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Eco-farming best for poor, UN expert says, not Gates Foundation approach

One of the Gates Foundation’s primary goals is to improve the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa by helping improve agricultural productivity.

On Tuesday, the United Nations issued a report that appeared to challenge the Seattle philanthropy’s approach.

The Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have launched what they are calling a new Green Revolution for Africa. It is a multi-pronged strategy that tends to favor scientific and technological solutions and that some see as too heavily dependent upon Western-style, industrialized farming techniques.

This week, the UN issued a report urging “eco-farming” as the best strategy for improving farming in the developed world. In it, the author appears to challenge the wisdom of the Gates Foundation’s approach in agricultural development.

Says the report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food:

Most efforts in the past have focused on improving seeds and ensuring that farmers are provided with a set of inputs that can increase yields, replicating the model of industrial processes in which external inputs serve to produce outputs in a linear model of production. Instead, agroecology seeks to improve the sustainability of agroecosystems by mimicking nature instead of industry.

The Guardian’s story, Eco-farming could double food output of poor countries, notes that the report cites ecologically based farming projects tailored to local environments already showing great success. Eco-farming initiatives in 57 nations have demonstrated 80 percent gains in crop yields, the Guardian reports:

It is also believed “agroecology” could make farms more resilient to extreme weather conditions associated with climate change, including floods, droughts and a rise in sea levels that the report said was already making fresh water near some coasts too salty for use in irrigation.

Mark Bittman, in an op-ed for the New York Times, says it’s time to put to rest the conventional wisdom that organic farming cannot feed the world:

Increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts (not hippies!) are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm.

InterPress’ Steve Leahy interviewed the UN author of the report, Olivier De Schutter, and specifically asked him about the Gates Foundation-backed initiative AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa:

De Shutter says AGRA is looking for quick results and is getting them…. The dominant view of agriculture is the industrial approach – of maximising efficiency and yield. However that system is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels and never having to be held accountable for environmental degradation and other impacts.

Eco-farming doesn’t require expensive inputs of fossil-fuel- based pesticides, fertilisers, machinery or hybrid seeds. It is ideally suited for poor smallholder farmers and herders who are the bulk of the one billion hungry people in the world. Efforts by governments and major donors such as the 400-million-dollar Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to subsidise fertilizer and hybrid seeds will produce quick boosts in yields but are not sustainable in the long term, De Schutter said.

Not everyone agrees, however, that the solution to the developing world’s need for agricultural improvement should be so simply categorized as a choice between either eco-farming or industrial. As an article from Nature notes on the debate about how fertilizer use contributes to climate change, there will be cases in which a community may need to use fertilizers while another does not.

The Gates Foundation addresses some of these concerns on its website, emphasizing that its strategy is selective and not necessarily devoted to Western, industrialized approaches. The ultimate goal, says the philanthropy, is that the projects benefit smallholder farmers.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.