--BY PRASHANTA RAUT
The United Nations says there are currently 820 million people hungry, while around the same number are either obese or overweight. So, right now, we live in a world where both hunger and obesity are major problems. Degrading environment, recurring pandemics, political polarisation, frequent natural disasters, changing climate and climate-induced extreme events are some of the major constraints facing humanity. Given these complex sets of challenges in agriculture, we are now at a point of time where our food and farming system is already out of order. It no longer is capable of sustaining itself, because we have been producing less from more. While strategies to focus on producing more from less are much needed, ‘Agroecology’, a new approach to sustainable agriculture, is opening up the frontiers to make it possible. Agroecology is an ecological approach to agriculture that does not simply focus on the economic aspect of agriculture but also embraces the socio-cultural, political and environmental aspects. It is a holistic approach that draws on the basic principle of ‘working with nature, not against it to produce food’.
Although this approach has been in existence for nearly three decades in many parts of the world, it has neither been discussed nor promoted by policymakers of Nepal. More recently, agroecology is gaining increasing attention from governments and development agencies, owing to the growing number of scientific evidence demonstrating the success of this approach in field, farm, as well as food system scales.
Undoubtedly, agroecology is one of the best available solutions to improving the performance of the current food and farming system of the country. The approach seeks to solve the problem of hunger as well as imbalanced nutrition by emphasising the production and consumption of diverse food sources including the neglected and under-utilised crops. A study conducted by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) suggests that, out of 30,000 edible plant species existing in the world, only nine account for 66% of total crop production. This explains how conventional agriculture is ruining the diversity of our farming system. Due to the growing rice-based food-culture, cultivation of many local crop species like Cheeno (Proso Millet), Kaguno (Foxtail Millet), Latte (Amaranthus), Kodo (Finger Millet), Jau (Barley), Phapar (Buckwheat) etc are being abandoned by farming community in the hills and mountains of Nepal. Although looked down upon as marginal food, most of these crops are extremely rich in nutrition.
Besides promoting local crops and animal breeds, agroecology also discourages the use of external inputs including hybrid seeds. Therefore, local crops and varieties flourish under the agroecological approach. This, on one hand, helps to fulfil the nutritional needs of communities and on the other helps to protect local flora without disrupting the natural ecosystem. So, agroecology is more than just organic farming. It has multiple benefits on ecosystem level, not just for human health and environment.
Similarly, agroecology focuses on shortening the food chain. The shorter food chain is always efficient because it helps to cut down the fuel and energy needed to transport, store and distribute food. In a shorter food chain, producers have more control over the market system and price. It is more resilient because a shorter food chain is less affected by market disruptions during the events of natural disasters and pandemics. So, rather than focusing on mass production and marketing of organic products, agriculture marketing policies, at present, should focus on developing local markets for safe and ecological food.
Healthy soils are fundamental to sustainable agriculture. In many parts of Nepal, specially in Terai, soils have degraded to a large extent due to indiscriminate use of mineral fertilisers, without strategies to replenish soil organic matter. Agroecology seeks to promote soil health through various strategies like recycling of biomass, animal integration, use of animal manure and compost, enhanced functional biodiversity through the inclusion of legumes, mixed cropping and green manuring etc. Agroecology values the indigenous knowledge of farm management and aims to preserve and promote these good practices while acknowledging the contribution of farmers in creating and preserving them. By doing so, it also promotes co-creation and sharing of valuable indigenous knowledge.
Small peasant farms will not be able to succeed within a system built to reward large agribusinesses. Unfortunately, the current agriculture policy, in spite of all its good intentions, is heading towards the same direction. Incentivising large farms, subsidies on chemical fertilisers and machineries; promotion of intensive production areas; and emphasis on broader market linkage are some of the examples of how our current agriculture policies have been building systems to reward large farmers. The ongoing debate in support of agroecology is not against the private-sector-led initiatives to innovate agriculture sector, but is a debate around where and how the public funding should be channelised in order to improve the existing food and farming system.
Rather than constructing an incentive system that facilitates agribusiness investors to offload many of their costs to taxpayers, agriculture strategies should focus on building systems that support the most disadvantaged and marginalised small farmers. The first step to building such a support system is to be clear about the realistic needs of these small farmers and the ecosystem they interact with.
Protection of agricultural land should be the priority of the state instead of real estate development. Interventions that promote diversity should be in place rather than promoting monocultures. Promotion of scalable local solutions aimed at improving the food security status of communities is more important than linking the producers with distant consumers. Efforts to maximise the utilisation of local resources are always better and sustainable interventions compared to dumping sophisticated technology on farmers and subsidies on external inputs. By doing so, indigenous knowledge will be preserved while local crop species and animal breeds will also flourish. The state needs to protect the farmers and their food sovereignty through interventions that aim to strengthen their farming system, safeguard their rights as peasants and ensure that they have control over the natural resources they depend on.
In the new federal system, the bureaucratic structure governing the agriculture sector, especially the local government institutions, has a myopic vision that the primary objective of state support in agriculture is to increase production and improve productivity. This mindset should be changed because agriculture is not only about farmers; it transcends the boundary of fields and farms. Every single one of us is part of this complex food system that currently is highly disordered. Though agriculture policies fundamentally are meant to address the issues of farmers, they should be holistic enough to address the needs of everyone across the food chain including the consumers. Agroecology, so far, seems to be the best available alternative strategy that can address the economic, environmental, socio-cultural and political needs of the country as a whole.
Mr. Raut is an Agroecologist with a Master’s degree in Agroecology from Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), currently working as Agroecology Coordinator at Grassroots Consulting/Fastenaktion. He can be reached at [email protected] for comments.