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How agroecology could transform the planet

Shared knowledge in the science of agroecology can help small-scale farmers to diversify and teach consumers to make better environmental choices, according to leading expert Dr Miguel Altieri.

As a global ambassador on this topic, Dr Altieri believes that agroecology not only provides smallholders with the tools they need to create ecologically sound systems, but can also alter the way we all look at farming.

“There are around 1.5 billion hectares of farmland, and 80% of that is in the hands of just 20% of mostly large-scale  farmers,” he says. “Those farmers only produce around 30% of food globally leaving a huge ecological footprint, whereas the remaining 80% of farmers with only 20% of land and using less than 30% of the water and energy are producing 50-75% of the food.”

We need to transform our modern intensive farming models with agroecology and for this Dr Altieri is trying to create, in his own words, a dialogue of wisdoms as small farmers possess much needed knowledge on how to redesign farms along sustainability lines.

“Agroecology in simple terms is about trying to develop agricultural systems that are environmentally friendly, socially just, economically viable and culturally sensitive and diverse.”

And he stresses the importance of including within that science, traditional farming knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

Working with NGOs and governments, Dr Altieri is spreading wide the message of what agroecology can do for communities. He works with farmers on the ground to implement systems which complement their own holistic methods.

Having studied agronomy at the University of Chile where he grew up, Dr Altieri was forced to leave the country in 1973 due to a military coup.

Moving to Colombia he continued to study agriculture and met researchers who took him out into the field. He says: “To work with farmers in the tropics was totally new for me, coming from a temperate area. I ended up studying a PhD in entomology and then I found that when the farmers were growing corn and beans together they had less pest problems than when they grew monocultures.”

From then on Dr Altieri focused more on the sociology and the anthropology of the systems, trying to understand  the way farmers treated the soils and the insects. He quickly realised the need for more knowledge in ecology. He has been a Professor in Agroecology at Berkeley, the University of California for the past 37 years.

“I’ve been involved very strongly with writing, publishing books and papers, and now my work has transcended academia and is well known by people who work on the ground. I never take the attitude that I know more, I am more a facilitator. The farmers already know farming, but they might have new pests or diseases they need to tackle. It’s about providing them with the tools to make the right decisions – like how do you assess the health of the soil, or the plants, or the resiliency to climate change, what kind of things do you need to observe, and after a diagnosis what kind of agroecological interventions do you take now?”

Industrialised farming across the globe contributes to around 25-30% of greenhouse gases, and tends to rely on monocultures that are highly susceptible to climate change.

Dr Altieri says that while middle class, educated consumers might have the luxury of being selective in what and where we choose to eat, the great masses of working class and poor people don’t have that choice.  This why we need to democratise the food system as agroecology aims at realising the right to food for all.

“We need to come up with an educational system that is going to reach everybody about where food comes from, how it is produced, by whom, and that will show that eating is both a political act, and an ecological act. When you eat from a fast food chain you’re impacting the environment and you’re favouring industrial monoculture, but when you eat from a little farmers’ market you are supporting a different model with a different ecological impact.”

The benefits of small-scale, ecologically sound farming systems are not just environmental, but also social and political. They promote stronger links between producers and consumers in such communities. For example. there may be fewer problems with crime as social cohesion increases.

By working as “lighthouse” models, many farms which now use agroecological tools welcome visitors and teach their methods, passing on the knowledge of which crops work best work together, and how to best attain the highest environmental standards without detriment to the produce.  These lighthouses radiate out lessons to the broader community.

Dr Altieri explains: “A lighthouse is a place where ecological principals are being applied –– a working farm or a community where there are many farmers featuring diversified systems, healthy soils, healthy plants, a lot of biodiversity. It’s like they are projecting  (radiating out) light – it’s a place to unblock the monocultures of the mind.”

This pedagogical tool for spreading the principles of agroecology is helping to empower farmers.

They are now realising that they can be part of the change, and influence those in power.

Our ethical buyers at Lush have been working with Dr Altieri to understand the best ways to approach these small scale farmers and the democratic situation on the ground, to promote trade that doesn’t undermine social equity and that retains the cultural identity of the farmers.

Lush is also looking into creating more of its own lighthouses to help spread the word on agroecology.

Dr Altieri has concerns about our environmental future, but he remains optimistic that a mass movement in agroecology could see a shift in the way we produce food.

He adds: “We need to come up with a new paradigm for the agriculture of the future, that is environmentally friendly, food that is accessible to all, that is resilient to climate change, and that is not going to impact the environment; rather, it will restore it.

“You have to live according to your level of consciousness. Change has to start with yourself, but it needs a collective action of thousands and thousands of people to promote the needed changes.”

"Change has to start with yourself, but it needs a collective action of thousands and thousands of people to promote the needed changes.”

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