For years now, the most-asked question by detractors of the good food movement has been, “Can organic agriculture feed the world?” According to a new United Nations report, the answer is a big, fat yes.
The report, Agro-ecology and the Right to Food, released yesterday, reveals that small-scale sustainable farming would even double food production within five to 10 years in places where most hungry people on the planet live.
“We won’t solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations,” Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report, said in a press release. “The solution lies in supporting small-scale farmers’ knowledge and experimentation, and in raising incomes of smallholders so as to contribute to rural development.”
The report suggests moving away from the overuse of oil in farming, a problem that is magnified in the face of rising prices due to unrest in the Middle East. The focus is instead on agroecology, or eco-farming. “Agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry,” reads a section.
The report shows that these practices raise productivity significantly, reduce rural poverty, increase genetic diversity, improve nutrition in local populations, serve to build a resilient food system in the face of climate change, utilize fewer and more locally available resources, empower farmers and create jobs.
Of 57 impoverished countries surveyed, for example, yields had increased by an average of nearly 80 percent when farmers used methods such as placing weed-eating ducks in rice patties in Bangladesh or planting desmodium, which repels insects, in Kenyan cornfields. These practices were also cost effective, locally available and resulted from farmers working to pass on this knowledge to each other in their communities.
While the report admits that agroecology can be more labor-intensive because of the complexity of knowledge required, it shows that this is usually a short-term issue. The report underscores that agroecology creates more jobs over the long term answering critics who argue that creating more jobs in agriculture is counter-productive. “Creation of employment in rural areas in developing countries, where underemployment is currently massive, and demographic growth remains high,” states the report, “may constitute an advantage rather than a liability and may slow down rural-urban migration.”
Mark Bittman put it aptly in his column on the UN report at the New York Times, saying:
Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual—much research remains to be done—and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization.