Robert Paarlberg is Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
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Given the well-documented advantages of agro-ecological systems both for human beings and for the environment, they should really have found much swifter and more comprehensive application than has been the case. Our author does not accept the usual attempts to explain this phenomenon and argues instead that small farmers need a Green Revolution if they are to escape their heavy labour burden, a stagnant crop yield and deep rural poverty.

Farming in ways that imitate nature sounds like a good idea, until you remember that nature is hardly a place of food abundance. The wilderness produces plenty of biomass, but very little of it is digestible in the human stomach, which is why we invented agriculture in the first place. Agroecological farming methods that imitate nature can of course produce healthy and tasty food, but these methods require far too much human labour to remain attractive to farmers, once they have gained access to powered machinery, chemical fertilisers, and irrigation pumps.

Agroecology has been heavily promoted by advocates and activists since the 1980s, as an alternative to Green Revolution farming, and it has won wide endorsement from philanthropic foundations, donor organisations and the United Nations system. Yet most actual farmers, private investors and ministries of agriculture pay little attention. They continue to favour powered machinery over hand labour, monocultures over polycultures or intercropping, modern knowledge over traditional knowledge and fertiliser use over the recycling of animal waste. In 2016, one review in the journal Horticulturae summed it up nicely: “Despite the call for alternative methods of production over the years, the paradigm of industrial or conventional agriculture still dominates and permeates most mainstream academic and policy discussions about the future of agriculture.”

Agroecology has been most heavily promoted in Latin America, and if it were on the rise in this region we would expect a slowdown or even a decline in the use of modern chemical inputs like fertilisers. Yet between 1980 and 2002 the use of urea fertiliser in South America increased by 60 per cent and the use of nitrogenous fertilisers by 139 per cent. In Central America, between those same dates the respective rates of increase were 139 per cent and 32 per cent. More recently, in Latin America and the Caribbean overall, between 2002 and 2014, total fertiliser consumption in kilograms per hectare of arable land rose by another 43 per cent.

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