Opinion: Ecological agriculture as a coping mechanism amid pandemics
By Thulasizwe Mkhabela
JOHANNESBURG - The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated many countries and their economies in ways that no-one could have imagined. While the pandemic is primarily a health crisis, it has come to encompass all aspects of life thus requiring comprehensive national and international collective action.
It is safe to say that there will be life after the pandemic in an era of living with the virus rather than life “after Covid-19”.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed both the strengths and limitations of globalization and current economic world order. The crisis has revealed the vagaries of the modern agrifood system heavily reliant on industrialized food production and its convoluted value chains for food from farm to eventually reach shelves of local supermarkets and other outlets. It must be said that there are many benefits to this agrifood system, including low prices for consumers and larger, even global, markets for producers.
However, just like any other system, the current predominant food system has its drawbacks which largely manifest in costs to the environment, workers, and smallholder farmers, to regional and/or individual nation's food security.
The disadvantages of the current food system has led many people to look once again at the benefits of smallholder farms and locally produced fruits, vegetables and meat. At the heart of this renaissance and re-emergence of low-input agriculture – food production, is the desire for more ecological and sustainable production systems and support for local communities. Ecological agriculture, including organic farming, holds the promise for sustainability through conscious good environmental and natural resources stewardship.
Such good custody of natural endowments augurs well for health eating and food security for the long haul. Ecological agricultural production is more holistic in nature and more patient in that it does not advocate for the attainment of maximum production potential at the expense of overly and unsustainably exploiting the environment.
Such as systems using lower input levels, especially those inputs that are xenotic the natural environment. Ecological agriculture works with the natural processes of the soil and interactions in the environment thus using nature’s inherent ability to support life.
Smallholder farmers producing for local markets are the norm in developing countries, especially in Africa and South East Asia, rather than the exception.
While smallholder agriculture has many benefits, it is far from ideal. Small-scale agricultural production often translates into low incomes and even poverty for those involved. But it doesn't have to be.
There are many successful initiatives to help farmers raise their productivity and incomes, improve their communities and amass capital to expand agricultural output and start small businesses. All of this can be done in an environmentally sustainable manner that builds resilience to external shocks, including climate change and even pandemics.
There is growing anecdotal small-scale farmers have continued to have a secure supply of food during this emergency as they predominantly live off what they grow on their own land despite government imposed state of emergencies and their attendant restrictions of economic activity. These holistic community-based development programmes also improve health and sanitation, teach literacy and help develop local leaders who plan and advocate for their communities.
Literature is awash with successes in farming communities in countries such as Nepal, India, East and West Africa, Guatemala, Peru, Burkina Faso, and several other countries in building resilience and food security through smallholder farmers and low-input production systems. Furthermore, it is postulated that small-scale agricultural producers have a strong capacity for innovation. For example, in Burkina Faso, indigenous soil and water conservation techniques improve production and contribute considerably to food security. Thus, there is a case for fully utilizing indigenous knowledge including enthopedology to promote more sustainable and environmentally-friendly agricultural production systems in order to engender an ecological food system that also supports farmers’ livelihoods and profits.
Hence, ecological farming and productivity (read profitability) are not necessarily mutually exclusive or contradictory.
While organic farming techniques are becoming well-established throughout the world, there are still many techniques to learn from farmers in developing countries. These include animal-derived pesticides, closed loop aquaculture, simple low-water irrigation systems, and many more.
This advocates for enhanced scientific capacity in order to provide readily-available reliable and accurate information and appropriate technologies to render ecological farming evidence-based thus more credible and acceptable.
It is advocated in this article that public research institutions such as the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and others in the same mould should be at the cutting edge of such research as it is viewed as public good.
The argument presented here is not to bedevil conventional agriculture, but to present an alternative that is more sustainable and more attractive to smallholder farmers who dominate the agricultural landscape in the African continent and no meaningful developmental interventions can succeed without including smallholder farmers.
Globalisation of ideas, goods, capital and cooperation is a significant achievement –warts and all. Its warts include how food is produced, transported and consumed on a large scale. Paradoxically, these drawbacks are best addressed by more globalisation. Specifically, smallholder farmers in developing countries sharing their innovations with farmers in other developing and developed countries. There is no harm in learning how to improve incomes, health and food security in responsible and sustainable ways.
Dr Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and is currently the Group Executive: Impact & Partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council; [email protected]