic fertilizers or other chemicals (herbicides and pesticides), monoculture, heavy irrigation and intensive tillage etc. result in poor soil quality and land degradation, water scarcity, pollution, increased climate change due to higher greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem health. These activities ultimately threaten agricultural productivity which is unsustainable in the long term. Conventional agriculture can also endanger the business of small subsistence farmers because it creates social inequity.

Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, aims at maximizing crop yields (economic profitability) while preserving the environment and improving the quality of life of farmers and their community (social and economic equity). It includes practices which help in conserving the natural state of the environment such as using cover crops, crop rotation, soil enrichment (leaving crop residue in the field after harvest), integrated pest management, minimum tillage, mechanical/biological weed control, strategic use of animal and manures, etc. However, conventional agriculture is still more prevalent because farmers are often not aware of the benefits of sustainable farming. Also sometimes due to lack resources, support and knowledge exchange and an enabling environment, sustainable practices are not widely adopted. Nevertheless, there are certain communities which have been practicing agriculture in a social environment-friendly way for centuries. These practices are considered to be sustainable since they help preserve the health of soils, ecosystems and the communities while capitalize on their social value.

Agroecology is one approach to achieve sustainable agriculture. The general idea of agroecology is to produce food in harmony with nature and minimize the negative impacts of the current conventional agriculture system (e.g. soil degradation, biodiversity loss, environmental damages, inappropriate incomes for farmers, etc.) as well as to generate benefits for farmers and their communities (socio-economic benefits). It also plays a major role in combating the issues of global hunger and ensure food security and nutrition without hampering the quality of the environment for the current as well as future generations. 

I joined Technologies and practices for small agricultural producers (TECA) as part of my ongoing research interests in coexisting with the planet Earth. In Singapore I am a small community agriculturist with the National Parks Board Community in Blooms initiative over the recent years. One of the themes of this island wide project includes waking up to nature, akin to agroecology. While the overall statutory board offers multiple collaboration opportunities, at this juncture of typing I am interested in studying ageism alongside nature. Some time back in 2016, I completed an introductory orientation course with Kanazawa University on Satoyama and Satoumi. Generally the series of lectures focused on an ongoing concern in the Noto Peninsula of Japan, which is one of key agricultural producers in the Honshu main island.

As part of my study under Professor Koji Nakamura, I noted the ongoing concerns in Noto where there is a fond aggregation of mountains and coastlines which are rich in natural resources. The mountains are densely forested and an exemplary source of firewood and minerals. The seas surounding Noto Peninsula are also good sources of seafood. Still, over the past century with rapid modernisation of the urban cities such as Niigata and Tokyo, a substantial proportion of the youths have sought literacies and incomes away from the rural districts of Noto in the neighbouring city regions. This leaves essentially many suburbs, villages, towns, hamlets along the Noto region where many elderlies live as farmers and naturalists, at times looking after children or under staffed rice farms and saw mills. While sustainability from an ecological perspective is generally less of a concern in the Noto region due to the relatively smaller populace, the shortage of youths living in these outskirts or sub rural regions of Japan are observed by Professor Koji Nakamura and his research team as a pressing issue. He conducts his studies by correlating the situation in Noto with regions in the Phillippines which are also agricultural producers and exporters.

Singapore and Japan offer a common pain point in the study of sustainable farming and / or agroecology. Due to the low fertility rates and aging populaces, the agriculture movement in parts of Singapore such as Lim Chu Kang and Noto in Japan are substantially limited due to the few skilled workers that are supporting the pre-existing farms and businesses. With high literacy rates, most of the youths that receive a degree education choose to move into the cities living in apartments and condominiums working across the corporates. This creates a dependency awkwardness as more and more affluences are reliant on a small handful of localised agricultural producers, which often is mitigated with imports and exports i.e. a free trade market. Commercial agriculture serving a localised market hence face the challenges of balancing agricultural productivity with maximising crop yields i.e. economic profitability. Usually, progressive approaches include offering conventional farmers agicultural subsidies in the form of subsidised fixed investments such as discounted land or machinery acquisition, as well as variable inputs such as subsidised fertilisers or management services.

Nonetheless, agriculture remains dependent on conditions that vary and afflict each geographical profile differently. The quality of soil and weather conditions do differ. While typhoons do bring about much needed rainfall that aids exporters such as China inclusive of Taiwan, natural wreckages such as the ongoing floods in Malaysia or other freak weathers such as those affecting Vanuatu do cripple farming prospects either on a seasonal level or a catastrophic degree.

Sustainable farming development is a good promise but not always guaranteed in developing economies worldwide.

In bigger subcontinents with substantial geographical area such as Russia or Africa, the weather conditions are not always suited towards farming, while corruption and geopolitical stabilities may not be always secure.

One way that Singapore and Japan adopt in mitigating aging farming populaces includes the heavy reliance on science and technology in improving farming productivities and profitabilities, such that with research advancements, farms in Singapore and Japan can still maximise agricultural outputs despite more literate populaces joining the cities away from the rural and suburban districts.

Agroecology is an interesting niche area of development in Singapore and perhaps Japan of a community nature that complements pre-existing agriculture techniques and / or practices.

Images: 
Hanna Weber's picture

Agroecology can be considered to be a science, a practice and a social movement to gradually shift from conventional agricultural system to a more sustainable one. It takes into account traditional and scientific knowledge to ensure economic, social, environmental benefits thus creating healthier and sustainable food systems. It applies ecological principles to design and manage sustainable agroecosystems so as to provide food for the current as well as future generations.

What is an agroecosystem and when is it sustainable?

An agroecosystem is a system of interactions between the living components (e.g. humans, animals and plants) and non-living components (e.g. climate, water, air, soil) within an agricultural environment with the purpose of food production. So, not only plants, animals, water, soil, etc. are part of these agroecosystems but also humans and their activities carried out in this area. Following a rule of thumb, the more similar to nature, the more sustainable an agroecosystem is (i.e. the mechanized agroecosystem should be in synergy with natural ecosystem). Thus, it can be said that sustainable agriculture should comply with the following attributes:

  • resources are used more efficiently
  • it protects and conserves natural resources
  • it improves rural livelihoods, equity and social well-being,
  • in enhances resilience of people, communities and ecosystems

For example, polyculture practices (cultivation of several crops on the agricultural land such as intercropping, mixed cropping) contribute to a more sustainable agroecosystem as compared to monoculture (cultivation of a single crop on the land). Cultivating multiple crops improves the diversity of the ecosystem and also allows for natural regulations of pests by making use of beneficial weeds. Other practices e.g. crop rotation, reduced tillage and cover crops furthermore improve the soil quality ensuring the usability of the land for agricultural production in the long-term and help create a healthier ecosystem. Intensive Mono-cropping, on the other hand, depends on high amounts of external inputs (e.g. pesticides and herbicides) which ultimately leads to degradation of soil quality and renders the soil infertile in long term for food production. 

Home is where the heart is. We have been experimenting with heartland agroecology under People's Action Party chairman Khaw Boon Wan in Kampung Sembawang here in Singapore. If we pop by the legendary community garden by "Ah Chwee“ which is within walking distance from Admiralty Mass Rapid Transit train station, what he as well as the National Parks Board and grassroot volunteers have done and are still doing is maintaining not just a community in blooms gardening initiative, but also remnants of Ah Chwee's prior kampung i.e. village lifestyle.

Just outside the Residents' Committee club between two reinforced concrete blocks of residents are we have an open concept agroecological community farm instead of yet another plastic-y playground. In this community farm, Ah Chwee and his volunteers rear birds and tortorises, raise chickens, grow papaya trees and sow vegetables in a Platinium Award winning initiative. It takes more than one hand to clap, in order to sustain such a community spirit, we need the residents to be receptive of such a retro, non commercial and pro bono approach in a modernised city republic that professes a GDP of INT$88,000 per annum.

Many community gardens such as Cheng San, Ang Mo Kio under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong are just starting out new community gardens too. Apart from our Residents' Committees, the science clubs in our neighbourhood schools can also be interested in having live chickens in the lunar year of the Rooster, perhaps!

 

Images: 
Hanna Weber's picture

Dear Rongxiang, thank you so much for sharing you experiences with community farming in urban areas with us. It is nice to see, how also cultural aspects are included since you suggested to have some chickens on the farm yard in the lunar year of the Rooster! 

Thanks. Land is quite scarce is Singapore and we make the best out of what we have. Will have a look at today's topic in just a while, am finishing up this morning's coursework material on HDS3221.2x Christianity Through Its Scriptures with HarvardX. It helps balancing some environmentalism hands on with inner spiritual insights. Till later. Thanks.

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Dear Teca members,

I would like to share with you a case from Vietnam on rice intensification. This system applies agroecological principles to the food system in order to increase the efficiency of the system. Less external inputs are needed, and the income from the system increased.

This system could help farmers on enhancing the production and the live quality while reducing the impacts on the environment.

What do you think about this experience? Do you think is it possible to replicate in other places?

Do you have similar experiences to share with us?

Kanna Siripurapu's picture

The SRI method of paddy cultivation has not only doubled the rice production of this remote tribal village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha but also earned a new identity for the village, the village is now known as “the SRI village” in the region. For more information: http://www.nirmanodisha.org/publications/SRIVillage.pdf

 

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As for the technique of intensive rice production, we had an experiment in Chad where a producer was supported by a natiaonal NGO to go to Madagascar to learn the MAROANAKA technique. This technique allowed farmers and family farms to benefit from high yields for rice production. Currently, some producers have maintained the reflex and are making good harvests. Therefore, in the context of agroecology, we have every interest in promoting this technique of rice production.On the other hand, I would like to speak on compost. Indeed, SWISSAID in Chad supports women in agricultural production where there is a need to produce organic matter in the form of compost. This is how the pit composting technique was taught to them. However, this procedure seems painful to women who do not have support. What could you suggest to us in order to alleviate the pain felt by women?Thank you for your contributions

 

Dear Saturnin,

The following practice explains an alternative way of producing compost with the help of chicken. http://teca.fao.org/read/8863. The compost heaps still need to be turned every week but the organic matter does not have to be scooped out of the pit. In addition, this practice combines producing compost with raising chicken without having to feed them any grain, which is additional nice benefit !

Best wishes,

Charlotte

 

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