April 8, 2009

Small is Bountiful: Miguel Altieri on Agroecology and the World Food Crisis

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Hunger and malnutrition are ancient problems. So much has been said and written on the subject of feeding the 6.7 billion people on Earth that the discussion has progressed from an instinctual question of “what’s for dinner” into an unwieldy, amorphous cloud of questions — about nutrition, about politics, about the environment — for which there seem to be no easy answers.

Right behind the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, in its Spanish pneumonic) near Mexico City, Miguel Altieri claimed to have cut through some of this confusion and quite literally seen beyond the failings of modern agricultural development. CIMMYT is a branch of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), purporting as such to be part of the future of agriculture and international development.

CIMMYT’s test fields, Altieri explained to a crowd in 401 Warren Hall on Friday, displayed all the tools of modern agricultural research: advanced irrigation management, vast swaths of uniform crops and a high-tech research station at the center of it all.

Altieri looked beyond the plots at CIMMYT to the hills in the adjacent village of La Purificacion. There, he said, were small, biodiverse farms more resilient and adaptive than any ‘modern’ farm and capable of outproducing any mega-operation that followed CIMMYT’s formula for large-scale farming.

“It is well-known,” he said, “that small farms produce more than large farms.” While more than a handful of food industry executives and agronomists would be happy to argue with this claim, Altieri’s conviction is not without precedent.

The argument is essentially that, since farmers in the developed world had access to heavy machinery, they produced cropping systems that could be easily managed with such equipment — mainly large, homogenous monocultures. Farmers in the developing world, however, relied on traditional practices like managing organic matter and controlling pests through crop rotation.

The point Altieri was trying to make was that so-called ‘traditional’ practices are often the same, ecologically sensitive solutions to problems of sustainable production that researchers have spent decades, or even longer, to arrive at. And in the rural village of La Purificacion, they have been business as usual for generations.

Altieri was one of most highly anticipated lecturers at this weekend’s confrence on the global food crisis, Visible Warnings. He is known for pioneering the integration of traditional practices with holistic, ecosystem-focused food systems into a framework called agroecology.

No universally applicable agroecological model exists at the scale needed to feed the world’s expected nine billion people due by mid-century, but Altieri’s nod to “383,000 gardens in Cuba” left no doubt as to where the conservationist’s hopes lay.

Prof. Tim Lang, food policy at the City University in London, seemed to be at least conceptually on board with Altieri when he taunted the “productionist paradigm” of modern agriculture for its over-simplicity. This paradigm, he said, relied on the assumption that “science + capital = output = cheaper food = health = progress.”

“We think too much in boxes,” he said, addressing largely the same crowd, which had moved to Ives Hall and now included Altieri himself. Real progress is too fragmented, he said, and is simply “not changing our behavior enough.”

Like the mess that has become nutritional information, Lang said, the unprecedented variety of food products taken for granted in the developed world can have a bewildering effect on the consumer, but may also be “symptomatic” of a larger, “pathological problem.”

“Even in U.S. prisons you get a choice of food,” he remarked.

The task ahead of the international community may have left more than a few audience members with an uneasy stomach. (Slights at the choice of the PepsiCo Lecture Hall for Lang’s lecture could hardly get old.) But the experts’ prescription for our ailing food system was one of those inspiring challenges that allows for hope where one might otherwise be lost in the woods.

“The key glue,” Lang said, “will be something [completely] different than what we are doing.” La Purificacion might be a good place to start looking.