NEEDED: An Agricultural Transformation

The 2013 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development culminated in the creation of a special report, titled forcefully, “Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable for Food Security in a Changing Climate”.

The report calls for, above all, a shift away from the principles of the Green Revolution: monoculture production and energy intensive, external-input-dependent agricultural practices. In lieu of conventional agriculture, the report champions instead the idea of farming based on “ecological intensification”.

The core idea behind this approach is that a farmer is far more than simply someone who grows food. A famer is also (if not most importantly) a steward of the land—land that can (and should) provide a number of public goods and ecosystem services: recreation, biodiversity, water purification, etc.

In the UN report, members of the United Nations call attention to the fact that food insecurity and hunger rarely have anything to do with supply-side inadequacies. Instead, poor food security is most often the result of distribution failures, poor purchasing power, and a lack of local self-sufficiency and alimentary autonomy, particularly among poor communities. The report calls for an immediate agricultural transformation in response to this, through the development and support of local food systems built upon ecological principles.

Specifically, the report recommends increasing levels of soil carbon and better integrating livestock production with crop cultivation. It advocates for creating closed nutrient cycles, and encourages the sustainable management of peatland, forest, and grassland—projects aimed at reducing the impact of greenhouse gas emissions caused by widespread landscape change. In closure, the report urges the reform of international trade laws (as they relate to agricultural commodities), changing dietary patterns (i.e. reduced meat consumption), and reducing waste throughout the food system.

The impetus behind this report is climate change. We may very well be facing the greatest challenge of our times: providing adequate food for a ballooning human population—all while still limiting the environmental impact of our production strategies in increasingly difficult, and rapidly changing, environment.

Agriculture is not only one of the principal causes of climate change, it is on par to be one of its greatest victims. Changing rainfall patterns, rising temperatures, shifting pest populations, and extreme weather events have already begun to impact many agricultural areas.

Here in Costa Rica, Guanacaste (the northwestern province) has been struggling with water scarcity, parched earth, and dying livestock after nearly two years of extreme drought. Meanwhile, the Caribbean Coast (to the east) has been inundated with rain. As a result, both sides have sustained significant agricultural losses.

An emergency decree was announced for 19 cantones (sub-divisones) within Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and Alajuela in response to the drought, enabling the delivery of significant aid money to the area. The decision to utilize taxpayer money to reduce the burden of economic losses incurred by both farmers and ranchers in the region was made to the bereft of many in Costa Rica. Many scientists, farmers, and citizens alike blame the severity of the drought in Guanacaste on nearly 200 years of deforestation in the area—action advanced to make room for ranching (and now commercial development as well). In a perfect example of how agriculture may act as both an instigator and victim of climate change, many believe that widespread deforestation may have permanently disrupted the province’s water cycle. Combined with the long-term impacts of climate change (Guanacaste is predicted to experience nearly 25% less rainfall in the coming century) and the arrival of El Niño weather conditions these past two years, landscape change likely contributed to severe drought.

Costa Rica continues to lead Central America in the use of agrochemicals as well, topping nearly all other developing countries around the world (measured in terms chemical quantity per cultivated hectare).[i] The effects of widespread chemical application are potentially catastrophic: contaminated drinking water, a loss of biodiversity (seen especially in the decline of amphibian species), the endangerment of farmworkers and those living and working near agricultural fields or eating root vegetables, and eutrophication events within rivers, lakes, and the sea.

Unfortunately, the problems of industrialized agriculture and large-scale ranching are certainly not confined to Costa Rica.

In the United States, we have lost nearly six feet of topsoil in Iowa through erosion and contaminated our rivers and streams, causing massive eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico.

We are mass-producing our meat, despite the role of CAFOs in increasing antibiotic resistance and the accumulation of massive toxic waste pools.

We have overexploited ranch lands, deforested hillsides, and permitted the use of heavy irrigation while the West Coast slowly burns to a crisp.

But what if we woke up? What if we were capable of creating the kind of agricultural transformation that the UN is advocating for?

In the tropics especially, the permaculture phenomenon known as “edible forests” works astounding well. The idea is what you might expect from the name—the creation of a forest (with various canopy layers, a high density of plant life, and a diversity of species filling a variety of ecological niches) consisting entirely (or nearly entirely) of edible plants.

Both the farm I live on near Santiago de Puriscal, Costa Rica, and a few that I have visited and worked on nearer to the coast here, employ edible forests as a way of providing a large portion of their alimentary intake. Here the practice has been utilized for hundreds, if not thousands of years, for the simple reason that edible forests have proven both easy to maintain and incredibly productive. I have found the sheer volume of food produced in these forests, which not only maximize the available lateral ground area, but take advantage of the vertical space as well, astounding. Various species of plants benefit each other, with the tallest trees taking the direct sunlight, while the vines, bushes, smaller shrubs, and tubers, all take their place in the system based on vertical growth and UV requirements.

The vast majority of species within edible forests are perennial, or like pineapple, can withstand several full harvests before they must be replanted. The use of perennial plants cuts back dramatically on labor, and eliminates the need for tilling and other destructive soil preparation practices. Indeed, the principal source of work related to this system is not planting, but simply harvesting (and eating!).

The diversity of plants utilized in this system—coconut, pineapple, bananas, plantains, cerezas de montaña, nances, lufa, jicara, yucca, pumpkins, spinach, beans, corn, etc.—provides a highly nutritious diet for the local people. In addition, the cultivation of such a high number of species (biodiversity!) ensures that the agricultural system provides a number of ecological services to the surrounding area as well. With nearly every inch of space taken up by plant life, the soil is protected from UV light, and teems with microbial life—fed by fallen leaves, animal excrement, and unpicked fruit. The systems acts nearly as well, if not the same as a natural forest—participating marvelously in the water cycle (transpiring and at the same time taking in and filtering rainwater). Roots of all sizes hold down the soil. Branches and trunks and leaves provide habitat and food for an innumerable number of wildlife species.

Of course edible forests are not a magic bullet. No one agricultural technique or system will be. The kind of agricultural transformation we need will require a deep understanding of the land and soil, weather patterns, native plants, local wildlife, and the availability of human labor. An ecological revolution in agriculture depends on innovation, creativity, and tailored systems and agricultural designs unique to an indeterminable number of ecosystems and microclimates. It will take a dramatic swing and step away from the cookie-cutter, mass-produced model advocated by our major agricultural companies.

Edible forests seem to work extremely well in the tropics, where so many plants are perennial, and an incredible array of native fruits, berries, vegetables, and tubers are available. However, certainly edible forests can be utilized at least in part in many other places around the world. In fact, my home town of Iowa City, Iowa, recently began construction of an edible forest made open to the public. Beginning planting stages are currently underway.

Beyond edible forests, aquaponics, swales, hügelkultur, perennial plantings, companion planting, natural pest management, cultivation of pollinator-friendly flowers, and the timed rotation and integration of animals into crop production are not only viable, but incredibly effective and valuable agricultural techniques that we have only begun to dabble in (and rediscover).

The future is open to us, but it does feel as if two paths are diverging. We can continue on the path paved by the green revolution, for as long as we can produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and agrochemicals, till the land and plant vast fields of monoculture crops. Or, we can take a lesson from nature, and begin to create innovative systems that more closely mimic the natural world. The hope behind a new agricultural transformation lies in being able to create ecologically-sustainable agricultural systems that can provide the kind of natural, diversified diet that our bodies so desperately need, while providing the ecosystem services that the whole world depends on.

Of course many of these systems will require more human labor and great deal of engineering and environmental expertise—you cannot take a tractor through an edible forest, and each system must be tailored to its unique climate, soil type, landscape, geology, etc. But the necessity of a transition, a dramatic shift in the way we do agriculture, is undeniable as we move into the century facing rampant climate change, a burgeoning human population, and a shocking decline of natural resources.

The need for resilient agricultural systems, based on increased biodiversity, improved water retention, water purification capabilities, and the cultivation of healthy soil, has never been greater.

In the end, we get to decide what the world will look like in ten, twenty-five, fifty, a hundred years. What will we choose?

[i] The World Bank. “Costa Rica: Country Note on Climate Change Aspects in Agriculture”. December 2009. Accessed August 1, 2015.