Small scale agriculture, yes we can

Pesticides, fertilizer, depletion of agricultural land, dead soil. These are the consequences of large-scale industrial agriculture that – increasingly – displaces small-scale agriculture around the world. New trends such as organic farming or permaculture are often dismissed by critics as something that, due to the labor-intensivety and lesser yield, can’t replace industrial agriculture. For Dif, Staf Hendrickx, lists those arguments and draws a completely different conclusion.

Small scale versus industrial agriculture

If we want to measure the pros and cons of the small scale agricultural model against the industrial model of agriculture, then we first need to define what we mean with each model. A small-scale model can also entail a monoculture with a lot of pesticides. But similarly it can focus on staying small scale and sustainable, by using various different methods. That’s why I would like to make this comparison between a small scale agro-ecological agricultural model and a large scale industrial model.

The small scale agro-ecological agriculture model is a largely contained system: Their own seed cultivation, processing, compost and manure from their own animals. The farmers produce healthy food with different cultures, which is mostly sold locally. The large scale industrial agricultural model mostly depends on external resources: bought seeds, artificial fertilizer, and pesticides. The agricultural companies are monocultures which produce resources for the worldwide agro food chain. Let us compare these two models.

Permaculture herb garden, let nature do its work

Who has the best hand

The first question people usually raise is: is small scale agriculture productive enough to be profitable? From a meta-study made up of 62 smaller studies by Seufert it showed that industrial agriculture raised 25% more crops on average. But this outcome didn’t account for various factors, such as subsidies for large scale agriculture and the research itself, or the negative long term effects such as declining soil quality, biodiversity, and public health. The large-scale model is mostly successful because of its strong use of fertilizer to increase production, but this is also its weakness. Artificial fertilizers and monocultures lead to weaker plants which are more susceptible to diseases and insect plagues, which are in term fought off with even more harmful pesticides. An agro-economic system scores a lot better in the long term, because soil quality and biodiversity are secured, a guarantee for food production in the future. Its more sustainable agriculture. The fertilization with organic fertilizers such as compost, manure, and green covers improve the soil quality.

But regardless, the defenders of the large-scale model will always bring up the point that the small-scale model is less productive and therefore needs more land which will impact nature as well. But this theoretical argument ignores the economic reality of things, because an increasing demand based on supply and demand doesn’t take this into account. You would have to build a global control mechanism which would ensure that protected areas would be protected from intensive agriculture. Biodiversity, especially that of birds, thrive with a form of agriculture which will create an ecosystem which helps their needs. And in small scale farmers know their land, their animals, and the nature around them. They ensure sustainability because they don’t want to exhaust the soil and pass on infertile land to their children. They’re more flexible when dealing with problems such as climate change. Large scale agriculture focuses on monocultures with high yield crop varieties which are highly dependent on quick fertilizers and crop protectors, a euphemism for pesticides. Small scale agriculture on the other hand has a wide array of plants and animals, which thus have a higher resistance against contagions. Small scale agro-ecological agriculture has the best hand. Certainly, when it comes to the long term.

Industrial agriculture: no we can’t

Awareness is growing globally that small scale agro-ecological agriculture is the solution against global warming, retaining biodiversity and nature, and even the food supply for a growing global populace. But to accomplish that there is a need for a new political and economic paradigm, of which I want to highlight several points:

  1. Creating policies which support sustainable agriculture in cooperation with farmers, protecting them, developing, and supporting them scientifically and financially.
  2. Making the switch from biofuels and crops to feed livestock to food-crops for human consumption.
  3. Protecting the food sovereignty of all nations. The common European agricultural policy should support farmers which provide public goods and services to society, and combat the introduction of agricultural resources.
  4. Supporting small scale family agriculture which utilizes a rotational system of crops and animals in the pastures, who offer their products locally.
  5. International law which forbids landgrabs and promotes restructuring of land ownership.
  6. European law which forbids banks to offer or buy stocks of speculative food investment funds.

The annual report of the FAO in 2014, titled Innovation in family farms contains a plethora of suggestions to increase their productivity. It promotes natural aid resources to stimulate the growth of crops such as organic fertilizer, water regulation, pollination, and bio-control of diseases and insect plagues. So too did the 2013 UNCTAD publication ‘Wake up before it’s too late’ sound the alarm. The industrial large scale agriculture is a system of unpaid costs through predatory strain on nature. Mother Earth is sick because of this. It’s minutes to midnight and we want to make her healthy again.

Staf Henderickx  GP and author of the book “Van mammoet tot Big Mac”

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