Agro-Ecology vs Conventional Agriculture

This post serves to respond to the photocopied periodical clipping that was distributed at the Bailey Inn on the night of our film showing. The article is one side of a two sided debate entitled “Do we need pesticides to make our gardens grow?”, exploring the “Yes” side of the debate. It is a very interesting article and I’d like to thank the sharer for raising this debate. One particularly interesting line was highlighted: “Without effective crop protection chemicals, 40 per cent of the food we have today simply would not exist.” We’d like to take a moment to explore this statement.

First of all, this statement is not only true, but may well be an underestimate if the “we” referred to is the UK population. Most of our current food system is dependant on chemical input and current research is showing just how widespread and destructive the side-effects are (1, 2). Chemicals are used in agriculture for a number of reasons, freely and without question. While today this might seem normal, chemical agriculture is a recent development. Through this article we will explore how chemical agriculture came to be convention, why chemical agriculture is destructive and what agriculture will look like without them.

Chemical use in agriculture has been experimented with for over 100 years, but it was not until 1950 that the use of agricultural chemicals really started to become mainstream. During World War II many smaller chemical companies found a very successful market for their product in the manufacture of weaponry. The end of the war meant an ending to that market, and companies were forced to find a new outlet for their products. One of these outlets was the agricultural industry, and since 1950 the chemical application per unit area of agricultural land across the world has steadily increased; more chemicals, more sales, more profits. Since chemicals such as herbicides are designed to kill plants (weeds), further ‘innovation’ led to the development of crops that are resistant to these chemicals. This market for herbicide resistant seed created an effective monopoly over the seed-herbicide combination, and today ‘Round Up’ herbicide and ‘Round Up Ready’ seed dominate the market for the company, Monsanto, a multinational worth US$45 billion. This is how it came to pass that at least 40% of the food we consume would not exist without chemicals. Is is a profit driven approach to agriculture based on increasing sales of chemicals. With such vast quantities of these chemicals being added to the soil, it would be reassuring to know that we can be certain of the affects and consequences of these actions, however most soil scientists would agree that our understanding of soil is ‘flat-earth’ rudimentary.

One thing we can be certain of is that long before humans interfered, plants grew superbly well. To grow, plants need water and sunlight, CO2 from the air and a massive array of trace minerals from the soil. These trace minerals include not just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium but copper, zinc, iron, magnesium, boron among others, and make their way into the soil through the complex soil life web. The chemicals we use on the land have been designed to kill massive sections of the soil life web. Herbicides are designed to kill plants, pesticides to kill a variety of bacteria, bugs and animals, fungicides to kill different fungi. As a result soil fertility rapidly drops and we are forced to add fertilisers. These fertilisers don’t provide a balanced mineral diet to the plants, adding all the trace minerals in appropriate proportions. Instead they saturate the soil with just three: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. A good analogy is feeding a human a high sugar diet. At first there is a benefit, but over time performance degrades as the other important parts of the diet are missing. In this context the degradation happens over many seasons, as the soil becomes depleted of all nutrient except the fertiliser additions. These weakened plants then become vulnerable to other problems.

In nature, pests and diseases attack the weak; those whose immune systems can’t defend them. This is just as true for humans as it is for plants. Plants in depleted soil are more vulnerable to attack. Massive fields of a single crop are a paradise for a specific pest that enjoys that crop. For example, black fly love to munch down beans and peas. A massive bean crop is paradise for black fly and unchecked they will breed to pest proportions. However, lady bugs love to eat black fly. Lady bugs favour leafy vegetation and survive the winter under fallen leaf matter, and providing such a habitat for lady bugs can help keep black fly population within normal range. This more closely mimics how pests are kept in balanced proportion in healthy meadows and woodlands; the predator lives beside the prey and keeps the numbers in check. Conventional farming has taken away the predators, depleted the soil of nutrient, and left us playing an eternal game of catch up as nature evolves faster than science. But the fact of the matter remains, at present conventional farming is feeding the world. So can we feed the world with ecological farming methods?

Much research is being conducted into yields of organics compared to conventional farming, but we want to go step further than that and explore methods that work in tune with natural processes. Agriculture will closer mimic nature if we create food production systems that are smaller in scale, rotate regularly, and are inter-cropped with hedgerows, varying crops, woodlands and habitats to create biodiversity and protect wildlife. This method of farming is often called agro-forestry or agro-ecology. While crop for crop, plant for plant, agro-ecology systems aren’t quite at the yield of conventional farming, the total yield is higher in agro-ecological systems (3, 4, 6, 7). This yield is more resistant to unusual climatic events (5). Taking into account the nutritional value of the food, the yield is comparatively greater still in agro-ecological systems (5). Machinery is less useful in the smaller scale fields of agro-ecological systems, meaning less disruption to wildlife and soil structure.

Less machinery means that more hands will be needed to work the land. But with Eurozone unemployment over 11% (8) there are potentially plenty of hands at the ready. The high cost of labour in the UK might mean we need to readdress the value of food, but in a world where Coca-Cola and McDonalds are considered ‘high-value’ foods this is a revaluation that is long overdue. Community Supported Agriculture projects help address this by taking away the profiteering middle-men and connecting us directly with our food, and the land it came from. As does the simple act of tending your own garden.

All of this suggests some radical transitioning is in order. This transition should be seen not as a burden, but as an opportunity. We can explore the health benefits of work on the land and eating good quality food and come together as communities to take control of where our food comes from. We can learn how to process, preserve and prepare it and discover exciting ways to eat it, together. This is what we aim to explore at Yorkley Court, and we invite you to join us in the exploration.

1) Baillie-Hamilton, Paula F.. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. April 2002, 8(2): 185-192.
2) Robert Packett, Cameron Dougall, Ken Rohde, Robert Noble, Agricultural lands are hot-spots for annual runoff polluting the southern Great Barrier Reef lagoon, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 58, Issue 7, July 2009, Pages 976-986.
3) Pye-Smith C. World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi (Kenya) 2008. Farming Trees, Banishing Hunger. How an agroforestry programme is helping smallholders in Malawi to grow more food and improve their livelihoods.
4) Saka AR, Bunderson WT, Itimu OA, Phombeya HSK, Mbekeani Y (1994)The effects of Acacia albida on soils and maize grain yields under smallholder farm conditions in Malawi. Forest Ecol Manage 64: 217-230.
5) Jose Shibu (2009), Agroforestry for ecosystem services and environmental benefits: an overview. Agroforestry Systems 0167-4366 : 1-10.
6) Sileshi G, Akinnifesi FK, Ajayi OC, Place F (2009). Evidence for impact of green fertilizers on maize production in sub-Saharan Africa: a meta-analysis. ICRAF Occasional Paper No. 10. Nairobi: World Agroforestry Centre.
7) Sileshi G, Akinnifesi FK, Ajayi OC, Place F. 2008. Meta-analysis of maize yield response to planted fallow and green manure legumes in sub-Saharan Africa. Plant and Soil 307:1–19.8) Reported on Al Jezeera television channel. August, 2012.


One thought on “Agro-Ecology vs Conventional Agriculture

  1. I’m in support of the need for transition. Our own work has focussed on post growth economics and community enterprise and in 2009 we delivered the first of two seminars on the subject of Economics in Transition at the Economics for Ecology conference at Sumy State University:

    At issue: how can we create an economy based on people, to achieve financial profit, social benefit, and a safer, cleaner environment.?

    What would such an economy look like? How can it work? What can be done in Ukraine to achieve it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s