Ecological Farming: the Seven Principles of a Food System that has People at its Heart
Ecological Farming: the Seven Principles of a Food System that has People at its Heart
Greenpeace’s Food and Farming Vision explains why Ecological Farming is the solution for a sustainable future and why we need to act now to hasten much-needed systemic change.
It needs no more than a few figures to see something is not right - almost one billion people go to sleep hungry every night. At the same time, the world produces more than enough food to feed all seven billion of us. Around one billion people are overweight or obese. A staggering 30% of the world’s food is wasted. Our problem today is not one of producing more food, but producing food where it is most needed and in a way that respects nature. The current industrial agriculture system fails to deliver this.
Meanwhile, the planet is suffering considerably. We are over-exploiting resources and reducing soil fertility, biodiversity, and water quality. Toxic substances are accumulating in our surroundings. Levels of waste are growing. And all this is occurring in the context of climate change and increased pressure on the Earth’s diminishing resources.
Our current agriculture system
Our current system depends on the use of vast amounts of chemicals, as well as fossil fuels. It is controlled by a few large corporations, which congregate in a few parts of the world, mainly in rich, industrialized countries. It relies heavily on a few key crops, undermining the basis for the sustainable food and ecological systems upon which human life depends.
This agriculture system pollutes and harms the water, the soil, and the air. It contributes massively to climate change and harms biodiversity and the wellbeing of farmers and consumers. It is part of our wider – failing – food system, which is driving:
- increased levels of corporate control in some regions of the world, resulting in decreased power of farmers and consumers to exercise choice about how and where food is grown, and what is eaten,
- high levels of waste in food chains (ranging from 20-30%), mainly post-harvest losses in developing countries and retail/post-consumer waste in the developed world (FAO, 2011a),
- large areas of land and crops devoted to feeding animals (approx. 30% of all land and 75% of agricultural land), and to biofuels (approx. 5% of all crop’s energy, (Searchinger & Heimlich 2015)),
- a global food system based on monocultures of a few cash crops, promoting unsustainable and unhealthy diets, often deficient in nutrients and causing problems of both undernourishment and obesity,
- contribution to major impacts on ecosystems, including:
- dangerous climate change (about 25% of GHG emissions including land use changes (IPCC 2014)) and air pollution,
- agriculture has now become a major contributor to water scarcity and water contamination in many regions of the world; agriculture uses
70% of freshwater resources,
- soil degradation, including widespread soil acidification due to overuse of chemical fertilisers or losses in soil organic matter,
- losses of biodiversity and agrodiversity at all levels, from genetic diversity of crops at the farm level, to losses in species richness at landscape
In addition to addressing social equity issues, such as the lack of equal access to resources for farmers - particularly women farmers, reducing systemic food waste, and switching to more healthy diets, we also need to shift from the current failing food production system to one that is compatible with Ecological Farming.
Greenpeace’s Vision for Ecological Farming: The Seven Principles
Ecological Farming is a food and agriculture system that follows the principles of agroecology.
Ecological Farming is not merely ecologically sound; it is also economically viable. It respects the societies and cultures it forms a part of. And, it is fair and systemic in its approach.
Ecological Farming is diverse. This is one of its greatest strengths – but it means the practices used in Ecological Farming are not universal, but they are locally specific.
Ecological Farming can be applied in smallholdings, as well as in large farms. Ecological Farming is diverse, knowledge intensive and low in external inputs and fossil fuels (Tittonell, 2013). It requires a systemic approach to agriculture from the field to the regional level, including diversity (soil, water, air and climate protection), but there is no universal prescription for what this approach should look like.
In spite of all its diversity, a set of general principles underlying Ecological Farming system can be identified. The next section outlines the seven principles that Greenpeace recognisesas the focus of the changes we need to make to our food system.
Ecological Farming supports a world where producers and consumers, not corporations, control the food chain. Food sovereignty is about the way food is produced, and by whom. A handful of large corporations control large parts of our food system right now – informed by the demands of a disconnected commodity market. Food sovereignty takes this control, and places it in the hands of the people who produce, distribute, and consume food. It ensures that farmers, communities and people have the right to define their own food systems.
Food sovereignty acknowledges the role of women as the backbone of rural communities, and the historic role women have played in gathering and sowing seeds, as guardians of biodiversity and genetic resources. Addressing gender equity issues is part of the broad concept of Food Sovereignty about who controls the food we grow and eat.
Benefiting farmers and rural communities
Ecological Farming contributes to rural development and fighting poverty and hunger, by enabling livelihoods in rural communities that are safe, healthy, and economically viable.
It is one of the most perverse incongruities of our current food system that the people who produce our food – farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk – often suffer most from poverty and a lack of access to food.
Evidence from Ecological Farming initiatives across the world shows that Ecological Farming – when sufficiently supported by policy instruments – can be a successful tool in providing stable financial benefits to smallholder farmers, in turn benefiting rural communities and advancing their rights to a rewarding and secure livelihood.
Smarter food production and yields - reduce the amount of animal products we produce and consume globally
To increase food availability globally, and to improve livelihoods in poorer regions, we must reduce the unsustainable use of what we grow at the moment and we must reduce food waste, decrease meat consumption, and minimise the use of land for bioenergy. We must also achieve higher yields where they are needed – through ecological means.
Feeding the world’s population – which keeps growing and, on average, getting wealthier– is not (just) about quantity. The important question is where and how we grow more food, and where we make other changes. Yields need to be increased in regions where they are very low right now, due to poverty, lack of resources, soil degradation, and the inadequate use of water. In other parts of the world, we need to reduce meat consumption, the use of croplands for bioenergy, and food waste.
Right now, corporations and food policy makers are stubbornly sticking to an increase in yields as the global goal. This obscures the real challenge - we need to rethink how we use the food we are producing - right now, and in the future. In a better food system, ecological livestock systems would make use of the agricultural land and resources not required for human food needs, and at the same time drastically reduce the amount of animal products we produce and consume globally. Equitable distribution, however, would mean that some regions could still improve their diets with animal products. Blindly increasing yields – at any price, anywhere in the world – is not a solution. Doing so in the US, for example, where a large proportion of the maize is grown for domestic fuel needs, does not help farmers in Africa or Asia. Ecological Farming would create a system where we increase yields where they are most needed – through ecological means.
Ecological Farming is about nature’s diversity – from the seed to the plate, and across the entire agricultural landscape. It is about celebrating the flavour, nutrition, and culture of the food we eat, improving diets and health.
Our current model of agriculture promotes monocultures. Vast areas of land are given over to genetically uniform plants, with little biodiversity and no refuge for wild plants or animals. This way of farming minimises the services a functioning ecosystem can provide, and it badly affects our health through poorer diets and a lack of nutritional diversity.
Ecological Farming systems do the opposite. They place nature’s diversity at their core. In doing so, they not only protect the natural habitats that are vital for biodiversity protection. They also take advantage of what nature offers in return: wild and crop seed diversity, nutrient cycling, soil regeneration, and natural enemies of pests, for instance.
Ecological Farming combines modern technology and farmers’ knowledge to develop advanced diverse seed varieties, which helps farmers to grow more food in a changing climate, without risking biodiversity with genetically engineered crops, or harming it with pesticides.
Sustainable soil health and cleaner water
It is possible to increase soil fertility without the use of chemicals. Ecological Farming also protects soils from erosion, pollution, and acidification. By increasing soil organic matter where necessary, we can enhance water retention, and prevent land degradation.
Ecological Farming pays central attention to nourishing the soil. It maintains or builds up soil organic matter (for example with compost and manures), and, in doing so, feeds the diversity of soil organisms. It also aims to protect wells, rivers, and lakes from pollution, and to make the most efficient use of water.
All this is vital in a world where agriculture is now the biggest user of fresh water, globally, and, in many regions, also the major contributor to water contamination, with nitrogen and phosphorus fertiliser pollution one of the major threats to the stability of life on the planet (Steffen et al., 2015).
Ecological pest management
Ecological Farming enables farmers to control pests and weeds – without the use of expensive chemical pesticides that can harm our soil, water and ecosystems, and the health of farmers and consumers.
Toxic chemical pesticides are a hazard for our health, and for the health of the planet. Unfortunately, the industrial farming model depends on large quantities of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides for its very existence. Our current food system has locked farmers into a costly relationship with the corporations that sell these chemicals.
Resilient food systems
Ecological Farming creates resilience: it strengthens our agriculture, and effectively adapts our food system to changing climatic conditions and economic realities.
Embracing diversity – growing different crops at the field and landscape levels – is a proven and highly reliable way to make our agriculture resilient to increasingly unpredictable changes in the climate. Well-tended soil, rich in organic matter, is much better at holding water during droughts, and much less prone to erode during floods. Farmers can benefit in another way - if your farming is diverse, so is your stream of income – providing security in uncertain times.
A redesigned food system would provide large-scale carbon sinks and many other ways to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (climate mitigation). Nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen fixation, and soil regeneration would reduce carbon emissions. And while livestock plays a key role in agroecosystems, animal production and consumption would be changed radically. All this makes Ecological Farming one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against climate.
Greenpeace International Netherlands