Ecological agriculture, a variety of techniques used to improve provision and utilisation of ecosystem services within a farming system, is often considered to be lower yielding than intensive forms of farming reliant on synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. While the former is thought to be more sustainable, this sustainability is significantly reduced if more land is needed to produce similar yields to conventional farming. A new report from Greenpeace provides evidence, however, that eco-agriculture can yield better than its less environmentally-friendly counterpart in certain instances and be more profitable for small-scale farmers.
The report, Fostering Economic Resilience, is based on fieldwork from Malawi and Kenya and shows that farmers practicing either agroforestry, the use of trees that provide a natural fertilizer, or push-pull pest techniques, the use of plant species to draw crop pests away, achieve “higher incomes and yields than those practising chemical-intensive agriculture”.
Since the 1960s the use of nitrogen fertilizer has grown some 900% and is expected to grow further by 40-50% over the next four decades. And yet the problems of intensive agriculture and an overreliance on synthetic chemical inputs are well known:
- Inputs are expensive to farmers and to governments when subsidized – 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend some US$1.05 billion a year on fertiliser subsidy programmes, an amount which makes up an average of 30% of their agriculture budgets.
- The continued and heavy use of chemical inputs can pose severe health risks to farmers – “the UN Environment Programme has calculated that the cost of pesticide-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa, for governments and those affected, could reach $90 billion during 2005-20.”
- Their manufacture is energy-intensive and contributes to climate change – “the manufacturing, transport, distribution and use of chemical fertilisers alone accounts for around 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions”.
- Synthetic inputs can damage soils and run-off into waterways leading to soil acidification, eutrophication of water bodies and biodiversity loss – “some 30-80% of Nitrogen applied to farmland as fertilizer escapes to contaminate water systems and the environment”.
Ecological agriculture, such as agroforestry, water harvesting and organic farming, on the other hand, aims to protect soil and water resources, conserve biodiversity and both adapt to and mitigate climate change.
This Greenpeace report brings good news that ecological agriculture has the potential to build both natural capital and economic capital simultaneously. In Kitale and Mbita regions of western Kenya the benefits of practising push-pull compared to the absence of push-pull and to using synthetic pesticides included three times greater average profitability per acre per year, roughly double the maize yields and cost savings from not having to buy pesticides. In Salima district in central Malawi the use of agroforestry led to an average profitability per acre of maize of $259, $93 more per acre per year than achieved by chemical farmers and yields of 1,137kg per acre compared to 828 kg per acre for chemical farmers. For both sites the amount of money spent on labour also decreased under ecological agricultural methods.
The report also states that if these practices were adopted by all the countries’ farmers then their combined incomes would substantially increase: by $209 million extra if Malawian farmers adopted agroforestry and Kenyan farmers would earn a total of $2.7 billion each year if they switched to push–pull techniques.
Evidence such as this begs the question as to why governments support costly fertilizer subsidy schemes when the conversion to eco-agriculture would be cheaper and more beneficial? The Kenyan government spent $34.3 million in 2012/13 on its input (fertilisers and seeds) subsidy programme while Malawi is well known for its large-scale Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), which offers fertilisers at subsidised prices and accounted for 43% of the country’s agriculture budget in 2013/14.
The report provides recommendations such as the setting of targets to reduce and eliminate synthetic inputs; increasing political and budgetary support to ecological farming; and, as part of governments’ climate adaptation programmes, creating strategies and policies to promote the use of organic and bio-fertilizers. A focus by research and extension on ecological as opposed to chemical-intensive agriculture is also needed. The report fails to provide guidance on how to change people’s mindset though. Decades of reliance on synthetic inputs will likely be a difficult habit to break.
It can also be argued that because the major beneficiaries of conventional farming and large-scale monocropping are believed to be the multinational corporations manufacturing the chemicals and seeds, it will be incredibly difficult to turn governments, businesses and individuals away from intensive production, despite evidence such as in this report. Because of this many organisations such as Greenpeace are driving forward an agenda of ecological agriculture because it makes farmers less dependent on market forces, is easier to afford and implement in many cases and is a positive pathway towards the greening of agriculture. We hope that gathering more evidence in support of ecological agriculture will help policymakers to see its economic, social and environmental potential to contribute to sustainable intensification.
That said, blanket adoption of ecological agriculture is complex and perhaps dangerous to prescribe. The techniques falling under ecological farming are numerous, sometimes labour- and knowledge-intensive and not all are suitable in every situation. Similarly where agroforestry or push-pull methods may increase ecological and economic resilience in one location they may fail to do so in another – they are not one-size-fits-all approaches. In some cases yields and incomes may decline under ecological farming and care needs to be taken in determining the best approach to making farming more sustainable. In some cases this may mean prudent use of synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. This Greenpeace report fails to consider the goal of helping farmers to increase their production and incomes from a holistic perspective. While ecological farming practices are essential to ensuring the protection of the natural resource base much more consideration needs to be given to what works where, and while this report may fail to sufficiently stress the highly location-specific nature of ecological agriculture, it does provide evidence of where specific techniques can work in a specific context.