Our industrial agriculture system is one of the biggest causes of global environmental problems and economic inequality. The environmental damage from today’s overexploitation of our natural resources such as water, the soil and species diversity, endangers food security and the development potential of poor countries. As early as 2008, the UN’s Agriculture and Food Council reached the conclusion in its IAASTD Report – Agriculture at a Crossroads that “business as usual is not an option.” Subsequent studies confirmed that a change of direction towards ecologically and socially more compatible agriculture is essential.
For SWISSAID the fight against hunger therefore begins with support for more organic farming – agroecology.
This focuses on renewable instead of limited resources; it uses water efficiently, preserves soil fertility and ecosystems with high species numbers and diversity, generates clean groundwater and fights climate change and desertification. Hunger and poverty can only be meaningfully resisted if they are not bought with short-term successes that adversely impact the future.
What is agroecology?
Based on the model of natural habitats, agroecology creates and promotes a balanced system that harnesses synergies among animals, plants and inanimate nature for the efficient production of food.
Fertile soil is the pivotal aspect of agroecology
The key aspect is the targeted use and strengthening of natural cycles and mutual dependencies. Resources (e.g. nitrogen, carbon, water) should be “recycled” as much as possible because this minimises adverse environmental and health effects and boosts autonomy. For example, fertiliser is produced as locally as possible, e.g. from animal manure and the nutrients consumed by the working animal are fed back to the same field.
Organic pest control replaces pesticides
The targeted use of natural repellents, promoting beneficial plants and animals as well as the diversified cultivation of different plants in most cases replaces expensive procurement of chemical agents. This Integrated Pest Management strengthens the pre-existing natural system in a stable state and therefore manages most of the task.
Diversity instead of monocultures
Diverse cultures and the use of locally adapted seed are a further important element of agroecology. Through the diversity of plants the system becomes more stable against extreme events and changing climatic conditions. Additionally, nutrition becomes more varied and healthier.
Combining traditional and modern knowledge
Agroecology requires considerable knowledge. Therefore independent, practically oriented research and consultation are important. This should integrate and further develop multifaceted traditional knowledge and practices.
Organic is also social
The human being is at the centre of all agroecological considerations because agroecology helps the farmers to produce more diverse food with a longer life span in a healthier way. Agroecological farming strengthens farmers’ traditional way of life and therefore contributes to preservation and upgrading of rural spaces and structures.
Organic? Agroecological? Ecological?
SWISSAID uses the simpler and more intuitive term “organic” instead of “agroecology” in its publicity campaigns. However, this terminology is used to refer to the agricultural farming practices that are described here. In Switzerland the term “organic” refers to a clearly defined label with definite guidelines. Hence, the Swiss reference to “organic” corresponds only to some of the approaches adopted by agroecology. We regard such systems of certified organic farming as one of many possible agroecological options.
Read more information in our position paper.
These contexts are visually demonstrated through an agroecological system of rice cultivation from Asia: fish and ducks are kept on the rice field; on the one hand, they eat the pests and on the other hand their manure fertilises the rice. Additionally, they also provide a source of protein for people. Azolla duckweed floating in the water fixes atmospheric nitrogen and thus fertilises the rice as well as being a source of food for the ducks.
How does SWISSAID promote agroecology?
In all partner countries we put an emphasis on agroecological farming methods. For example, locally adapted seed varieties are safely stored, increased and distributed. The deliberate use of traditional varieties can improve these; and they can be adapted to changed climatic conditions. Therefore, they increase food security. Our partner organisations provide education and further training on agroecological farming and help with conversion. On a political level our partner organisations campaign for co-determination for small farmers, women’s groups, farmer organisations and indigenous communities, and to strengthen organic farming.
For example, in many partner countries SWISSAID has initiated seed campaigns that promote the use of local seed varieties.
Collaborative work with universities and other research institutions is another important pillar of our work.
SWISSAID promotes agroecology at home. We advocate that Swiss official agencies play a leading role both at home and internationally in organic farming practices and research.
Can agroecology feed the world?
The frequently raised objection that not enough food can be produced with agroecology is rejected in an increasing number of studies (see further position paper, in particular Appendix to the studies). More importantly, in bad years agroecological systems perform better in terms of yields than conventional systems, and thus offer farmers more security than conventional production methods.