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Agricultural Sustainability = Agricultural Productivity

sustainableag.jpgIf you were designing a worldchanging agricultural system for the developing world, one less likely to generate the kinds of social, economic and environmental costs we see in the current dominant system, what would you want to include? How about: improved water use efficiency; reduced pesticide use; agroforestry, both to maintain nearby forest resources and to improve carbon sequestration; conservation tillage; even aquaculture, to incorporate fish, shrimp and the like as part of a larger integrated farm system. All wonderful ideas, but of course the reason that industrial agriculture remains dominant is that it's so much more productive, right?


According to a new study in the Feb. 15 edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a journal of the American Chemical Society, sustainable agriculture techniques like those mentioned above, introduced to developing world farms over the last decade, improved farm yields by an average of 79% in four years. And not just in a limited set of locations: the study covered 286 different projects in 57 developing countries. That's over 12 million farms, or 37 million hectares -- about 3% of the cultivated area in poor nations.

In "Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries," Jules Pretty of the University of Essex in England, along with colleagues in Thailand, China, Sri Lanka and Mexico, concentrated on seven key sustainable agriculture methods:

(1) Integrated pest management, which uses ecosystem resilience and diversity for pest, disease, and weed control, and seeks only to use pesticides when other options are ineffective. (2) Integrated nutrient management, which seeks both to balance the need to fix nitrogen within farm systems with the need to import inorganic and organic sources of nutrients, and to reduce nutrient losses through erosion control. (3) Conservation tillage, which reduces the amount of tillage, sometimes to zero, so that soil can be conserved and available moisture used more efficiently. (4) Agroforestry, which incorporates multifunctional trees into agricultural systems, and collective management of nearby forest resources. (5) Aquaculture, which incorporates fish, shrimps, and other aquatic resources into farm systems, such as into irrigated rice fields and fish ponds, and so leads to increases in protein production. (6) Water harvesting in dryland areas, which can mean formerly abandoned and degraded lands can be cultivated, and additional crops can be grown on small patches of irrigated land owing to better rainwater retention. (7) Livestock integration into farming systems, such as dairy cattle and poultry, including using zero-grazing.

Moreover, successful techniques get copied. Over the four years of the study, the number of farmers and the number of hectares under sustainable agriculture increased significantly (by 56% and by 45%, respectively) in randomly resampled areas. Of the various crops the group studied, a quarter -- largely maize, potatoes and beans -- saw yields double, and half saw increases of at least 20%. Only rice and cotton saw minor increases or slight declines.

The research team sees three of the methods under study as particularly useful: water efficiency practices, including collective irrigation management, rainwater harvesting to cultivate formerly degraded lands, and watershed-level conservation; soil management to improve organic matter accumulation and carbon sequestration, including conservation tillage and no-till agriculture; and pest, weed and disease control emphasizing "in-field biodiversity and reduced pesticide" use.

The authors make a point of calling out the carbon sequestration benefits of these improvements as well, pointing out that, if 25% of developing world farmland adopted these techniques, the potential increase in carbon sequestration would amount to 100 (±4) megatons of Carbon every year. As Pretty notes, "such gains in carbon may offer new opportunities to households for income generation under emerging carbon trading schemes." That is, not only does the adoption of sustainable agriculture practices mean more yields, it could mean income from Clean Development Mechanism agreements.

As usual, the full text of the report is behind a subscriber wall (although Environmental Science & Technology was gracious enough to send me a PDF of the article -- thank you), in many respects the more important information resource is the free-to-download Supporting Information document (PDF), which details many of the programs studied for this research.

It's hard to over-emphasize just how important this report is. Not only are sustainable agriculture techniques better for the farmers and better for the planet, they lead to substantially better production -- vitally important in a world where millions still go hungry.


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Comments (10)

Yep. This is a *really* important result. Land use is one of the things we're going to have to do *much* better in the future, and studies like show what's possible.

Thanks for pointing this paper out to us!

Adam Burke:

79% in four years is a great result. I wonder how well it would translate to the rich world. Some of these techniques - such as integrated pest management, and conservation tillage - seem to reduce chemical inputs and increase labour inputs. That might even save you money depending on how expensive your workers were, leaving the increased yield as mostly profit.

If you translate the same techniques to where the costs of labour are higher you might be getting extra yield without extra profit - rather demotivating. 79% is great but labour is 500% more expensive in the US than Thailand (handwaving GDP comparison ignoring the fact agricultural incomes might be disproportionally low in the US; but we are comparing to a middle-income country in Thailand anyway).

Abd al-Wadud:

. All these techniques (and more) come under the heading of Permaculture. This framework for sustainable community design has been quietly and succesfully adopted by many many people around the world since Bill Mollison and David Holmgren wrote *Permaculture One* and *Two* and *Permaculture: A Designer's Manual* back in the '70s (in terms of practical usability the books are excellent prototypes for your own forthcoming volume).

I'm surprised when I do a search for permaculture on WorldChanging that I get only two rather insignificant hits - surely anyone serious about world changing must at least have an inkling of the vast strides being taken in this direction by the community of permaculture designers the world over?

If you've never heard of it I urge you to read a copy of the Designer's Manual, or better still take the two-week design certificate course and get started on your own PC projects... you'll find that most things mentioned on WorldChanging are already being done by some PC group somewhere.


The reason mass farming took over is it produces much cheaper food and mucn more food per farmer. But it does require wide open spaces and its not needed in a place where the number of famers is still fairly close to the number of people needing food. It only becomes vital when your famers pop is say 3-5% of total pop or less.

Permaculture is the name I am familiar with, and so proud of (because it's Australian.)

However, don't forget bio-intensive farming. But permaculture is about both permanent agriculture and the far more important "permanent culture"... creating a culture of sustainability.

Now in my mind, that seems the tougher battle. How do you define a sustainable culture?

NOTE: Farming takes more than just Nitrogen!
It takes the full NPK, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Kalium (now potassium) to grow food.

I'd be very interested to see more detail on how the phosphorus and potassium are also recycled through these sustainable farming schemes. Unless the "humanure" goes back into the soil somehow, there's a one way trip of PK out to sea and it's still not sustainable. Limiting chemical inputs *to* just PK is one thing, but living *without* PK chemical inputs is something else! Remember, peak oil and gas will affect not just the Haber process for nitrogen, but the mining and transport of PK fertilizers. We are going to have to grow food a lot closer to our main cities for just so many reasons. As one author has stated,
"Our cities will have to become more urban, and our rural areas will have to become more rural." And hopefully we will convert some suburbia into productive rural farmland right near our future eco-cities. We'd better get cracking, because sustainable farming is not just about recycling NPK but is even more about minimizing transport.

It's not just *how* the farming is done, but *where* it is done.
And that's the real challenge! See how this "permanent culture" stuff is so tricky?

For more on city designs in the post oil age, try...


its exciting to know that the importance of agriculture is growing in the climate change issue-- since so many policies prevent permaculture and sustainable techniques from being implemented on a large scale (which could probably feed every person on earth locally), maybe the carbon mitigation potential is the way to get certain party's heads out of the sand.

IACR did a study concluding that certain combinations of sustainable farming techniques can mitigate 1/8 gigaton C per year in europe alone, which can easily constitute one 'carbon stabilization wedge.'



What we tend to forget (or not mention) is the reliance on petrochemicals for farming and energy for pumping water. Given that Peak Oil is just around the corner (or already here), the permaculture (or organic) method of farming will begin to yield considerable savings, cost reductions and healthier environment in a few short decades, when compared to agribusiness practices. Already organic farming is growing by 10-20% a year, while the costs of agribusiness methods are climbing, the yields are dropping and the environmental costs are escalating.

More disturbing is the decades long propaganda that has been waged against permaculture methods of obtaining food. Agribusiness has had a grip on food production globally, disseminating dis-information that the indutrial methods are better, cheaper and the only way to feed the world. The only advanatge of agribusiness methods are that they are not as labor intensive as permaculture systems (in terms of the scales that they deal with). As oil becomes more expensive (i.e.- scarce), agribusiness will beign to collapse under its own infrastructure. This will herald the return of a more agrarian economy that will deal on more human scales.

All the techniques above mentioned - permaculture, biodynamics, bio-intensive, as well as industrial ag are dependent on the soil foodweb for life. From the comments about labor, NPK and oil, it is obvious that we all need to get a clue that the foodweb makes its own NPK given just a bit of help from us.


Sterling points out that we cannot afford to be utopian about the moves we make. We have gone past Lines of No Return and of Empire in agribusiness. We must find ideas that are bigger than organic and chemical ways of moving, ubloping thru this. I love the scale of organics and patchwork culture. I also love the image of guys taking big guns of pesticide applicators and shooting 500 gallons of well-made actively aerobic compost tea made from well-made actively aerobic compost over large tracks of land and eroding hillsides with any machine we have left and letting the bacteria and fungi work faster than any olde hand method to hold was soil we have left in place. Now that is intelligent life in the cosmos, healing the damage we have done on ANY and ALL scales.

There is a new state of art set out for permaculture:


Even this is utopian in scope and introduces but does not understand foodwebs on the scale that we need.

Stacia Nordin, RD:

As many of the other people who comment, we use the principles of Permaculture (sustainable living culture) in our lives and work.

It's great that researchers have been able to collect data on the importance of (all) our work as many of us don't have the time to collect this type of data, we know it, but don't have the numbers to prove it.

It is important to remember that there are MANY other benefits to sustainable living than just yields and carbon - I'm sure the full report goes into the details of other benefits that the farms experienced such as:
* more variety of food yields over the year (from agroforestry, integrated systems including animals),
* improved drought and flood resistance,
* improved water-holding/filtering capacity of soil, etc.


Tisk tisk you need some facts I see.

Ag only uses fertilizer because its cheaper then crop rotation and fallowing. As soon as it isnt they will go back to the old standby of spreading soil replenishing crops every 4 or so years.

As for water.... much of the us farmland is irrigated using water from dams the farmers paid to have built. Using energy the dam provides. As that water became more valued many farmers farm water rather then crops selling thier water rights to cities so they can expand.

The rest often uses well water and as always can be pumped via wind powered pumps. Frmers after all have used wind powered pumps for a very long time might as well go back to it when needed.


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