By Stéphane Groleau

Last February, I attended a lecture by Miguel Altieri, a renowned researcher in the field of agro ecology. Two hundred and fifty people (students, farmers and advisers) took part in the event. A specialist in insect biology, he teaches entomology at the College of Natural Resources at the University of California in Berkeley. Although it’s not vegan, agro ecology is worth knowing about. Many principles may motivate us, especially within a global context. In fact, they often reminded me of my classes in permaculture. Moreover, as in permaculture, the design of the growing system is heavily influenced depending on whether or not people choose to integrate animals. Below are the highlights from his talk:

From the outset, Altieri showed us the context of modern agriculture: increase in farm input costs, reduction in the number of farms, agricultural pollution, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, increase in human health problems, globalization, and obviously climate change. For him, the situation on the planet is critical: “We must change our lifestyle, and the changes need to come from the ones who are causing the problems: North America, Japan, Europe, and eventually China and India. If we take action today, the temperature will increase by only 2.5%, which will cause many problems. If nothing is done, the temperature will rise at least 4.5°C, which is catastrophic.” And changes have to happen not only in agriculture, but also in transportation, housing, and diet – all at the same time.

Agriculture at a crossroads

Today, there is huge pressure on agriculture to produce enough food, to produce food that is healthy without damaging the environment, and to preserve soil and biodiversity. In addition, we are now asking agriculture to produce bio-fuel. To respond to all that, there are two models: the first one consists of big farms controlled by corporations using the industrial model, genetically engineered organisms (GMO) and oriented toward export. The second model focuses on small farms based on the concept of food sovereignty. This concept encompasses three aspects: access to resources (land, seeds, water), access to knowledge (how to grow) and access to markets (able to sell their produce). People or countries should have the right to feed their population first. So for Altieri, there’s no question: in his field of study, small diversified farms are a treasure for the planet and represent the building blocks of a healthy and protective agro-ecosystem.

Facing the important climate change issue, Altieri points out that we hear much about its impact, but we never talk about how to adapt. That’s one of the issues addressed by agro ecology. Following Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the study of 1,000 diversified farms and 1,000 conventional farms showed that 80% of the landslides occurred on conventional farms. In many areas of the world, traditional systems will be able to survive and adapt to climate change. Organic farming production is also more stable during drought, and yields are better because of the higher amount of organic material in the soil. Organic material absorbs up to 100 times its volume. “On the contrary, in the U.S., farmers have observed the stems splitting on GMO corn during droughts,” notes Altieri.

“Small farms feed the people, preserve bio-diversity, and cool down the planet,” says Altieri. In Latin America, he estimates that 80% of the farmers own 25% of the land (often marginal lands), but produce 60% of the food eaten by the population. The large properties, owned by big corporations, grow sugar cane, soybean, canola, and corn, all for export. These days, it’s even worse with the pressure for bio-fuel. In the United-States, even if all arable land were devoted to growing corn for bio-fuel, only 12% of its energy needs could be filled. So growers go elsewhere to produce it. This makes food prices rise. In Mexico, the price of tortillas has doubled in recent years. The industrial model serves to feed cars, not humans. And the quantity of corn used to produce 25 gallons (100 liters) of bio-fuel could feed a human for a whole year.

More than organic

Altieri criticizes the large-scale organic farms movement, and talks about going beyond organic. In many cases, he observed that organic is just a replacement model where instead of using chemical inputs, farmers use organic inputs. His research and travels sent him to Latin America, South America, and Europe, and he has studied many traditional growing systems. For example, in the Andes, for thousands of years, peasants used waru warus, a growing system consisting of alternating strips of water and ground. During the day, the water absorbs the heat of the sun, and then radiates it at night. Located 3,800 meters high, this clever approach allows them to grow crops even if it freezes. Today’s peasants are rediscovering this technique and using it on more than 200 ha.

Agro ecology is an alternative to the industrial model and aims to be independent of external inputs. It’s a science that brings together traditional knowledge and scientific research (agronomy, ecology, biology, etc.). The two building blocks are the soil and biodiversity. The soil is managed in a way that respects the soil food web, and considers all interaction between microorganisms. Research and observation lead some farmers to experiment with organic direct seeding without tilling and herbicides. The idea is to use green manure composed of mixed species that is rolled over to form mulch. Then, soya or corn is sown directly into this layer of organic material. By decomposing, the mulch creates a toxic zone in the soil’s first two centimeters, preventing seeds from germinating. Ninety percent of weed seeds are found in that area. The idea is to sow crop seeds four – six centimeters deep, just below the decomposing area.

“We have to reach a point where the farms can auto-regulate themselves. For example, with fields surrounded by forests, and with permanent flower alleys, we can encourage beneficial insects to migrate inside the field.” Flowers are essential for the biodiversity of predators and pollinators. They don’t all have the same effect, attracting different insects and having different flowering periods: phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) attracts big insects; alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is good for aphid predators. With the same idea, water ponds are also very important to attract and host natural predators like toads and frogs.

Research funding needed

Finally, even if techniques used in other countries look promising, Altieri stresses that solutions must be tested and adapted to each situation. There is no single recipe and he deplores the lack of funding for organic farming research: “People often say that organic farming produces less, though in the long term, studies show that yields are similar. But even with 10% less production, conventional farming produces only 10% more, although conventional research receives 98% of the funding. So what would organic production be like if instead of two percent we received 10% or 20%?”

To find out more, visit Agro Ecology in Action,

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 21 (Summer 2008), p34.