20 January 2013

Tanzania: Kilimo Hai or Agro-Ecology - How to Feed the World Without Destroying It


Director of Tanzania Organic Agriculture Movement (TOAM), Jordanus Gama explained that traditional farmers have the potential to convert to kilimohai using locally made inputs, compost, livestock manure, and several other agroecological best practices.

Now that was a new word for me: agroecology. This word first found wide usage in a 2010 report that was presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Sixteenth session. Agenda item 3. Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. The report was titled "Agroecology and the right to food".

The framework of this report is that food is a human rights issue: food needs to be available, accessible and adequate for all the billions of people on the planet. Nations are required to take effective measures towards the realization of the right to food. Furthermore food systems should be developed in order to meet three objectives.

The first objective is that food systems must ensure the availability of food for everyone, that is, supply must match world needs. Second, agriculture must develop in ways that increase the incomes of smallholders. The report explains that food availability is, first and foremost, an issue at the household level.

Hunger today is mostly attributable not to stocks that are too low or to global supplies unable to meetdemand, but to poverty - people are sometimes for various reasons unable to buy or access available food. World Bank research has found (through cross-country comparisons), that economic growth originating in agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth originating outside agriculture (World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development).

In other words, some types of investments are more effective than others at reducing poverty. This World Bank report explains that there are multiplier effects when economic growth is triggered by higher incomes of smallholders - the smallholders tend to spend their income close by which supports local businesses and people.

This does not happen as much when large companies increase their revenue; most of that money is spent on imported inputs and machinery; much less trickles down to local people. "Only by supporting small producers can we help break the vicious cycle that leads from rural poverty to the expansion of urban slums, in which poverty breeds more poverty."

The third objective of building and maintaining food systems is that agriculture must not lose the ability to satisfy future needs. "The loss of biodiversity, unsustainable use of water, and pollution of soils and water are issues which compromise the continuing ability for natural resources to support agriculture."

This World Bank report further explains, that in the past most efforts to increase agricultural output have followed an industrial model of operation - focus has been on improving seeds and ensuring that farmers are provided with inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"Instead, agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry." There is that word again: agroecology. What is agroecology? Agroecology is a science and a set of practices being created around two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology.

As a science, agroecology is the "application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems." As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology seeks ways to enhance agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes.

Beneficial biological interactions and synergies are created among the components of the agroecosystem. The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species.

Agro ecology is resource-conserving, using low-external- input techniques An example of how agroecology is different from industrial agriculture is in the approaches toward drought. Industrial agriculture focuses on drought-resistant plants. Agroecology supports building drought resistant agricultural systems including soils, plants, and diversity.

The philosophy is over-arching but the specifics will vary in different places and situations, drawing on local and scientific knowledge. Agro-ecology can significantly improve yields. Jules Pretty and colleagues compared the impacts of 286 recent sustainable agriculture projects.

These projects were in 57 low and middle income countries, covering 37 million hectares (3 per cent of the cultivated area in these countries). They found that agroecological interventions increased productivity.

Average crop increase was 79 per cent, while improving the supply of critical environmental services such as water, oxygen, carbon sequestration and others. In African projects there was a 116 per cent increase and a 128 per cent increase was noted in East Africa using agroecological techniques.

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