Sustainable Food Production

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A sustainable production model provides sufficient healthy and nutritious food using production methods that respect planetary boundaries and stays within them and that progressively works towards social equity and poverty reduction. Another component of sustainability is resilience to cope with shocks such as natural disasters, climate change and price fluctuations.

The level and stability of household income (of food producers, processors, retailers as well as consumers) heavily influences local food production and markets. Therefore attention should be given to access natural resources, basic services, business development and extension services.

Public policies should promote livelihoods and jobs where people live, and ensure food is at all times available locally, among other strategies:

  • The provision of public goods (infrastructure, research and extension services, bank loans) which complements farmers’ own investment rather than facilitating foreign private sector investment.
  • To ensure stable and fair prices, by using policy tools which help to stabilize food markets and food producers to cope with unpredictable harvests.
  • To direct agricultural research towards meeting the needs of family farmers: improving nutrition, developing innovative agro ecological methods and restoring the environment in direct collaboration with food producers.

Attempts to increase productivity have often been accompanied by negative effects on agriculture’s natural resource base, to such an extend that it could negatively affect its production potential in the future. These negative effects can be attributed to production methods characterized by extensive use of pesticides, limited crop varieties and livestock breeds, in addition to agricultural biodiversity (as a result of the focus on monocultures), significant production of greenhouse gases, introduction of GM crops, contamination due to fertilizer runoff, soil degradation and dependence on fossil fuels.

In the context of a changing climate and growing concerns on the negative effects as described above, agro ecology is gaining momentum. There is growing anecdotal and case study evidence of its multiple benefits, from climate resilience to farm productivity (IIED, 2014).

Agro ecology is a scientific approach drawing together ecological, sociological and economic disciplines to balance the needs of communities and integrity of ecosystems. The aim is to maintain the ecological functions that natural systems provide while developing a robust, productive, resilient and fair food system. Attempts to increase productivity have often been accompanied by negative effects on agriculture’s natural resource base, to such extend that it could negatively affect its production potential in the future. Production methods characterized by extensive use of pesticides, loss of crop varieties, livestock breeds and wider agricultural biodiversity (as a result of focus on a monocultures), significant production of greenhouse gases, introduction of GM crops, contamination due to fertilizer runoff, soil degradation and dependence on fossil fuels.

Agro ecology as an alternative - a growing body of evidence reveals the advantages of agro ecology over conventional high-external input farming:

  • Greater environmental sustainability and resilience, especially in marginal areas subject to environmental degradation and extreme climatic events, and higher biodiversity
  • The ability to support farmers’ food sovereignty, reducing their dependence on costly and sometimes difficult-to-access inputs such as synthetic, fertilizers, pesticides and MV seeds.

Thereby, diversified production makes farmers less vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of a single crop.

  • Higher overall productivity (at farm than crop level) achieved through a diverse range of agricultural products and environmental services, which reduce risks of crop failure in the long term. Increased quantity and diversity have a positive impact on household food security. Diversification is an important strategy for addressing micro-nutrient deficiencies in people’s diets.
  • Soil and water conservation, on-farm biodiversity and crop health. Sustainable and organic soil- and crop-management practices help to build up nitrogen, organic matter and beneficial micro-organisms in the soil. Restoring biodiversity on farms, plays an important role maintaining a healthy farm ecosystem.
  • Lower greenhouse gas emissions, through the reduced use (or complete avoidance of) nitrogen fertilizers, through use of multiple sustainable practices that sequester carbon dioxide or lower methane emissions and through increased tree and shrub covers, locking carbon dioxide.
  • Community empowerment, since sustainable agriculture often involves a strong element of local-level-institution building and farmer-to-farmer networking. And although this can also exist under conventional farming practices, it forms an important part of sustainable agriculture, which relies more on local knowledge, leadership and collaboration.
  • Regeneration of rural economies and labor impacts. Successful farms generate rural wealth. Increased farming household incomes mean less forced migration, more money to be spent on local labour and basic services and demand for goods and services from local businesses.

Agro ecology knows many methods and techniques.

The most important elements are:

  • Crop diversification: Avoiding large areas under a single crop (polyculture). Cultivating a wider range of crops; introducing mixed systems of crops, livestock and aquaculture; and increasing biodiversity. Nutrient recycling, agroforestry (mixing trees and crops), intercropping, double and relay cropping (two main crops grown in same space during one season, planting of more variety of the same crop, crop rotation, indigenous food crops.
  • Nutrient recycling: Optimizing nutrient availability and balancing nutrient flows. Waste from one sub-system is used as input for another.
  • Maximum use of renewable, locally available resources, such as seeds.
  • Low-external-input/organic soil and crop management: a reduced reliance on, or complete avoidance of, environmentally harmful external inputs, notably chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
★ Conservation agriculture: a resource saving approach to crop production, based on the adoption of minimum or no tillage; the use of cover crops or mulching to improve soil fertility and water retention; more precise or nu use of agrochemical inputs, crop diversification and crop rotation.
★ IPM (integrated pest management): This is a process that can be used to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. It focuses on the interaction of pests with its environment. More on IPM can be found here: FAO.
★ Organic farming: one type of sustainable farming, which can be either certified or non-certified. Detailed information on organic farming can be found on the website of IFOAM.
  • Great emphasis on farmer/community knowledge, their leadership of production and marketing strategies and technological development.
  • Collective responses to shared problems. Through farmer cooperatives, group-based learning and exchange.

More sustainable agriculture techniques.

More information can be obtained from the following publication Christianaid.

  • Yield intensification: Such as a system of rice intensification (SRI). Benefits of SRI are higher yields, low water use, lower production costs, sturdier plants, greater resistance to pests and diseases, improvement soil and water quality, lower input costs, lower methane emissions because paddy field isn’t constantly flooded.
  • Soil conservation and water conservation: Securing favourable soil conditions for plant growth and minimize water loss. For example: terracing, contour ploughing, planting pits, zero or low tillage, rainwater harvesting, small-scale, community based irrigation projects, agroforestry, mulching, substitute organic materials and methods for synthetic fertilizers, fishponds.
  • Pest control: Substitute biological pest-control methods for pesticides, integrated pest management
  • Integration: mixing and linking arable, livestock and aquaculture. Livestock and fish to control pests and weeds, as source of manure, biogas projects, livestock and fish to bolster households food supply and income, planting trees, crops and shrubs for fodder.
  • Seeds: Conserving, selecting and exchanging seeds, community seed banks, multiplying, exchanging and selling seeds at local level, participatory seed breeding.
The seed debate is complex and it is difficult to subscribe a seed technology as sustainable or not without considering the broader farming practices.
★ Traditional varieties vs. modern Varieties (incl. hybrid, GM seeds and open-pollinated varieties) and a variety of intermediate varieties.
★ Associates with this: the (over)use of fertilizer, with negative implications for soil health, decline of crop biodiversity. And exposure to economic risk
★ Renewability of seeds, patents or so-called plant varietal protection legislation.


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