Agriculture may be what feeds us but industrial farming methods are threatening our planet. How can farmers produce enough food to feed a swelling population in a way that benefits the Earth, themselves and their communities, and anyone who eats? Solutions exist — we just need to embrace them.
Adopt agroecological systems
New agriculture systems are needed and “agroecology” seems to be a winner. Agroecology seeks to apply ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems, farming in a way that overcomes the need for synthetic fertilisers and chemicals. It encompasses organic, biodynamic and biological farming systems.
One of agroecology’s major benefits is it helps to replenish lost stores of carbon in the soil. According to farming systems agronomist Dr Maarten Stapper, the harsh synthetics used in current farming methods ignore the delicate balance of microbes, humus, trace minerals and nutrients in the soil. “A healthy system is based on healthy soils, but our farming methods have degraded soils by 20–80 per cent across the world,” he says.
“We need to improve the amount of carbon in the soil. Agroecological farming puts carbon dioxide back into the soil as plants capture the C02 and transmute part of it to soil organic carbon through the stimulation of soil microbes — life in the soil — and earthworms become active and create castings,which are mainly carbon. We can double our carbon in the soil in two to three years. It’s absolutely amazing to see that happening.”
Dr Stapper says many farmers in Australia and worldwide are switching to agroecology after personal experiences. “They see the landscape going backwards. Some people have problems with health and they change their farming to use less chemicals. Lots of negatives lead individual farmers to create big change.”
Yet, adoption rates for agroecological methods are still low, he cautions. There are few advisory services to guide farmers, few R&D dollars have been devoted to agroecological methods and, equally, successful agroecological farmers need a “green thumb”: an intuitive sense of what’s good for soil, plants and animals.
An easily adopted option is biological agriculture, a practice that’s emerging in the US and helps farmers move profitably, gradually towards organic farming. Dr Stapper says farmers incrementally create healthy soils using biological inputs while still using, but minimising, “synthetic inputs that work against biology and balance”. Costs decrease over time, yield remains high, soil — and food — quality increases and profitability is enhanced as conventional farmers avoid the unprofitable transition phase of converting to certified organic.
Says Dr Stapper, “Biological farming merges the principles and best practices of organic farming and modern farming to make the best path of food production for the future.”
How can you help speed up the shift to more sustainable, more ecological — and, yes, more productive — farming?
1. Lobby for all levels of government to work with stakeholders to create public policies, regulatory frameworks and international agreements that encourage more ecological farming practices.
2. Ask your local council to educate farmers in agroecological practices and take the lead in managing community ecosystems.
3. Farmers: research innovative practices, give them a shot — and share them with your neighbours.
4. Anyone who eats food: vote with your dollar for more locally produced, seasonal, high-quality food that’s grown in an ecological way. And ask for it at your supermarket.
As Dr Maarten Stapper says, “it’s the consumer that’s in charge of the whole system.