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Eco-Agriculture Can Feed World, While Healing Earth


By Lim Li Ching (*)

OAKLAND,  (IPS)  .- While few question that ecological agriculture is environmentally and

socially desirable, there are fears that it is insufficiently productive. This is not the

case. Recent studies show that yields from ecological agriculture are broadly comparable

to conventional yields in developed countries and significantly higher in developing

countries, particularly where the existing system is low-input, which is largely the case

for Africa.


A study of a global dataset of 293 examples  (Badgley, 2007) found that the

organic/non-organic yield ratio was slightly less than 1.0 for studies in the developed

world but more than 1.0 for developing countries. On average, in developed countries,

organic systems produce 92 percent of the yield of conventional agriculture, whereas in

developing countries they produce 80 percent more than conventional farms.


The researchers found that hypothetically organic methods could produce enough food on a

global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even

larger population, without putting more farmland into production.


Moreover, contrary to fears that there are insufficient quantities of organically

acceptable fertilisers, the data suggest that leguminous cover crops could fix enough

nitrogen in the soil to replace the amount of synthetic fertiliser currently in use.


Thus organic agriculture could potentially provide enough food globally without the

negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture.


In a review of 286 projects in 57 countries, farmers were found to have increased

agricultural productivity by an average of 79 percent by adopting a range of ecological

agricultural practices, including integrated pest management, integrated nutrient

management, conservation tillage, agro-forestry, water harvesting in dryland areas, and

livestock and aquaculture integration into farming systems. These practices not only

increased yields, but also reduced adverse effects on the environment and contributed

important environmental goods and services (e.g., climate change mitigation), as

evidenced by increased water use efficiency and carbon sequestration, and reduced

pesticide use.


Disaggregated data show:


-Average food production per household rose by 73 percent for 4.42 million small farmers

growing cereals and roots on 3.6 million hectares.


-Food production was up 150 percent for 146,000 farmers on 542,000 hectares cultivating

roots (potato, sweet potato, cassava).


-Total production rose by  46 percent for the larger farms in Latin America .


In Africa the average crop yield increase was even higher than the global average of 79

percent: 116 percent for all African projects and 128 percent for the projects in East



Moreover, all food production case studies where data have been reported showed increases

in per hectare productivity of food crops, which overturns the popular myth that organic

agriculture cannot increase agricultural productivity.


Data from 2002, 2003, and 2004 from the Tigray Project (Ethiopia), underway since 1996,

showed that, on average, composted fields gave higher yields than those treated with

chemical fertilisers -sometimes double.


Except for field pea, the compost generally doubled the grain yield when compared to each

respective check (crops grown without any inputs). The difference was significant (95

percent confidence limit).


The use of compost also gave higher yields than the use of chemical fertiliser, though

differences were not as great as between the use of compost and the check.


Africa produced many other important findings:


-Soil and water conservation in the drylands of Burkina Faso and Niger have transformed

formerly degraded lands. The average family has shifted from being in cereal deficit of

644 kilos per year (equivalent to 6.5 months of food shortage) to producing an annual

surplus of 153 kilos.


-In Ethiopia, some 12,500 households have adopted sustainable agriculture, resulting in a

60 percent increase in crop yields.


-In Tigray, Ethiopia, yields of crops from composted plots were 3-5 times higher than

those treated only with chemicals.


-Integration of pond fish culture into low-input farm systems with some 2,000 farmers in

Malawi increased vegetable yields from 2,700 to 4,000 kilos per hectare, with the fish

ponds producing the equivalent of 1,500 kg/ha of fish, a new source of food for



Latin America also produced striking findings:


-In Honduras and Guatemala 45,000 families have roughly quintupled crop yields using

green manures, cover crops, contour grass strips, in-row tillage and animal manures.


-Farmers in the high mountain regions of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, among the world’s

most difficult areas for farming, tripled potato yields, particularly by using green

manures to enrich the soil.


-In Brazil, use of green manures and cover crops increased maize yields by between 20-250

percent, while in Peru, restoration of traditional Incan terracing led to increases of

150 percent for upland crops.


-In Honduras, soil conservation practices and organic fertilisers have tripled or

quadrupled yields. In Cuba, with more than 7,000 organic urban gardens, productivity has

jumped from 1.5 to nearly 20 kilos per square metre.


In Asia, participatory irrigation management in the Philippines has increased rice yields

by about 20 percent. Yield increases of 175 percent were reported from farms in Nepal

adopting agro-ecological practices. In Pakistan, yields of mango and citrus fruits

increased by 150-200 percent after adopting organic agriculture techniques such as

mulching, no-till production, composting, and planting the fruit trees in double-dug beds.


It is clear from these results that ecological agriculture is productive and has the

potential to meet food security needs, particularly in developing countries. The

International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for

Development concurs that an increase and strengthening of agricultural knowledge,

science, and technology toward agro-ecological sciences will contribute to addressing

environmental issues while maintaining and increasing productivity (IAASTD, 2008).


Moreover, ecological approaches allow farmers to improve local food production with

low-cost, readily-available technologies and inputs without causing environmental damage.



(*) Lim Li Ching is a Senior Fellow at the Oakland Institute and works with the biosafety

programme at Third World Network (TWN).