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Sustainable Farming through Agroecology

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

Agroecology provides diverse farming practices which are mostly based on local and scientific knowledge on what works and what doesn't work in a food system. It also emphasizes the role of elderly people because they are better familiar with the local conditions and assets to work with and have gained knowledge based on their experiences and shared it with their communities over the years. For e.g. one crop variety might be better than another even if it give lower yields because it is more adaptable to the climatic conditions.

Combining this traditional knowledge with scientific research, several practices can contribute to agroecology. Some examples of these practices are given below addressing the principles of agroecology:

Recycling

  • Reusing resources e.g. nutrients, water, energy etc.
  • Integrating inputs e.g. feeds and nutrients in the farm system
  • Transferring by-products and waste between different systems

Minimized use of non-renewable resources (use of renewable resources as much as possible) and toxic substances that are harmful to the environment and human health

  • Applying bio fertilizers, composts, green manures instead of chemicals (pesticide, herbicides, mineral fertilizers)
  • Use of biological nitrogen fixation

Conservation of resources such as water, energy, soil and biological resources (efficient use of resources)

  • Water harvesting, irrigation channels (lining)
  • Use of solar power
  • Cover cropping
  • Reduced tillage or zero tillage, mulching (minimize disturbance in the soil)
  • Application of indigenous microorganisms for improving soil fertility
  • Creation of erosion-protection strips parallel to the incline on slopes

Make use of natural ecological interactions within the agroecosystems and build on its capacity to enhance soil fertility, natural pest regulation, crop productivity, and community empowerment.

  • Assembling crops, animals, trees, soils and other factors
  • Integrated pest management
  • Restoring of vegetation trees and shrubs in arable farming

Increase diversity in species and genetic resources in the agroecosystems and surrounding landscapes

  • Using multiple crops at the same time (crop-rotation, multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, alley cropping)
  • Hedge planting to divide a farm into numerous small fields

Make use of local knowledge of farmers to improve human and social value and equitable food systems

  • Use of traditional crops
  • Floating farming practices
  • Application of indigenous microorganisms for improving soil fertility

Promote circular economy to create shorter food circuits for increased income for producers and fair price for consumers

  • Promote local markets (ensure fair price)

Farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing through different generations, cultures, and traditions is an important aspect of agroecology. TECA as a free access knowledge base for small holder farmers wants to support this by providing a platform for different agricultural stakeholders from all over the world to share their experiences. The more farmers, extension workers, research institutes etc. adopt sustainable agricultural practices in the fields, the more agriculture can contribute to minimizing environmental damages while generating income for farmers at the same time.

This list of sustainable farming practices could be enriched with your experiences and we would be glad to hear your opinion on this.

Reusing resources e.g. nutrients, water, energy etc.

Solar energy is naturally reusable. There are simple lamps that cost $2 in Singapore that store the daytime sunshine in the capacitors, then lit themselves during the night, This serves as a lamp when we visit the greens during dusk.

Integrating inputs e.g. feeds and nutrients in the farm system

In an initial experiment, we had tried using homo sapien manure in growing sweet potatoes, it worked perfect. Generally my take is that homo sapien manure is still the best, yet since there are insufficient homo sapien manure to go around, the ironic idea of using fertiliser from sheep manure came into the picture. My general but personal insight is that while collecting homo sapien manure is disgusting in a developed world, it is much more visibly nutritious to the greens.

Transferring by-products and waste between systems

While mammalian manure works well in nourishing the soil, urine actually affects the quality of the soil sometimes adversely. Since it does not snow in Singapore, this is not really a major issue as long as it rains, but when we look at the bigger picture, the water system in Singapore is more profoundly sophisticated than just urine due to a shortage of water sources. Instead of transferring urinary by products across systems in an agricultural sense, the toilets in Singapore lead to treatment that eventually via desalination processes transofmr waste water as Newwater i.e. potable drinking water. Hence, the term 'waste' in farming goes beyond public utility senses. While agroecology farming does generate by products, the scale of the by products are also part of the entire waste disposal system. As another example, let us say we grow palm trees and there are loads of natural by products ranging from leaves till palm fruits. When they fall, either they are part of the ecology i.e. they decay and go back to the soil or we keep a trash bin nearby. The dump truck takes out the trash once in a while, and we probably have incinerators and land fills off shore.

 

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Hi Rongxian Lin

Thanks for sharing with us your experience on recycling. Manure and compost are fundamental for sustainable agriculture. Normally we use herbivore manure for produce compost, and this decision is based on the carbon/nitrogen rate. Herbivore manure has more carbon than carnivore manure (as the lignin can't be completely processed during the digestion. SO herbivore manure con be composted faster, and you need to add less carbon during the process. For carnivore (and omnivore as homo sapiens) more carbon is needed for producing the compost also more time in needed. During the process, the temperature needs to be controlled as the compost can achieve extremely high temperature, and in this case, you lose nitrogen.   

Applying bio fertilisers, composts, green manures instead of chemicals

Bio fertilisers or green manures include processed sheep manure. Composts are quite common and it is not too difficult collecting fruit peels or rotting vegetables and making barrels of them, but the application of composts are a subject matter that takes a little additional research at times.

Use of biological nitrogen fixation

Peanuts are my best friend where nitrogen is concerned. Industrial nitrogen fixation are way too much of an overkill in some forms of agroecology, it is simpler buying a packet of raw peanuts such as Chinese Shandong peanuts from a neighbourhood grocery store and scattering them on a plot of soil that needs preparation before sowing. With enough sunlight and rain along the equator, the peanuts grow very fast and within weeks they can cover a substantial surface area. Apart from loosening the soil, they are tremendously effective at nitrogen fixing and at the end of the day we can harvest and eat the nuts too.

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Many legumes (pulses) can fix nitrogen. Legumes can be used in rotation or integrated with other crops to enhance the nitrogen. This practices is more sustainable and can reduce (or eliminate) the need for external inputs. 

I'm sharing with you a  experience from Malawi on intercropping with legumes, and how this practice is helping farmers on enhancing their production 

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Water harvesting, irrigation channels (lining)

Rainfall i.e. precipitation makes farming a straightforward affair in Singapore. Since there are few floods while both typhoons as well as droughts are rare, the precipitation along the equator in South East Asia ensures that agroecology farms receive a minimal amount of rainfall throughout the year. The natural hydration is not enough to grow rice unlike neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, but there is enough for staple edible fruits and / or vegetables. Additional irrigation channels such as water sprinklers and water hoses from potable taps are often implemented and since community agroecologists are often allocated plots or lots with a specific rectangular dimension, watering these greens with hoses are quite linear. In bigger scale agricultural farms there are industrial approaches of irrigation as well, but generally one can assume that the water sources are quite standard i.e. rarely do we melt ice, snow or collect ocean saltwater to irrigate the greens.

Use of solar power

Solar power is a niche or novel idea that is occasionally being implemented in Singapore. It is not rare made easier since there are no seasonal daylight saving time, but just like wind or hydro power it is not always feasible implementing solar power when simple self discipline can suffice, e.g. turning off the lights and wall sockets when not in use. As an example, in an agroecology community garden that I help out, the lights are programmed by the Government probably with light dependent resistors that turn off light bulbs after a certain time e.g. nine o'clock when it is time to sleep.

Cover cropping

Generally there is not a single inch of soil in Singapore as well as South East Asia that does not come naturally with some form of grass. ASEAN is unlke Oceania, Russia, Africa or Americas where seasonal weather such as snowy winters or heatwaves can damage a huge geographical area. Where cover cropping is concerned, just let the usual grass grow itself and this is more than good enough in preventing soil erosion or sustaining soil fertility. We once had a habit of planting four leaf clovers all over and they grew very fast as a cover crop. Similar options that help beautify the landscape include this herbal weed known as Lawn Pennywort. While not exactly a crop, it propagates itself as weeds do extremely fast in South East Asian weather when given a barren plot of soil, and since its leaf blades are round resembling the traditional copper coin that East Asians once used in trade, it offers a decent auspicious symbolic purpose that pleases people when grown in excesses.

Reduced tillage or zero tillage, mulching (minimise disturbance in the soil)

In Singapore, the agroecologists are small in scale, in fact, very small. Tillage is not always necessary but a good to have perhaps. Imho, a tractor is already an overkill, what is necessary is at best a hoe. My personal favourite is the grape hoe or grubbing hoe. Shovels or spades are less invasive options if there is no real need of disturbing the original layer of topsoil. Generally I won't recommend zero tillage since on one hand it leaves me with even less work and on the other hand there is a reason why homo sapiens are born with legs instead of roots i.e. we till the soil because our limbs are meant for work, yet the plants and trees once planted are going to stay there over weeks or even years. Hence, I do not recommend zero tillage especially during the initial pre-sowing phases.

Application of indigenous microorganisms for improving soil fertility

Snails and slugs come with the wet weather. They do eat the greens and reproduce very fast destroying entire crops. While grasshoppers, cockroaches and lizards do destroy leaves too, they are part of a food web and it is profoundly simple why cats hang around plots of soil where small creatures roam, it gives the cats carnivorous meaning when they defecate near organic greens that they consequently fertilise, while nearby there is a cockroach that they can abuse. Ladybirds, bees, butterlies and birds don't really help with soil fertility, but they are part of the same food web or natural ecology. Of all the animals I have mentioned, what is the most inconceivable is the earthworm, which is the prerequisite of most sowing phases to function. This is also why tillage is beneficial, because loosening the soil manually with a hoe helps the farmer discern the population of earthworms in the topsoil, hence giving him/her a rough estimate of soil fertility without an engineer's report. Earthworms reproduce well when given a chance and they definitely help save crops instead of harm them.

Creation of erosion-protection strips parallel to the incline on slopes

We saw this while on a field trip in Maesot of Thailand, I can hardly put this in words but yes it can be done. I have done up one small stretch of erosion protection strip too, it was a good experience, yet it is also that mundanely sensible that I may end up missing the point if I have to do a Ph.D to understand why they work because they work.

 

 

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Assembling crops, animals, trees, soils and other factors

Since Singapore is not really able to grow enough crops for export, firstly the process of assembling crops, animals, trees and soils are quite mundanely phyiscally and amateurish. A car or a van can be useful. As a country with five million homo sapiens, there are probably less than 40 cattle in this country. Secondly, much of agricultural start up needs are imported. Should a particular factor be non indigenous such as needing a dog to look after an agroecology farm, they don't really swim across the Straits of Johor to Singapore and send in a resume to find work at a farm without a visa. There are some guidelines that make these arrangements happen too.

Integrated pest management

This can be commercial. Generally my take on pests in agroecological set ups are that we leave their natural predators around and let nature take its own course. The cats can take out the crows, the crows can take out the leftovers, etc.

Restoring of vegetation trees and shrubs in arable farming

Not appliable in Singapore.

Increase diversity in species and genetic resources in the agroecosystems and surrounding landscapes

Generally not a problem in Singapore. There is more biodiversity in one simple Bukit Timah Hill than the entire of North America combined.

Using multiple crops at the same time (crop-rotation, multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, alley cropping)

Peanuts and sweet potatoes are what we include in between crops. They keep the soil sane.

Hedge planting to divide a farm into numerous small fields

Usually in the case of landscaping, but seldom as a divider.

Make use of local knowledge of farmers to improve human and social value and equitable food systems

The National Environment Agency in general looks after this area.

Use of traditional crops

Sweet potatoes are one of the most traditional crops in Singapore due to the subsistence role of sweet potatoes during the World War Two Japanese Occupation. In the absence of rice imports, pioneer generations had grown sweet potatoes in villages and cooked them with chilli as part of a staple diet surviving the war. The sweet potatoes could also be eaten too, such as by barbequing them over a charcoal pit or stove.

Floating farming practices

Most rice farms are wet or floating. In Singapore along with agroecology, the laboratories are experimenting with semi-indoor wet rice farms. This is in the news and probably in the research stage.

 

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National Trade Union Congress (NTUC) is a labour representation that runs its own Pasar branding of agricultural produce. There are similar producer-to-supermarket food circuits that help shorten the logistical process while sustaining livelihoods. The economics of this all is somewhat beyond my scope of this discussion on agroecology. I shall stop here.

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Hi all,

 

I am a policy consultant with the International Agri-Food Network (IAFN). I am currently based in Rome, working in the context of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS). On behalf of the IAFN I would like to share with you some examples of successful agroecological practices with the potential to contribute to sustainable farming.

 

The first is the deployment of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) by the US National Park Service. This allows park managers to develop pest management strategies on a case-by-case basis, ensuring that they are effective, site specific, low risk, and ecologically appropriate. Examples of successful IPM systems adopted by the National Park Service include planting disease resistant wheat to avoid unnecessary pesticide application, and the introduction of beetles as biological control agents to prevent the spread of invasive purple loosestrife. More information is available here: https://www.nature.nps.gov/biology/ipm/

 

Another example would be the agroecological zoning carried out by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA). Using this approach EMBRAPA classifies particular regions according to their environmental capabilities and vulnerabilities, taking into account climate, soil, vegetation, geomorphology and social and economic factors. This allows the promotion of land use in a manner focused on sustainability and conservation, while improving agricultural productivity. Zoning is often carried out at the request of farmers aiming to minimize the risks of their operations and improve their incomes. More information is available here: https://www.embrapa.br/en/tema-zoneamento-agroecologico/nota-tecnica

 

A third example would be the promotion of Integrated Crop Management (ICM) by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI). ICM is a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture that takes into account the whole farm, including socio-economic and environmental factors, to deliver the most suitable and safe approach for long-term benefit. Components of ICM include soil & pest management, crop rotation, and crop nutrition among many others. By promoting these approaches CABI helps to safeguard a farm’s natural assets and surrounding community. More information can be found here: http://www.cabi.org/about-cabi/cabi-centres/switzerland/integrated-crop-management/

 

CABI also runs agroecological pest management extension services under the title “plantwise programme”. Under this programme CABI, working closely with national agricultural advisory services, establishes and supports sustainable networks of plant clinics run by trained plant doctors, where farmers can find practical plant health advice tailored to their particular issues and environments. More information can be found here: http://www.cabi.org/projects/our-plantwise-programme/

 

Finally, I wish to share with you this example of Malian farmers improving their livelihoods through agroforestry. This project involved studying the effect of short-term rotations of selected perennial tree and shrub species on cereal yields and soil quality in subsistence maize cropping systems. They proved to be significant for maize yields when a tree species (Gliricidia) and a nitrogen-fixing legume (Stylosanthes) were introduced. The results suggest that this innovative agroforestry strategy holds significant promise for enhancing soil fertility, maize yields and food security throughout Mali and sub-Saharan Africa. More information can be found here: https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/sites/oaklandinstitute.org/files/Agroforestry_Mali.pdf

Dear Benjamin, thank you very much for sharing some case studies of agroecological practices, e.g. Integrated Crop Management (ICM) and agroforestry. These and more examples may also be interesting for our upcoming discussion on agroecology and soil health!

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