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The FFC Bulletin 2015 V1 – Comment – Agricultural paradigm shifts, climate smart farming and agro-ecology

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By Charles Merfield

The chorus of calls for a fundamental change to how humanity farms continues to grow louder.  No longer are these calls just coming from the periphery of agriculture or from advocates for alternative forms of farming such as organic agriculture. They are now coming from the very heart of the establishment.  The most recent call came from José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the FAO speaking at the international forum on agriculture and climate change said that:

“The model of agricultural production that predominates today is not suitable for the new food security challenges of the 21st century” and that “Since food production is not a sufficient condition for food security, it means that the way we are producing is no longer acceptable.  What we are still mostly seeing is a model of production that cannot prevent the degradation of soils and the loss of biodiversity – both of which are essential goods, especially for future generations. This model must be reviewed. We need a paradigm shift. Food systems need to be more sustainable, inclusive and resilient,”

The FAO has been at the heart of intensive agriculture that has dominated the world for the last half century.  For the head of the FAO to be saying that a paradigm shift is required away from intensive agriculture is a profound reversal of the long-term position of the organisation.

That the Director-General’s comments were made at an international conference on agriculture and climate change is also highly significant.  To date, agriculture has been in the ‘to hard basket’ when it comes to climate change.  This is for many reasons, from practical on-farm issues e.g., changing to electric tractors / renewable fuels, to highly political, e.g., the issues around global agricultural subsidies.  This is despite agriculture being responsible for about 30% of climate change when upstream inputs such as synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are included, and despite agriculture being highly susceptible to climate change’s impacts.  That the FAO is actively engaging in the interaction between agriculture and climate change is therefore both important and significant.

In addition, there is another quite profound shift in position indicated by the statement “food production is not a sufficient condition for food security”.  The foundational belief / philosophy of intensive agriculture and the green revolution has been that to feed people yield has to be increased, i.e., their is a direct linkage between increasing yield and decreasing hunger.  Graziano da Silva’s statement says that that this keystone of intensive agriculture is no longer considered to be correct, i.e., the underpinning philosophy of agriculture, for the last sixty plus years, is now considered to be flawed.

The last part of the statement is equally revolutionary.  A key corollary to the yield maximisation focus of intensive agriculture and the green revolution was that only yield mattered, and that agriculture should do and use what ever tools were necessary to achieve the aim.  Graziano da Silva is now saying that this single focus is also flawed and that agriculture needs to have multiple objectives, such as preserving soil and protecting biodiversity.  These issues are often corralled under the concept of ‘ecosystem services’ i.e., all the other things that farms produce, from oxygen for people to breathe and beautiful landscapes for people to enjoy, but that farmers and growers don’t get paid for.

So, while there is often a long time between big statements from world leaders and real change on the ground, it is clear that calls for change in agriculture continue at the highest levels of international politics and scientific research.  New Zealand agriculture and the government therefore needs to pay close attention to, and act on these changes, if it is not to be caught out as our high value international customers increasingly demand action on these issues, and also to address domestic public opinion within New Zealand about agricultures impact on the wider environment.  The good news is that many of the solutions are already to hand having been refined and honed as part of the many alternative agricultures, such as agro-ecology and agro-forestry, so farmers and growers do not have to reinvent the wheel, then just need to bolt the ‘new tyres’ onto the farm to make great progress.

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