Not just a buzzword synonym for organic farming, ‘agroecology’ aims to mimic the self-sustaining productivity of natural ecosystems in a man-made setting. University of California, Berkeley, professor and Chilean national Miguel Altieri says an apple project in his country’s Casablanca region proves agroecology not only helps the environment, but cuts production costs too.
Altieri says there is no choice for farmers but to go down the path of agroecology, which uses the lowest amount of chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, while at the same time combining plant life to enrich the soil.
“I believe that climate change and water management will force many farmers to understand that the way they make their crops more resilient is diversity and increasing organic matter in the soil,” says the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) consultant.
“The native forest for example, doesn’t need to be fertilized, or irrigated, it doesn’t have plagues, because it is in equilibrium, thanks to its diversity, and it has a lot of life in the soil, which is to say that it has features that permit it to run by itself.
“There are many farmers who moved from chemicals to organic but kept the monoculture, so they have to keep using products.”
Altieri has been advising the Casablanca apple project for the last six years, which has been run by Dr. Emilio Fernández along with Hortifruit President Victor Möller and Universidad Católica agronomist Eduardo Pizzagalli.
“After five years we could say that we are arriving at the expected ecological equilibrium, which is reflected in the reduced need for inputs and external elements for controlling plagues and diseases, so that the trees can express their most productive potential,” says Fernández.
Fernandez says the biological systems that form agroecology help plants to become more resistant to disease due to improved immunity levels. The Casablanca apple project has only had to apply one product, whereas 12 were required before.
Altieri cites the example of Latin American farmers, who have used agroecology techniques for centuries by combining corn and bean crops.
“The bean sets nitrogen, which passes to the corn, and in turn, produces shade, which helps the beans to grow and increases the presence of beneficial wildlife,” he says.
The modern-day example includes apple farms or vineyards, where plants are incorporated under the rows of trees or vines to stimulate life in the soil. In Casablanca flowers are interspersed to attract beneficial insects that control apple plagues, such as greenflies, spiders and mealybugs.
“This system is still seen as an alternative or a revolution, but when farmers see it as an innovation, they won’t have arguments against it,” he says.
He adds that the experience in Casablanca is not a product of chance, but a a methodical and investigatory process.
“There is a protocol of learning, observing and generating knowledge.”
It is this knowledge that Altieri claims is another benefit of agroecology, in that workers on such projects can improve their technical skills, leading to more opportunities and higher salaries in the industry.
Agroecology further afield
While Chilean agroecology spread rapidly in the late 1980s with the assistance of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), it is only now that the country is advancing toward large-scale commercial projects.
He says Chile is pushing towards the commercial scale that exists in California, where 2% of fruit is agroecologically produced.
“But four years ago it was 0.5%. There’s exponential growth and that’s counting farmers who apply the totality of the concept, because there are others who apply it partially.”
He also mentions agroecology on a smaller scale in Peru and Nicaragua. In Brazil the concept is linked to family farming, with 4.8 million families who produce 70% of foods. For food security, the Brazilian government has dedicated a lot of resources to investigation, education and capacity.
In Brazil there are cities surrounded by agroecological agriculture that are 10 degrees cooler than those surrounded by sugarcane monoculture.
He also cites agroecological success in Cuba, “where through necessity they transformed into organics, in a short time they realised that they should use agroecological principles.”
Altieri says humanity will begin to realise the benefits of producing healthy crops, as the process of agroecology captures carbons and promotes biodiversity – what he calls ‘ecological services.’
“The monoculture is going to be of the past if we want to adapt to the coming climate scenarios, especially for Mediterranean climates like Chile’s,” he says.
Altieri is also the president of the Society of Latin American Agroecological Sciences (SOCLA) and his written numerous publications on agroecology with his wife, Clara Nichols.