18.05.2018 |

Agroecology is a better alternative in Sub-Saharan Africa, researcher says

Agroecological farm in Kabarole, Uganda (Photo: Ellinor Isgren, Lund University)

Agroecology is a better alternative than large-scale agriculture, both for the climate and for small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a doctoral thesis published at Lund University in Sweden, this agricultural model preserves biodiversity and safeguards food supply while avoiding soil depletion. Researcher Ellinor Isgren looked at the case of Uganda, one of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa where much hope is currently placed in agricultural development for poverty alleviation, economic growth and food security. She found that Uganda’s “agrarian politics are significantly shaped by the persistence of a neoliberal development logic, and the short-term political interests of an increasingly insecure regime.” Despite its potential to resolve tensions between development and environmental sustainability, especially in countries dominated by small-scale low-capital farming, agroecology remains largely ignored in Uganda. “There is currently no political will in Uganda to push development of the agricultural sector. This has left the market open to private investors and strong financial interests in the form of seed and pesticide companies”, she says. Agroecology is only pursued by actors in civil society and academia as a form of smallholder-oriented ‘modernization from below’.

However, promoting agroecology would have many advantages for Uganda and other Sub-Saharan countries. Isgren argues that today’s intensive, large-scale agriculture harms the environment with its high use of pesticides as well as high energy and water consumption, leading to soil depletion and biodiversity loss. “Large parts of the world’s soil have already been degraded by depletion and excessively resource-intensive agriculture,” she said. Huge areas are often cultivated with one or just a few different crops, making this type of agriculture vulnerable to pests, diseases and climate change. Another disadvantage of large-scale agriculture is that it requires major investments in the form of machinery, grains and seed, while utilising little labour. This means that poorer farmers in many African countries are excluded from the advantages of intensive agriculture: technological development, increased food production, access to the agricultural market and general economic growth. “We must consider other, alternative models for developing agriculture, particularly in countries that have not already transitioned to large-scale rationalisation,” argues Isgren. “Development that excludes a large number of small-holders creates income differences and a divided society. From a social and fairness perspective, transition to large-scale agriculture is not a positive technological conversion for the whole of society.”

Instead, the researcher proposes agroecology as a possible alternative for small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. According Lund University’s press release, “this model is based on each farm being an integrated ecosystem, in which crops, plants and animals interact to create favourable conditions for cultivation. This alternative is knowledge-intensive, requiring farmers to have a lot of knowledge about the functioning of various components in the ecological system, as well as an ability to create synergies between plants, insects, crops and soil fertility. The model also rests on traditional farming methods.” Isgren points out that if farmers use the model correctly, they can increase their yields and ensure their food supply while preserving biodiversity and reducing their impact on the climate and soil depletion. “They also become less vulnerable to climate change as they grow many different crops and improve the soil structure,” she explains. Another benefit is that the system does not require major resources in the form of machinery, pesticides and fertiliser, as the cultivation model is mainly organic, so even poor small-holders can farm in this way. “Agroecology is a real alternative to conventional agricultural production, and a model that safeguards both the climate and social development,” she says. However, in order to make agroecology a reality in Uganda, more efforts are needed. Civil society needs to push for change from the bottom up and international support would have to be directed from industrial agriculture to alternative ways of farming the land, Isgren concludes. (ab)

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