In keeping with the general theme of a new “gift” economy, Colin Tudge and Graham Harvey’s article in the Ecologist focuses on “a sustainable, people-centered agriculture.”
…we are launching our ‘Manifesto for a new agriculture’ at the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2014. A key theme is ‘agroecology’ – farming that takes its lead from nature. It conceives each farm as a mini-ecosystem, and agriculture as a whole as a key player in the global biosphere. Physiology is a vital science in agroecology – how plants and animals function – and psychology too in the case of livestock, for farm animals are sentient and to keep them without cruelty we need to understand what keeps them content. Overall, though, we need ecology – often still seen as a woolly pursuit but in truth the most intricate and the most ‘modern’ of all biological sciences. Learning from NatureFor centuries peoples around the globe have found their own ways of doing this. Agroecology pursues these same principles.
In practice, if we are to feed everyone well for all time – without wrecking the planet – we need farming that is productive, sustainable, resilient – and regenerative: able to restore fertility and life to land that seems damaged beyond redemption.
We cannot slavishly follow nature, but we can certainly learn its principal lessons. For nature has been productive without interruption for the past 3.8 billion years, while the continents have spun and migrated over the globe and the climate has veered from pole-to-pole ice to pole-to-pole tropics and back again.
Nature is not maximally productive. Natural selection does not favour maximum production from entire ecosystems. It demands survival of individual lineages, and that is quite different.
But – contrary to the mantra of politicians – we don’t need our agriculture to be maximally productive either.
Production is not the issue
The UN demographers say that while human numbers continue to rise, the percentage rate of increase is reducing and will be down to zero by 2050. The population will stabilise, then start to fall. So 9.5 billion is as many as we will ever have to provide for.
We already produce 50% more food than will be needed. People go hungry because the wrong foods are grown in the wrong places by the wrong methods. And about half of what is produced is subsequently wasted.
Production is not the issue. The powers-that-be are demanding more because it’ll generate profits, mostly for large corporations. Global grains surpluses are now so great that half of them are fed wastefully to livestock, with an increasing amount turned into biofuels.
Not more, but better
We recognise that farms in general need to be more fertile than most wild land in order to raise output – at least of the things we like to eat. But the plea for 50% more is pure hype, commercial and political.
The real task is to grow as much as we do now (or perhaps less) but to a higher standard, more humanely, and with less damage to the wider environment. We need farming that is more sustainable and resilient, and here nature clearly has much to teach us.