By John Wilson

Dear All

I arrived in Cape Town yesterday to attend the Agroecology Conference for the 21st century being hosted here by the University of Cape Town and the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) this week. I feel privileged to have this opportunity and am looking forward to learning lots in the next three days.

Waking up this morning I was thinking about: “Where are we in our efforts to promote Agroecology? Where are we succeeding? And where are some of our shortfalls? What should we be paying more attention to?”

Here are my current reflections on this:

Summary (for those who don’t want to read all): There’s lots we are good at in Agroecology but there are five areas, in particular, that I see as needing a lot of attention:

  1. Developing practices that can revive more extensive areas of soils by addressing both the soil biology and chemistry
  2. Developing more commercially viable examples of Agroecology
  3. Developing strong consumer movements linked to Agroecology
  4. Management of the vast areas of range-lands on our continent.
  5. Paying more attention to strengthening Agroecology farmers’ organisations as a key part in the Agroecology movement.

Some of the things we’re good at:

We’re good at holding conferences on Agroecology (well, let’s see how this week goes but there are quite a few conferences around Agroecology these days it seems). We’re good at the theory of why Agroecology is the farming for the future and articulating that theory. Look at the excellent pieces people like Vandana Shiva, Michel Pimbert, Grain, ETC and others produce. This is important.

We’re good at working sensitively with communities, listening to them, helping restore their belief in themselves and their cultures, recognizing indigenous and local knowledge, not judging people by the formal education they’ve had but seeing that there are many kinds of intelligences and forms of knowledge. All this reverses the arrogant, top-down approach that began with the colonisers coming in with the idea that they were far ahead in ‘development’ (and religious beliefs).

We’ve managed to bring onto the table a number of useful methods for people to work more holistically with their land; we have some techniques for growing food in a more ecological way, including tapping local knowledge for this; we’ve helped a certain number of people to diversify what they grow and eat, while recognizing the need for this diversity. There’s wider support for the notion of agricultural biodiversity than there used to be and a number of people and organisations working to strengthen farmer managed seed systems.

We’ve also developed a voice that can speak out for Agroecology in various forums. This includes being able to resist some of the laws and protocols that are being pushed in relation to seed. That ability to articulate, mentioned above, certainly helps in all this.

With Agroecology as an umbrella, we’re linking up more, collaborating more and being more strategic. Agroecology, as a movement, has brought ‘us’ together more. There is a sense of being part of a growing, global movement of citizens instead of a bunch of disparate initiatives spread around the place.

There are, no doubt, many more positives about where Agroecology has reached that I’ve left out.

Furthermore, the context is ripe for Agroecology in a number of ways. The two most mentioned I find are Climate Change and Nutrition. These are huge, huge issues and Agroecology can respond effectively to both of these. We know so much more about the soil than we used to, particularly the incredible world of soil biology. Many people recognize how industrial agriculture has damaged this biology, greatly reduced biodiversity, and turned many smallholder farmers into ‘cheap labour’ dependants of the industrial agricultural and food chain.

When I think back to the 1970s and 80s when I first became involved I can see how different the context is to then.

But as I go into this Agroecology conference I feel that there are five areas that we are not addressing nearly enough and must pay much more attention to in the coming years if Agroecology is going to be the Farming of the 21st century, as it should be.

1. Developing practices that can revive more extensive areas of soils by addressing both the soil biology and chemistry. These should be practices or techniques that can restore the vibrant life of microbes in the soil and re-balance the mineral make-up of soils. I feel that in the field of Agroecology we are weak in the area of re-balancing minerals. I speak very much from my experience in Africa. I don’t know the position in other continents. We are good at reviving smaller pieces of land with organic matter such as compost and, perhaps to a lesser extent, through using green manure/plant diversity. But we’ve often forgotten about the minerals, as I’ve indicated in other reflective pieces I’ve written. Pest and disease management is linked very much to this mineral balance, as is nutrition. We need people trained in soils who are able to advise farmers properly on all this, whilst also respecting the knowledge they have. One could call them soil physicians. Such people are certainly not coming out of agricultural colleges, and I don’t think Agroecological training is addressing this fully enough, particularly the mineral angle.

We need to think carefully about our approach to fertilization and fertilizers. We should stop lumping them all as bad, as is sometimes the tendency for everything except compost or animal manure. We need to understand which fertilizers are bad, which are not so bad and which are good. Organic certification does this to some extent but is also fairly arbitrary. In the end each farmer has to decide for her/himself and be equipped to make that decision. There are many farmers already addicted to the highly soluble fertilizers that industrial agriculture has pushed on them. They need to wean themselves off these as they transition to Agroecology. This can take time. Along with all this we should be enabling much more soil testing to happen. This technology has advanced a lot in recent decades and should be more widely available.

We also need to work out ways of having the not good and not so bad fertilizers reach farmers who need and want them. This should include key ingredients for them to make their own fertilizers. What the green revolution approach is doing is distributing fertilizers that are mostly bad, some very bad, in the sense that they damage the soil directly, or they negatively affect the water systems through leaching and over-application. This is apart from their contribution to greenhouse gases. And of course they lead to the addiction mentioned above.

So the methods of reaching farmers with critical inputs should be based on small, local enterprises wherever possible. For things like rock phosphate, where it might be difficult for a small enterprise to mine it, we need to lobby Governments, so that this incredibly valuable, limited and public resource, which is often being squandered by the corporate world, is seen as a strategic reserve whose use is protected.

2. Help develop more examples of Agroecology practice that are financially viable. I’ve also written about this before. If we are going to get more young people involved and if we are going to influence policy makers this is vital. But this shouldn’t be our sole reasons for doing this. Our main reason should be because Agroecology is a much more financially viable system of farming if/when we can get it right. This is because it looks after its main ‘capital’, the soil, through re-establishing diverse soil life and through balancing minerals. I’m sure there are examples out there of good financial viability that could be better documented. Nevertheless I feel this is a weak area in Agroecology. I refer to something I wrote last year:

“I would like us to be able to go to governments, the Regional Economic Commissions, and the AU with examples of how Agroecology can be applied in many different situations – for very resource poor farmers (this is the most obvious area for Agroecology as things currently stand and where we are strongest), for slightly better off farmers selling some excess, for mini-commercial farmers, and for commercial farmers. We need to be able to show that it can apply anywhere and everywhere. It’s not just an approach for the most resource poor, even if it’s particularly suitable to them. It’s the approach that can feed our continent, and the world.”

3. Bring consumers on board much more through stimulating a strong consumer movement. I think many people realize this need for strong consumer movements linked to Agroecology. I just don’t see enough action in this direction though AFSA is making definite moves in this direction. I believe that it’s only by working closely with a broad range of consumers that we will be able to break the corporate dominance of the food system. The nutrition crisis certainly presents an opportunity for this.

4. Large livestock management in rangelands. Here I’m referring to cattle, goats, sheep and camels. In certain areas it may include herds of wildlife. In my home country, Zimbabwe, grazing areas/rangelands make up around 70 – 80% of the land area it has been estimated. In Zambia it’s probably more while Malawi would be less. Vast swathes of land in East and West Africa are semi-arid. These semi-arid areas across Africa grow sweet grasses but struggle to grow annual crops because of the low and sporadic rainfall and the high temperatures. Many of these areas can grow a wide variety of trees too that keep the temperature down to some extent and also provide good fodder.

Many traditional practices of managing livestock in these semi-arid areas were appropriate as pastoralists, in particular, herded their livestock over large areas, allowing the grazed land to rest and recover, having impacted it intensely for a short burst of time. Unfortunately these practices have mostly ceased or are not possible any more.

There are a number of examples around the world now where individual livestock owners are planning their grazing and improving their land, often with more livestock! It is more difficult where a number of livestock owners need to bring their livestock into joint herds. There has to be lots of groundwork. There are some organisations bravely doing this work but unfortunately they are few and far between. It’s slow, difficult work.

5. Paying more attention to strengthening Agroecology farmers’ organisations as a key part in the Agroecology movement. There is a budding movement in our region in organisations like ZIMSOFF (current hosts of La Via Campesina) and MVIWATA and their umbrella ESAFF. But it needs much more support. I don’t see other civil society organisations, especially NGOs, doing enough in their work to contribute to the strengthening of these farmers’ organisations. They may do so at a local level. But farmers need organisations at all levels so that they can have a strong voice. I feel we are still quite a long way off from this. This seems to have gone further in Latin America and Asia. What can we learn from them?

The time is certainly ripe for Agroecology I feel. We’re sitting on a great deal of potential. I hope we can step up and take advantage of that in the coming few decades. We have to be ambitious whilst continually discussing and debating so that we don’t become fixed in our thinking. Let’s keep challenging ourselves.

Best wishes