By Ioulia Fenton
In March 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Olivier De Schutter, presented a report highlighting how agroecology holds promise for alleviating hunger, reducing poverty, preserving the environment, and fighting climate change.
Polyface Farms uses an agricultural system that tries to imitate the diversity of a natural ecosystem by using multiple crop and animal species in the same space (Photo Credit: Glory Bea)
“The core principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than introducing external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in agroecosystems over time and space; and focusing on interactions and productivity across the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species,” says the report.
Today, Nourishing the Planet presents five ways in which different agroecological methods are being practiced to varying degrees around the world:
1. Duck attack on the rice paddies of Asia. Asian farmers cultivating organic rice have adapted an ingenious way to cut out pesticide and herbicide use—ducks. Two or three weeks after rice seedlings have been planted, ducks patrol paddy waters and happily feed on unwanted pests, such as the golden snail and a host of insect species that feed on the rice plants. The ducks’ feces enhance the soil, which they stir up with their beaks and feet, a process that also helps enrich the paddies with the oxygen that plants need to thrive (soil oxygenation). The feathered army also feeds on weeds, which eliminates the need for pesticides and for the manual labor associated with manual weeding. The ducks also provide an additional means of income, for farmers can sell them at harvest time. According to an article by the Japan Information Network, the method, which originated in Japan, has now spread to South Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and even as far as Iran.
2. It is all about the bushes and the bees in Canada. Bees are vital to agriculture and natural biodiversity—according to the Royal Society, 76 percent of the world’s most widely used food crops require pollination to be productive. A new Canadian initiative is looking to put bees to work to help conserve a fragile area.
Trees are needed to protect watersheds—delicate areas of land that form the drainage systems for streams and rivers in which many plant and animal species thrive. Trees and shrubs help filter pollutants from storm water runoff and anchor the soil with their roots, which reduces erosion. With a grant from the British Columbia Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative, the Murray family aims to use their small woodland plot located in the West Kootenay region near Slocan Lake to blend apiculture (bee keeping) with integrated agroforestry (agriculture that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees). In this system, the bees will pollinate the shrubs and the shrubs and the plethora of small private woodlands and streams found in the area will, in turn, provide the surface water and natural windbreak protection required by the bees.
3. Ancient and modern aquaponics around the world. According to the Centre for Sustainable Aquaponics, part of the solution to the global search for greener fish and crop production that does not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides can be found in aquaponics—a combination of aquaculture (the cultivation of aquatic animals and plants for food) and soilless plant agriculture known as hydroponics. The combined technique, where crops are grown in a body of water that contains fish, has been used by ancient Aztecs and the ancestors of Far East countries like China. It is increasingly being used all over the world today. The process renders needless the use of chemicals since, in a seamless aquatic dance, the fish-waste fertilizes the plants, which, in turn, cleanse the water of toxins that would be dangerous for the fish.
4. “Do nothing but microorganisms” farming in Thailand. According to a report by Horizon Solutions, in Thailand, over 20,000 farmers have now adopted an integrated farming system known as “do nothing farming”—they cultivate crops with minimal interference in nature: “namely no ploughing, no weeding, no chemical pesticides, no chemical fertilizers, and no pruning.” They do, however, use effective microorganisms (EMs) that were developed by Dr. Teruo Higa from the agricultural department at the University of Ryukyu, Japan. EMs are a combination of microorganisms that readily exist in nature and have not been interfered with in any way, merely added to the fields. By enriching the soil and stimulating plant growth, EMs increase crop yields whilst allowing the farmer to maintain the balance of the ecosystem—a complex set of relationships among plants, animals, and non-living materials of an area.
5. Grass framing in the United States. Joel Salatin calls himself a grass farmer. His Polyface Farms, in Swoope, Virginia, were made famous by appearances in Michael Pollan’s book An Omnivore’s Dilemma and the documentaries Food Inc. and Fresh. The hilly homestead is set on 100 acres of grass, surrounded by 400 acres of woodland. It is a polyculture—an agricultural system that tries to imitate the diversity of a natural ecosystem by using multiple crop and animal species in the same space. It includes chickens, cows, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs.
Salatin carefully orchestrates all the elements in an intricate symbiosis—every being follows its natural instincts to contribute an ecosystem service (benefit) that maintains the overall health of the pasture. For example, his large herd of cows feeds on a different quarter acre of grass every day and contributes manure. Three days later, three hundred laying hens—Polyface Farms’ “sanitation crew”—are let loose to gorge on the fat fly larvae that have grown in the cowpats. This gives the chickens an important source of rich protein, while helping to spread manure and further fertilize the paddock with their own very rich nitrogen-laden excrement.
The farm’s closed loop, natural system is highly successful, producing 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs on just 100 acres. And, as Pollan writes, “at the end of the year, there is more biodiversity not less, more fertility not less, and more soil, not less.”
Do you know of other agroecological farming methods being practiced around the world? Share them in the comments below.
Ioulia Fenton is a Food and Agriculture Research Intern at Nourishing the Planet.
Check out other Nourishing the Planet posts that highlight alternative agricultural methods: Aquaponics: An Overview, What Works: Aquaculture, Five Ways to Get Rid of Pests Without Using Chemicals, Five Sustainable Innovations in Aquaculture, Five Agricultural Innovations to Improve Biodiversity, The Birds, the Bees….and Plants, and Five Innovations that are Boosting Soil Fertility.
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