Less intensive farming in the West and more intensive farming in developing countries can solve the world’s food problem. That is, if the farming is done on an ecological basis. ‘Farming methods in both developed and developing countries need to be updated’, says Pablo Tittonell, professor in Farming Systems Ecology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, associate professor at the University of Montpelier and the National University of Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires.
Modern technology can drastically improve farming methods in developing countries. However, the highly industrialised and large scale farming of the West is not a model of sustainability, requiring large amounts of energy, water, pesticides and artificial fertilizers. When talking about intensifying farming, Pablo Tittonell means something completely different. Using better logistics, education, mobile phones, new ecological insights. ‘It is about using nature in a smart way.’
‘Making hunger disappear is not about higher productivity’, Tittonell claims. ‘A higher yield per acre is not the start but the result of a combination of several mechanisms. Better organisation of food production, better roads, better education of farmers, making sure that farmers have access to credit. Put the right infrastructure and institutions in place and the result will be that farmers produce more.’
Take the smart phone example. A wonderful way to bring people and food together. Tittonell: ‘I recently met Jamila Abass, a woman from Kenya who is bringing consumers and farmers together by using mobile technology. By now, ten thousand small farmers have joined the programme. If they can reach their customers in this way, they have a big incentive to improve their production.’
Pablo Tittonell is a strong advocate of agro-ecological farming. He sees it as the solution to the unbalanced food production worldwide, with the almost industrial large-scale approach in the West versus the traditional smallholders farming in developing countries. Both no longer suffice. Tittonell’s solution: ‘extensify’ western agriculture, intensify agriculture in developing countries. ‘The Western approach to farming uses a lot of energy and water, causes pollution, and depletes the soil. The negative side effects do not show in the price of the products, being subsidized by the government. Which once made sense. Faced with a growing population in the cities, the system was aimed at feeding as many mouths as possible by as little farmers as possible, in the cheapest possible way. But it is not a sustainable model. It is delivering cheap produce because the external costs are not charged to the consumer.’
Small-scale farmers in developing countries originally produced mainly for self-consumption. And even though in most developing countries the majority of people still live in the countryside, this way of farming is no longer working. A surplus is needed to feed the growing population in the city.
A great deal of food research goes into raising production of farming in developed countries even further. But trying to get greater yields of already intensively used acreage is expensive and will make western farming even less sustainable. Instead, Europe and the US should change their farming systems into a less destructive, more organic way of farming that will produce less at the beginning. The initial lower food production itself will not be a problem. There is no food shortage in the West. Financially however there will be a big problem, Tittonell explains. ‘The whole farming system is based on large scale production. Even if a farmer wants to start farming on an organic basis, he will not succeed easily. He is part of a system. He needs the bank for finance, and the bank will not be enthusiastic about changes that cost money and possibly bring less yield. We are talking about a completely different way of producing that will take time and investment. It means western farmers need to rethink their way of farming, together with scientists and the government. It is a disruptive change that will cost money.’
In developing countries new nature-smart technologies, better organisation and the latest organic insights can easily improve agricultural production. Even now it is already feeding half the world population. ‘It is easier to bring the yield from 1 to 3 tonnes per hectare in developing countries than it is to go from 12 to 14 tonnes in developed countries. The main advantage of course is that the extra food will be available where it is most needed.’
Tittonell is no opponent of yield-raising inputs such as fertiliser, as long as they are used judiciously, at strategic times, and in a way the soil can handle it. But the agro-ecological approach is showing the same results in a more sustainable way. ‘Ten years ago an article in Nature claimed that organically managed soil has more biodiversity, which you need for a higher production. It was received with scepticism. Now these results are accepted. The science of soil biology is going forward at a high pace. We find that clever combinations of crops in space and time can bring better yields than the mere use of fertilisers and pesticides.’
The problem is that in the West most investments and scientific research still go into the industrialized, large-scale farming, while in developing countries small-scale farmers have no access to modern technology and the latest scientific knowledge. Furthermore they lack the right infrastructure to optimize their food production. India wastes 21 million tonnes of wheat every year through poor storage and distribution: 18 times the total wheat production of the Netherlands.
In developed countries an elite of consumers is getting more interested in organically produced food. ‘Mainly because the industrial farming methods are heavily subsidized, organic products are more expensive. Additionally, there is a yield gap between traditional and organic production. If more research money went into agro-ecological production, that gap would disappear altogether.’
Consumers play a major role in changing the agricultural production methods. But Tittonell does not think that the market by itself can cause a major shift towards ecological farming, as governments make the present production methods viable. In developing countries intensifying agriculture in a sustainable way is even more reliant on the government. And there is no simple approach. Brazil, the first country to put agro-ecological policy into practice (France will perhaps be the second) deployed about sixty different mechanisms to eliminate hunger, none of them directly aimed at increasing production. One of the instruments was to pay more for ecological products in school catering. ‘If you can stimulate industrial agricultural production by subsidizing it, as has been the case in most western countries, why not do the same with organic production? Can you even begin to imagine what the impact would be if the European Union gave ecological farming the same financial and academic support as traditional farming? In the long run it will be the only way to feed the growing world population.’
By André de Vos