Groundbreaking New UN Report on How to Feed the World's Hungry: Ditch Corporate-Controlled Agriculture
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The push-pull method involves pushing pests away from corn by interplanting corn with an insect repelling crop called Desmodium (which can be fed to livestock), while pulling the pests toward small nearby plots of Napier grass, "a plant that excretes a sticky gum which both attracts and traps pests." In addition to controlling pests, this system produces livestock fodder, thus doubling corn yields and milk production at the same time. And it improves the soil to boot!
Significantly, the report mentions that past efforts to combat hunger focused mostly on cereals such as wheat and rice which, while important, do not provide a wide enough range of nutrients to prevent malnutrition. Thus, the biodiversity in agroecological farming systems provide much needed nutrients. "For example," the report says, "it has been estimated that indigenous fruits contribute on average about 42 percent of the natural food-basket that rural households rely on in southern Africa. This is not only an important source of vitamins and other micronutrients, but it also may be critical for sustenance during lean seasons." Indeed, in agroecological farming systems around the world, plants a conventional American farm might consider weeds are eaten as food or used in traditional herbal medicine.
De Schutter does not dismiss the U.S. government's preferred strategies of crop breeding and fertilizers as potentially helpful in the fight against hunger, but warns of caution in using them. Crop breeding, he notes, can be complementary to agroecology. Perhaps referring to efforts to develop drought-resistant maize, the report says, "Agroecology is more overarching [than crop breeding] as it supports building drought-resistant agricultural systems (including soils, plants, agrobiodiversity, etc.), not just drought-resistant plants."
When asked to provide more detail about crop breeding, De Schutter responded that "most [agroecologists] are very careful with some of these [crop breeding] technologies, particularly genetic engineering." He noted that genetically engineered crops not only carry environmental risks, but are also "associated with unsustainable farming practices and with a worrying concentration of the seed industry." In contrast, he sees promise in marker-assisted selection and participatory plant breeding, which "uses the strength of modern science, while at the same time putting farmers in the driver's seat."
De Schutter also highlights the risks of using nitrogen fertilizer, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, saying that, "the use of fertilizers [in Africa] could increase a bit without major environmental damages." He sees many reasons why agroecology is a better choice than nitrogen fertilizer, pointing out that, "many agroecological methods simply outperform mineral fertilizers: they result in similar levels of return on investments if you measure only productivity, but they create systems that are more resilient to climate change, some of them produce additional fodder for animals (nitrogen-fixing trees for instance), or fruit (thus vitamins)."
He adds that agroecological gains can be achieved with local resources, "while fertilizers need to be imported. This is not a minor issue for the balance of payment of countries! A country could thus use its foreign exchange to build modern industries and create jobs rather than buying fertilizers." However, when an urgent situation of hunger needs to be addressed, nitrogen fertilizers should not be dismissed if they can, in fact, provide the best outcome in a short-term emergency situation.
The report also warns of the harmful impact of allowing volatile prices and dumping of subsidized commodities in poor countries. Dumping occurs when a country that subsidizes its farmers (like the U.S.) promotes overproduction and causes prices to fall very low. When the excess, cheap commodities are exported to poor countries that have no trade barriers, local farmers cannot compete on price. De Schutter notes, "While not the single cause, the lowering of import tariffs in poor countries and the inability of these countries to support their small farmers" were major causes of "massive rural poverty, rural flight, and widespread hunger." He adds, "I believe that it is vital for poor countries to be allowed to protect their farming sector and to be helped in supporting this sector."