The major problems of our time — energy, environment, climate change, food security, financial security — are systemic problems, which means they are all interconnected and interdependent and require corresponding systemic solutions. This important insight is illustrated in this article with the example of agriculture and its causal connections with climate change.
The links between industrial agriculture and climate change are twofold. On the one hand, the crops grown in the genetically homogeneous monocultures that are typical of chemical farming are vulnerable to the climate extremes that are becoming more frequent and more violent as a result of global warming. On the other hand, industrial agriculture contributes significantly to the greenhouse gases causing climate change because it is energy intensive and fossil-fuel dependent.
From a systemic point of view, it is evident that a food system that is highly centralized, energy-intensive and dependent on petrochemicals and fossil fuels; a system, moreover, that creates health hazards for farmers, agricultural workers and consumers and is unable to cope with increasing climate disasters, cannot be sustained in the long run.
Fortunately, there is a viable and sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. It consists of a variety of agricultural techniques, based on ecological principles that have been refined over the past century and are being adopted around the world, especially in the past two decades. With these techniques, healthy biodiverse foods are grown in decentralized, community-oriented, energy-efficient, and sustainable ways. These ecologically-oriented farming techniques include organic-certified farming, permaculture, and biodynamic farming. In recent years, the term “agroecology” has increasingly been used as a unifying term, referring to both the scientific basis and the practice of an agriculture based on ecological principles.
Agroecology is sustainable because it dramatically reduces the need for off-farm inputs, is dependent on the saving and sharing of seeds versus purchased seeds, and can be fostered through farmer-to-farmer education not through expensive inputs. Of critical importance for the future of agriculture is the observation that resilience to extreme climate events is closely linked to agricultural biodiversity, which is a key characteristic of agroecology. Agroecological practices are labor-intensive and community-oriented, thereby reducing poverty and social exclusion. In these ways, agroecology is able to raise agricultural productivity in ways that are economically viable, environmentally benign and socially uplifting.
When soil is farmed organically, moreover, its carbon content increases, and by sequestering carbon in this way organic farming can contribute to reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In other words, agroecology not only is more resistant to global warming than industrial agriculture; it also helps stabilize the climate, whereas industrial agriculture aggravates climate change.
In recent years, agroecology has taken off around the world. The rapid growth of the peasant-led international movement La Via Campesina and of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements speak to the interest in scaling up this approach to agriculture. Organizations like SOCLA in Latin America and the Campesino a Campesino (farmer-to-farmer) network in Central America have reached thousands of farmers across the region. All together, these groups have helped to train hundreds of thousands of farmers in agroecological approaches, proving that the shift from industrial agriculture to agroecological practices is not only urgently needed, but is also practical and can be achieved without new technologies or expensive investments. What we need now to scale up agroecology from successful local and regional projects to the global level is political will and visionary global leadership.
Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., is a scientist, educator, activist, and author of many international bestsellers that connect conceptual changes in science with broader changes in worldview and values in society.
Anna Lappé is a national bestselling author, a respected advocate for sustainability and justice along the food chain and an advisor to funders investing in food system transformation. A recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award, Anna is the co-author or author of three books and the contributing author to more than a dozen others. Anna’s work has been translated internationally and featured in The New York Times, Gourmet, Oprah Magazine, among many other outlets.
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