Behind several kinds of environmental damage lurks the hand of the farmer. The key to better prospects for them and the environment, argues Michel Pimbert in the Green Room, is giving them more control over what they do.
Farmers and other citizens in various parts of the world are engaging in a major effort to change the nature of agriculture.
It is simply unacceptable to allow over 850 million people go to bed hungry in a world that produces more than enough food for all
The key phrase is "food sovereignty"; and this weekend, many of the interested parties are gathering for a conference in Mali, one of two countries (the other being Bolivia) which have adopted it as their overarching policy framework for food and farming.
Food sovereignty is all about ensuring that farmers, rather than transnational corporations, are in control of what they farm and how they farm it; ensuring too that communities have the right to define their own agricultural, pastoral, labour, fishing, food and land policies to suit their own ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances.
Why is it needed? From the social point of view, because everyone has an unconditional human right to food, and it is simply unacceptable to allow over 850 million people go to bed hungry in a world that produces more than enough food for all.
On the environmental side, industrial farming damages our planet's life support systems in a number of ways:
- it is a major contributor to global warming through intensive use of fossil fuels for fertilisers, agrochemicals, production, transport, processing, refrigeration and retailing
- agrochemical nutrient pollution causes biological "dead zones" in areas as diverse as the Gulf of Mexico, the Baltic Sea and the coasts of India and China
- human activity now produces more nitrogen than all natural processes combined
- crop and livestock genetic diversity has been lost through the spread of industrial monocultures, reducing resilience in the face of climate and other changes
The progress of this growing food sovereignty movement could have profound implications for scientific research, politics, trade and the twin curses of poverty and environmental degradation.
Towards sustainable agriculture
Within the food sovereignty approach, the environmental ills outlined above are avoided by developing production systems that mimic the biodiversity levels and functioning of natural ecosystems.
These systems seek to combine the modern science of ecology with the experiential knowledge of farmers and indigenous peoples.
Combinations of indigenous and modern methods lead to more environmentally sustainable agriculture, as well as reducing dependence on expensive external inputs, reducing the cost-price squeeze and debt trap in which the world's farmers are increasingly caught.
Ecological agriculture has been shown to be productive, economic and sustainable for farmers, whether their external inputs are low or high.
Scientists recently reported that a series of large-scale experimental projects around the world using agro-ecological methods such as crop rotation, intercropping, natural pest control, use of mulches and compost, terracing, nutrient concentration, water harvesting and management of micro-environments yielded spectacular results.
For example, in southern Brazil, the use of cover crops to increase soil fertility and water retention allowed 400,000 farmers to raise maize and soybean yields by more than 60%. Farmers earned more as beneficial soil biodiversity was regenerated.
Staying in control
Food sovereignty is not against trade and science. But it does argue for a fundamental shift away from "business as usual", emphasising the need to support domestic markets and small-scale agricultural production based on resilient farming systems rich in biological and cultural diversity.
Networks of local food systems are favoured because they reduce the distance between producers and consumers, limiting food miles and enhancing citizen control and democratic decision-making.
Equitable access to land and other resources is vital, because a significant cause of hunger and environmental degradation is local people's loss of rights to access and control natural resources such as land, water, trees and seeds.
Can food sovereignity lead farmers to greener pastures?
This severely reduces their incentive to conserve the environment; the displacement of farming peoples from fertile lands to steep, rocky slopes, desert margins, and infertile rainforest soils lead to more environmental degradation.
Trade and markets must be made to work for people and the environment; current trade policies for agriculture are failing the environment and leading to the economic genocide of unprecedented numbers of farmers.
New governance systems must ensure that negative impacts of international trade such as dumping are stopped, and local markets given priority; commodity agreements must restrict overproduction and guarantee small-scale producers equitable prices that cover the costs of producing food in socially and environmentally sustainable ways.
We need too a radical shift from the existing top-down and increasingly corporate-controlled research system to an approach which devolves more power to the local level.
The process should lead to the democratisation of research, and more diverse forms of inquiry based on specialist and non-specialist knowledge.
Reclaiming diversity and citizenship
If unchecked, neo-liberal agricultural policies will aggravate the many worrying environmental trends identified by the recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Grossly unfair market prices will continue to drive ever more farmers and owners of local food business to despair and bankruptcy.
The political choices made by governments and their corporate friends can still be decisively rejected and reversed
This will fuel human tragedies and conflicts associated with cross-border migrations everywhere.
The good news is that all this is not inevitable. The political choices made by governments and their corporate friends can still be decisively rejected and reversed.
But this depends on creating inclusive alliances between farmers, fisher-folk, indigenous peoples, scholars and other citizens to exert countervailing power - which is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the food sovereignty movement.
Dr Michel Pimbert is director of the Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
He is the author of an IIED report published for the Mali conference entitled Transforming Knowledge and Ways of Knowing for Food Sovereignty
The Green Room is a series of environmental opinion articles running weekly on the BBC News website