Editorial – April 2018

Kerry Cochrane, Editor

The theme for this editorial is on chemicals and productivity. It links in with the edition last month which focused on Dr Charlie Massy and his book The Call of the Reed Warbler. Massy’s book tells the story of agroecology and its place in agriculture…… and the story in this edition rebounds off that.

The starting point, though, is France and the work of ecologist Vincent Bretagnolle who studied alternative approaches to industrial agriculture over an area of 450 square kilometres of farmland south of Niort, in Western France.

Bretagnille found that reducing chemical and nitrogen use by 40-50% had no noticeable impact on yield. In short it is a waste of money. His research goes deeper than that by documenting the impact of chemicals on the environment and biodiversity. He believes that productivism has run its course and that a new form of agriculture has to emerge which he refers to as agroecology. Read on:

https://news.cnrs.fr/articles/when-productivism-is-bad-for-agriculture

The need for a transformation from industrial agriculture to agroecology featured in Frances Moore Lappe’s article Farming for a Small Planet. Writing in the Local Futures online newsletter (https://www.localfutures.org/farming-small-planet/#comments) Lappe states that:

“people yearn for alternatives to industrial agriculture, but they are worried. They see large-scale operations relying on corporate-supplied chemical inputs as the only high-productivity farming model. Another approach might be kinder to the environment and less risky for consumers, but, they assume, it would not be up to the task of providing all the food needed by our still-growing global population.”

“Contrary to such assumptions, there is ample evidence that an alternative approach—organic agriculture, or more broadly “agroecology”—is actually the only way to ensure that all people have access to sufficient, healthful food. Inefficiency and ecological destruction are built into the industrial model. But, beyond that, our ability to meet the world’s needs is only partially determined by what quantities are produced in fields, pastures, and waterways. Wider societal rules and norms ultimately shape whether any given quantity of food produced is actually used to meet humanity’s needs. In many ways, how we grow food determines who can eat and who cannot—no matter how much we produce. Solving our multiple food crises thus requires a systems approach in which citizens around the world remake our understanding and practice of democracy.”

“The industrial model of farming is not a viable path to meeting humanity’s food needs for yet another reason: it contributes nearly 20 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, even more than the transportation sector. The most significant emissions from agriculture are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide is released in deforestation and subsequent burning, mostly in order to grow feed, as well as from decaying plants. Methane is released by ruminant livestock, mainly via their flatulence and belching, as well as by manure and in rice paddy cultivation. Nitrous oxide is released largely by manure and manufactured fertilizers. Although carbon dioxide receives most of the attention, methane and nitrous oxide are also serious. Over a hundred-year period, methane is, molecule for molecule, 34 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas, and nitrous oxide about 300 times, than carbon dioxide.

“Our food system also increasingly involves transportation, processing, packaging, refrigeration, storage, wholesale and retail operations, and waste management—all of which emit greenhouses gases. Accounting for these impacts, the total food system’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, from land to landfill, could be as high as 29 percent. Most startlingly, emissions from food and agriculture are growing so fast that, if they continue to increase at the current rate, they alone could use up the safe budget for all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

“These dire drawbacks are mere symptoms. They flow from the internal logic of the model itself. The reason that industrial agriculture cannot meet the world’s needs is that the structural forces driving it are misaligned with nature, including human nature.”

For details go to https://www.localfutures.org/farming-small-planet/?subscribe=success#blog_subscription-3

And still on industrial agriculture Boorowa grazier David Marsh writing for the ARLASH website makes the point as follows:

“The species farmers have sown using the Industrial Agricultural model, species such as Cocksfoot, Phalaris, Lucerne, Sub Clover, Prairie Grass, Fescue, and herbs such as Chickory and Plantain have been chosen for their vigour and competitiveness. Most of them come from the Northern Hemisphere. Their big drawback is that they are not really suited to our soils, so we have to spend money trying to alter the soil conditions to suit them. This means capital expenses for lime, inorganic fertilisers, weed control. If we fail to manage them properly, that is, to allow them to recover from grazing, they will quickly thin out and need to be re-sown. This is a huge capital cost, one from which it is hard to make a return that justifies the expense.

In selecting and introducing these exotic species, farmers are unwittingly being enticed onto a treadmill of increasing purchase of products and often a spiral of debt from which they find it hard to escape. Thus the business model of the suppliers of products seems almost foolproof… apply the research that shows increased yield, purchase ‘improved’ seed, fertilisers, herbicides, apply two and a half tonnes of lime per hectare to correct the soil acidity related to too much nitrogen from clover.

If unplanned grazing is practiced, pastures like this will need re-sowing every five to seven years, the cost of sowing will not have been recouped and the whole cycle of re-sowing, fertilisers, herbicides begins again. It’s a good deal for the supplier, but not so for the farmer, or the land.”

The above extract is the final paragraph in a delightful broad brush look at the Australian landscape…and history. Read the full article at http://www.arlash.com/blog/

Kerry Cochrane
Editor
kcochrane@ecoag.org.au

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