How Twenty-First-Century Science Can Feed the World

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* Article: The New Green Revolution: How Twenty-First-Century Science Can Feed the World. By Olivier De Schutter, Gaëtan Vanloqueren. Solutions Journal, Volume 2 | Issue 4 | Page 33-44 | Aug 2011



"The combined effects of climate change, energy scarcity, and water paucity require that we radically rethink our agricultural systems. Countries can and must reorient their agricultural systems toward modes of production that are not only highly productive, but also highly sustainable. Following the 2008 global food price crisis, many developing countries have adopted new food security policies and have made significant investments in their agricultural systems. Global hunger is also back on top of the international agenda. However, the question is not only how much is done, but also how it is done—and what kinds of food systems are now being rebuilt.

Agroecology, the application of ecological science to the study, design, and management of sustainable agriculture, offers a model of agricultural development to meet this challenge. Recent research demonstrates that it holds great promise for the roughly 500 million food-insecure households around the world. By scaling up its practice, we can sustainably improve the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, and thus contribute to feeding a hungry planet.

Key Concepts

  • There are roughly 925 million hungry people on the planet. Many of them are smallholder farmers or farm laborers.
  • With many governments poised for a large-scale reinvestment in agriculture, the question is not only how much, but how.
  • Agroecology — the effort to mimic ecological processes in agriculture — could provide a framework for this reinvestment. Already, agroecological practices are being used around the world, increasing productivity and improving efficiency in the use of water, soil, and sunlight.
  • But before agroecological practices can be scaled up globally, we must assess the market and political obstacles that stand in their way. Here, we present six principles that could help us overcome these obstacles.
  • Our “farmers-in-chief”—heads of states—can make the new paradigm on agriculture, food, and hunger a reality."



The New Agricultural Paradigm

Olivier De Schutter and Gaëtan Vanloqueren:

"A few decades ago, agronomists were faced with a sharp increase in pest outbreaks in modern monocultures, while ecologists were starting to model the complex interactions between insects and plants. At the same time, scientists were observing the effectiveness of traditional farming systems. The two scientific disciplines of agronomy and ecology converged, shaping the field of agroecology. Agroecology is the application of ecological science to the study, design, and management of sustainable agriculture.12,13 It seeks to mimic natural ecological processes, and it emphasizes the importance of improving the entire agricultural system, not just the plant.

The pioneers of agroecology proposed that agroecological systems be based on five ecological principles:

(1) recycling biomass and balancing nutrient flow and availability;

(2) securing favorable soil conditions for plant growth through enhanced organic matter;

(3) minimizing losses of solar radiation, water, and nutrients by way of microclimate management, water harvesting, and soil cover;

(4) enhancing biological and genetic diversification on cropland; and

(5) enhancing beneficial biological interactions and minimizing the use of pesticides. Now, agroecologists are looking to integrate food systems, as well as agricultural systems, into the scope of agroecology.

A growing number of scientists work and publish on this field, and, recently, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a four-year study involving 400 experts from all regions as well as international organizations such as the World Bank, the FAO, and UNEP, called for a fundamental paradigm shift in agricultural development and strongly advocated the increase of agroecological science and practice. Agroecology is also at the core of the latest reports published by the FAO and UNEP. Meanwhile, the farmers united through La Via Campesina, the largest transnational peasant movement, have rapidly integrated agroecological principles in recent years.

Today, agroecology has concrete applications on all continents. Its results speak for themselves. The widest study ever conducted on these approaches, led by Jules Pretty of the University of Essex, identified 286 recent interventions of resource-conserving technologies in 57 developing countries covering a total area of 37 million hectares in 2006. The average crop yield increase was 79 percent, and a full quarter of projects reported relative yields greater than 2.0 (i.e., 100 percent increase). Malawi, which ramped up its fertilizer subsidy program in 2002 following the dramatic drought-induced food crisis the year before, is now also implementing agroforestry systems using nitrogen-fixing trees. (Agroforestry involves planting trees with crops to more efficiently use land, nutrients, and water.) By mid-2009, over 120,000 Malawian farmers had received training and tree materials from the program, and support from Ireland has enabled extension of the program to 40 percent of Malawi’s districts, benefiting 1.3 million of its poorest people. Research shows that the program has increased yields from one ton per hectare to two to three tons per hectare, even if farmers cannot afford commercial nitrogen fertilizers. With an application of a quarter-dose of mineral fertilizer, maize yields may surpass four tons per hectare.

The Malawi example shows that while investment in organic fertilizing techniques should be a priority, it should not exclude the use of other fertilizers. An optimal solution could be a “subsidy to sustainability” approach: an exit strategy from fertilizer subsidy schemes that would link fertilizer subsidies directly to agroforestry investments on the farm in order to provide for long-term sustainability in nutrient supply, and to build soil health for sustained yields and improved efficiency in fertilizer use.23 In Tanzania, 350,000 hectares of land have been rehabilitated in the Western provinces of Shinyanga and Tabora using agroforestry.24 In Zambia, agroforestry practices outperform fertilizers in rural areas where road infrastructure is poor and transport costs for fertilizer are high (which is the case in much of the African continent). The benefit to cost ratio for agroforestry practices ranges between 2.77 to 3.13 in contrast to 2.65 with subsidized fertilizer applications, 1.77 in fields with nonsubsidized fertilizer, and 2.01 in nonfertilized fields.25 Dennis Garrity, the director of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, estimates that a global implementation of agroforestry methods could result in 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere—about a third of the world’s total carbon reduction target.26 Such agricultural developments are examples of what many experts and scientists are calling the “evergreen revolution.” Among them is M.S. Swaminathan, the architect of the first Green Revolution in India, who now advocates organic farming." (

Scaling Up Sustainable Agriculture: Policies for Change

Olivier De Schutter and Gaëtan Vanloqueren:

"Despite these obstacles, the scaling up of existing agroecological practices is achievable if we can develop a policy framework to move from successful pilot projects to nationwide policies.

Six key principles could help us do this.

First, we need better targeting. Focusing our efforts on the needs of smallholders may seem obvious, yet only a few existing programs effectively target this group. Today, 50 percent of the hungry live in small-scale farming households, living off less than two hectares of land, and 20 percent are landless. This is unacceptable. Nor is it adequate to fixate on productivity improvements in breadbasket regions while ignoring the people who live in more inhospitable environments such as semiarid lands or hills. Trickle-down economics failed the test in Africa and South Asia—the two regions with the highest incidence of hunger. In the 1960s, investing in the Punjab (as the Green Revolution did) did little to improve the situation of farmers in the eroded hills of Karnataka.

Second, the redistribution of public goods must be prioritized in food security policies. Agroecological practices require public goods such as extension services; storage facilities; rural infrastructure (roads, electricity, and information and communication technologies) for access to regional and local markets; credit and insurance against weather-related risks; agricultural research and development; education; and support to farmers’ organizations and cooperatives. The investment can be significantly more sustainable than the provision of private goods, such as fertilizers or pesticides that farmers can only afford so long as they are subsidized. World Bank economists have rightly noted that “underinvestment in agriculture is […] compounded by extensive misinvestment” with a bias toward the provision of private goods, sometimes motivated by political considerations. A 1985–2001 study of 15 Latin American countries in which government subsidies for private goods were distinguished from expenditures on public goods indicated that, within a fixed national agriculture budget, a reallocation of 10 percent of spending to supplying public goods increases agricultural per capita income by 5 percent, while a 10 percent increase in public spending on agriculture, keeping the spending composition constant, increases per capita agricultural income by only 2 percent.61 In other words, “even without changing overall expenditures, governments can improve the economic performance of their agricultural sectors by devoting a greater share of those expenditures to social services and public goods instead of non-social subsidies.”62 Thus, while the provision or subsidization of private goods may be necessary to a point, the opportunity costs should be carefully considered. Extension services that can teach farmers—often women—about agroecological practices are particularly vital. In today’s knowledge-based economies, increasing skills and disseminating information are as important as building roads or distributing improved seeds. Agroecological practices are knowledge-intensive and require the development of both ecological literacy and decision-making skills in farm communities.

Market failures affect the provision of these services. There is just too little incentive for the private sector to invest in these domains, and transaction costs are too high for local communities to create these goods themselves. States must step in. Seeds and fertilizers at subsidized prices are not a substitute for these public goods, although they may be competing for the provision of private assets in public budgets. Increasing the share of public goods in the government’s budget would have a significant positive impact on rural per capita income.

Third, if we want the best food security policies, we need a richer understanding of innovation that includes indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge. Simply put, not all innovations come from experts in white coats in laboratories. In large areas of Asia, farmers now join farmer field schools, a group-based learning process that enables farmer-to-farmer instruction. In India, farmers pool their seeds in community seed banks, which are administered through institutional arrangements to ensure the availability of planting material and the preservation and improvement of agrobiodiversity. And in Ghana, scientists launched radio broadcasts in local languages to popularize the best techniques to grow rice without additional inputs, rather than breeding new rice varieties. These techniques were identified through consultations with peasant groups, and they resulted in an average yield increase of 56 percent.63 Farmer field schools and community seed banks are not new technologies: they are social or institutional innovations. Such innovations are important to future food security because they can channel farmers’ experiences into knowledge-sharing processes with a considerable multiplier effect and at minimal cost.

Fourth, programs and policies must involve meaningful participation of smallholders. While some of the largest efforts to reinvest in agriculture shy away from a genuine engagement with representative farmer organizations, participation, if done properly, has several advantages for food security. First, it enables us to benefit from the experience and insights of the farmers. Second, participation can ensure that policies and programs are truly responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups. Third, participation empowers the poor, a vital step toward poverty alleviation because the lack of power exacerbates poverty: marginal communities often receive less support and are less able to advocate for their rights than the groups that are better connected to government. And finally, collaborations between farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders will facilitate innovation and create new knowledge.

Existing projects demonstrate that participation works. Farmer field schools have been shown to significantly reduce pesticide use: large-scale studies from Indonesia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh recorded 35 to 92 percent reduction in insecticide use for rice.65 At the same time, the schools have contributed to a 4 to 14 percent improvement in cotton yields in China, India, and Pakistan.65 In Syria, Nepal, Nicaragua, and many other countries, participatory plant breeding schemes have been introduced in which researchers work directly with farmers, often combining traditional seeds with modern varieties. This practice empowers poor rural women who are key actors in seed management. In Latin America, the Campesino a Campesino movement has demonstrated that, when given the chance to generate and share agroecological knowledge among themselves, smallholders are very capable of improving their methods. In Cuba, a country that met its own peak oil when cheap oil imports from the USSR stopped, the adoption of agroecological practices was supported by the National Association of Small Farmers: between 2001 and 2009, the number of promotores (technical advisers and coordinators) increased from 114 to 11,935 and a total of 121,000 workshops on agroecological practices were organized.

Participation, a key principle in the activities of the grassroots organizations and NGOs that currently promote agroecology, should be an element in all food security policies, from policy design to management of extension services. Experts, technical advisers, and farmers should be encouraged to collaborate in identifying innovative solutions.

Fifth, states could use public procurement to speed a transition toward sustainable agriculture. In several European countries, schools have already started sourcing food from local producers with sustainability criteria. In June 2009 Brazil decided that 30 percent of the food served in its national school-feeding program should come from family farms.

Sixth, performance criteria used to monitor agricultural projects must go beyond classical agronomical measures, such as yield, and economic measures, such as productivity per unit of labor. In a world of finite resources and in a time of widespread rural unemployment, productivity per unit of land or water is a vital indicator of success. Overall, measuring efficiency in the new agricultural paradigm of agroecology requires a comprehensive set of indicators that assesses the impacts of agricultural projects or new technologies on incomes, resource efficiency, hunger and malnutrition, empowerment of beneficiaries, ecosystem health, public health, and nutritional adequacy. The assessment of progress should be appropriately disaggregated by population, so that improvements in the status of vulnerable populations can be monitored.

Promoting agroecological approaches does not mean that breeding new plant varieties is unimportant. Indeed, it is vital. Already, new varieties with shorter growing cycles enable farmers to continue farming in regions where the crop season has already shrunk and where classical varieties did not have time to mature before the arrival of the dry season. Breeding can also improve the level of drought resistance in plant varieties, an asset for countries where lack of water is a limiting factor. Reinvesting in agricultural research must involve continued efforts in breeding, though caution is needed due to the drawbacks of current seed policies and of intellectual property regimes on seeds. Just as breeding should not be discontinued, but rather done with the participation of the farmers most in need, fertilizers should not be forbidden. Agroecology provides the larger framework for their use, and it emphasizes that fertilization can be pursued through natural means, such as nitrogen-fixing trees." (