HomeTransitionEconomyHow to Transition From Conventional Agriculture to Agroecology?

Interview with Paul Luu, Executive Secretary of the International 4 per 1000 Initiative.

How to Transition From Conventional Agriculture to Agroecology?

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How to Transition From Conventional Agriculture to Agroecology?

Interview with Paul Luu, Executive Secretary of the International 4 per 1000 Initiative

As the agricultural sector has a major responsibility in the current environmental crisis, countries must take urgent measures to transition from conventional farming methods to agroecology.

To understand the impacts of conventional agriculture, the benefits of agroecology, and the steps to transition from one system to another, Captain Forest interviewed Paul Luu.

Our interviewee is the Executive Secretary of the International 4 per 1000 Initiative. He has answered all of our questions based on the information in his recently published book ‘Farmers have the Earth in their hands’.

Q: Can you tell us about the history of conventional agriculture?

To understand the emergence of conventional agriculture, we must look at what enabled humans to create agriculture.

First, there was the phenomenon of sedentarisation, when humans abandoned their nomadic habits to settle in more favorable areas. They found out that they could plant useful food plants and domesticate animals for meat, dairy, leather, and fur without having to travel great distances to gather, fish, and hunt.

In doing so, people realized that animal dung improved soil fertility. Thus, they put animals in the fields between cultivation periods. Slowly, cultivation itineraries emerged and were then put in place.

The history of agriculture has been built through:

  • Several stages of improvements, including for animal and later mechanical traction, which resulted in less arduous work in the fields,
  • The development of scientific knowledge, which was a critical enabler.

Humans started plowing with a single-share plow, then a double-share plow. They then learned to select the seeds of the best plants for sowing the following year. Next, they added organic amendments and tried controlling pests and diseases using natural products or cultural practices.

Subsequently, the design of increasingly powerful machines (steam and heat engines) made it possible to intensify agriculture. At the same time, to improve the cultivation of plants, nitrogen, and mineral fertilizers began to be used and exported over long distances, sometimes from the other side of the planet.

Finally, toxic materials from the military arsenal of the First and Second World Wars were also used to make phytosanitary products (pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides), and the genetics of living organisms used in agriculture (plants and animals) were improved.

Q: What are the positive impacts of conventional agriculture?

Conventional agriculture aims to produce enough food to feed the entire world population and produce large quantities of raw materials (cotton, fiber, leather, etc.). The positive impact of conventional agriculture is that it has achieved these two goals and made life easier for people worldwide.

Q: What caused conventional agriculture to drift? 

The drift started in the 1950s and 1960s when negative externalities became visible, even though little attention was paid to environmental impacts. At that time, soils were considered inert and had to be amended at all costs.

In contrast, today, we know that soils must be alive and healthy to allow plants to grow in good conditions without jeopardizing future agricultural production.

In this context, the biomass (the crop (grain) and all the “by-products” such as brans or straws) is exported, and the soil is left bare, whereas, in reality, a large part of the biomass produced should return to the soil (for example the straw).

In addition, phytosanitary products are used on a large scale, most of which contribute to the erosion of biodiversity and the soil. As a result, soils have been severely eroded to the extent that, in some regions, they have disappeared or are “dead” because they have been devoided of life.

Living soils are essential for cultivating and growing plants. Soil-less agriculture is not natural because it is not based on living soil.

We also consider that a second drift had started when we reached a situation of overproduction, particularly of cereals, oilseeds, and protein crops, which were used to raise animals, thus becoming low-cost products for everyday consumption. The production of meat and dairy products was then democratized, allowing even the poorest people access to animal proteins.

The creation of the WTO – World Trade Organisation – was an enabling factor for overproduction. This international organization has favored the intensification of production sites based on the “comparative advantages” of certain territories and countries and the spatial distribution of products to consumers through international trade and transport infrastructures.

For example, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Argentina, which have vast areas for pasture development, have become countries for animal husbandry.

However, do we really need so much meat? To feed more and more animals, it is also necessary to produce large quantities of cereals and soybeans and therefore resorts to deforestation to establish these crops on new land.

Q: What certifications exist to guarantee environmentally friendly farming methods?

There are only two types of third-party certified agriculture:

Organic agriculture

It was one of the first movements to denounce the toxicity of products from conventional agriculture. This movement worked because products were certified by a third party. However, although organic farming is more virtuous than conventional farming, it is not a panacea.

Indeed, it does not have only virtues:

  • Some “natural” products, such as copper, used to control diseases also kill soil life.
  • Another example is that organic farming does not prohibit plowing. However, plowing causes CO2 emissions by oxidation, which is unfavorable to the climate.

Biodynamic agriculture 

It is based on natural cycles and works well, particularly in wine growing.

Q: What about reasoned agriculture?

Reasoned agriculture asks farmers to follow manufacturers’ recommendations and regulations on herbicides and pesticides.

It is like saying to a young driver, “you have your driving license, and if you drive well, you get a medal”.

Farmers who are smart necessarily follow this “reasoned” logic and don’t need to be “rewarded” for it. It is nothing more or less than expected, conventional agriculture.

Q: Can you explain the differences and similarities between regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, agroecology, permaculture, and carbon farming?

Agroecology brings all these terms together.

Concerning regenerative agriculture, which for me includes permaculture, this mode of agriculture makes it possible to regenerate production factors such as water, air, soil, and biodiversity and to improve the productivity of the land in the long term by using sustainable practices based on natural processes: decomposition of organic matter, pollination of insects, use of a variety of crops, promotion of microbial life, etc.

There is also a socio-economic dimension, i.e., family and community working together, helping each other, and sharing their production.

Agroforestry advocates mimicking the forest ecosystem and combining agriculture and forestry in an integrated manner while efficiently using natural resources. Typically, this agriculture produces cocoa or coffee in the tropics.

Carbon farming doesn’t mean much. It’s like saying how to store carbon by farming when all farming contributes to this objective.

Q: What are the different types of sustainable agriculture you recommend using? 

First, there are different types of sustainable agriculture depending on your production objectives, the size of your farm, the climate, etc.

Secondly, let’s not fool ourselves. With a population of 10 billion people on our planet in 2050, it will be challenging to produce enough food and raw materials without impacting a minimum the natural environment.

In large areas, to urgently get out of conventional agriculture it is possible to use as a first step conservation agriculture to produce cereals and some field crops. This means:

  • Avoid disturbing the soil (no deep plowing or no plowing at all),
  • Always cover the soil with living organic matter (cover crops) or dead organic matter (mulch),
  • Implement crop rotations to vary the plants produced on the plot over time.

Organic, biodynamic, or permaculture farming prove to be appropriate methods to grow fruits and vegetables.

For the breeding of large ruminants, we recommend using the Allan Savory method, which consists of mimicking the large herds of wild animals that once roamed the great plains of North America or Africa to organize cattle grazing. It restores the soil and mitigates climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: How can we convince states to transition from conventional agriculture to agroecology?

Countries’ primary objective is to feed their population.

Most states are convinced of the evils of conventional agriculture. However, their primary objective is to feed the population.

The war in Ukraine impacted the supply of some states and changed priorities: some countries aim to feed their population first.

Take the example of Egypt, which used to import a lot of its grain from Ukraine. If the country has supply difficulties today, its priority will be to satisfy its population immediately, the urgency of which will result in disregarding sustainable farming methods.

We must first give ourselves the means to make a state-wide transition to agroecology. Indeed, making a change too quickly can be risky.

Take Sri Lanka, for example, which decided to be the first country to adopt organic farming on a large scale. The government decided to stop importing mineral fertilizers and plant protection products. However, farmers were not trained in agroecology methods, so the rice harvest was catastrophic. As an answer, the government imported rice on an emergency basis to feed its population, which exacerbated the crisis.

Steps countries must take to transition from conventional agriculture to agroecology:

  1. Introduce agro-environmental practices to reduce negative environmental impacts.
  2. Train field practitioners in the scientific and technical knowledge needed to help them succeed in their agroecological transition.
  3. Anticipate the likely drop in production and the difficulties of the first few years of transition: it takes about three to four years to adjust the system when switching from conventional agriculture to agroecology.
  4. Form farmer groups and set up peer-to-peer exchange systems so that farmers train each other, share information and practices, and mutualize benefits and risks.
  5. Provide the necessary technical and economic support to farmers at the government level to facilitate their transition.

Q: Can agroecology feed ten billion people?

There is no single production method that is a panacea. The solution lies in diverse agroecology methods adapted to local conditions (agro-pedo-climatic but also socio-economic).

Thus, choosing agroecological methods with the necessary knowledge and the keys to making the right choices should make it possible to feed the entire planet.

Q: A word to conclude this interview? 

Agriculture could be much better exploited to fight climate change, protect biodiversity and regenerate soils. Agroecology provides answers to the environmental crisis we are facing.

What fascinates me about agroecology is its bottom-up approach: the know-how comes from experimentation and observation in the field and from the farmers themselves. Undoubtedly, one must recognize the role that science plays in the context of agroecology. However, it must be noted that it is not there to control or impose a model but rather to explain how it works and evaluate its economic, social, and environmental performance.

This article is also available in French: click here.


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