Agroecology in the new government

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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

Agroecological production should be focused on the minifundistas in their small areas and the slightly larger properties that have already engaged in the transition processes.

When participating in the virtual meeting that presented and discussed the report of the WG on agrarian development, a few days ago, I had a surprise that was both great and worrying. The surprise came from the interventions of about 50 of the 500 participants of the meeting. All of them, without exception, were in favor of promoting agroecology in an effort to increase national food production. Since I founded the non-governmental organization AS-PTA (Family Agriculture and Agroecology) in 1983, I have never encountered this type of unanimity, far from it.

Leaders of farmers from local to national level, extensionists, researchers, all were on the same line and this warmed my heart, showing that the almost 40 years of work had a much wider impact than I could have expected. I was even more delighted by the fact that I did not know the vast majority of those who spoke. As those who were able to intervene were only 10% of those who attended the meeting, it may be that a distortion occurred, with agroecology sympathizers signing up before the others.

But I want to believe that the support for agroecology was representative of that group. And all this happened without the entity that represents the agroecological movement, the National Agroecology Articulation, ANA, having participated in the WG.

The worrying surprise was due to the expectation created by those who intervened, pointing to the adoption of agroecology as the only way to promote healthy and sustainable food production.

Why worrying? In my view, this expectation is unrealistic. It is not enough to decide for agroecology in public policies for it to become a current practice in farmers' fields. We have a negative example being exploited by advocates of conventional agriculture, the Sri Lankan government's decision to promote agroecology by ordinance. The precipitation of this decision led to a demoralizing fiasco and the abandonment of the proposal. The transition to agroecology depends on several constraints that are not quickly overcome.

What are these factors?

State bureaucracies tend to view agroecology in the same way as conventional agriculture works. In this system, everything is simpler. Scientific research develops production models directed at each plant or animal separately. Varieties of plants and animal breeds are chosen or developed, their needs for chemical fertilizers are identified, pests, diseases and invaders that can harm them are studied to indicate which pesticides should be used. Once the technical package to be used to produce rice, soy, sugarcane, etc. is defined, and to raise chickens, pigs or cattle, the task passes to the rural extension systems that disseminate it among farmers and breeders. The financial system receives instructions and resources to distribute credit for the use of inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and machinery) and purchase of animals, always charging producers and breeders to use the package.

This model of promoting development does not work for agroecological production. To begin with, agroecological systems, unlike conventional ones, are not aimed at a product or an animal species. They are complex systems, combining several species of plants and animals and integrating the natural biodiversity of each ecosystem into their productive designs. The varieties used are developed by the producers themselves and adapted to the environmental and soil conditions of each property. Organic fertilization can use inputs external to the properties, which is more common in countries such as Europe and North America where there is a solidly established market that provides a wide variety of products.

Here in Brazil, where this market is very narrow and very expensive, the most common solution is for farmers to produce their own fertilizers. The same situation occurs with biological control products, which replace pesticides. In fact, the very productive designs adopted by agroecology tend to reduce both the demand for fertilizers and for pest and weed control products.

While conventional systems seek broadly generalizable solutions, agroecological systems seek specific solutions for each farmer. The best combinations of agroecological techniques and the design of the production system allow for an infinity of differentiated solutions that have to be identified on a case-by-case basis.

All this is to indicate that there are no technical packages that everyone can adopt without differences. This paradigm changes the relationships in the production of adequate knowledge for each case. In conventional systems, a simple set of techniques is applied uniformly across many properties. As we have already pointed out, this knowledge comes from outside, from public or private research centers. In agroecology, knowledge is built collectively, combining the knowledge of technicians (scientific) with that of each farmer (empirical).

Technical solutions are adapted individually to each case. Farmers are encouraged to experiment with different practices, the origin of which may be traditional knowledge, knowledge derived from experimentation by each farmer, and scientific knowledge, always shared in order to produce a collective intelligence.

The transition to agroecological systems takes place gradually and each farmer defines his pace, his path and the practices he wants to adopt. It is clear that this process tends to accelerate as it progresses. It also greatly facilitates the existence of demonstrative examples of these processes, in which new adherents to agroecology can be inspired.

The role of technical assistance is fundamental in promoting the agroecological transition, but the nature of this rural extension is totally different. The technician does not come to bring the ready-made solution, but to contribute with his knowledge and facilitate the process of building new knowledge. He needs knowledge in agroecology techniques, but even more he needs to master a participatory methodology that redefines his own role. The “technician” does not necessarily need to be a graduate of agricultural sciences. Farmers with good experience can play this role in facilitating the collective transition process. The movement known as “Campesino to Campesino”, strong in Central America and Cuba, has numerous examples of transition processes, where there is no participation of graduates. However, I believe that they would be even more efficient if they could also rely on scientific knowledge and several cases prove this idea.

I hope I have made it clear that this process of agroecological transition is dependent, at best, on the existence of well-prepared technical staff, especially methodologically, on well-articulated collectives of farmers, on resources to finance experimentation processes and socialization activities. of the knowledge of the participants and, eventually, credit support for the application of the solutions identified in the whole of a productive system or in one or more subsystems. These are long processes, I repeat, they are not set up overnight. On the other hand, the availability of technicians prepared to promote this type of agroecological transition is currently very low and we cannot think that, in a short time, it will be possible to train the 20 to 30 thousand technicians that I estimate are needed to deal with the totality of of family farming.

In other words, agroecology is the future of agriculture here and in the rest of the world, but it will not be able to produce the amount of food needed to provide a correct diet for our population as a whole, at least not in the next 10 to 20 years. years. Yes, year after year the participation of agroecology is expected to grow and practice shows that this growth will accelerate as the experiences are consolidated.

The starting point is low, in my opinion there are no more than 200 men and women farmers who are currently engaged in the agroecological transition, the majority in its first stages. If in four years of Lula's government we can present the advanced consolidation of agroecology in these 200 thousand properties, we can consider that, in the next four years, this number could triple.

Meanwhile, most food production will have to be the responsibility of another type of production model, the conventional one. Let there be no doubt: I am unable to know and demonstrate that this is an unsustainable model with an expiration date that has almost expired. But it is the system in widest use in the country, either by large-scale agribusiness or by small and medium-scale family agribusiness.

As I said before, I do not believe that any large agribusiness producer is going to abandon its place in the production chain focused on export commodities. However, census data show that employer agriculture has more weight in the production of food for the domestic market than family agriculture. The data from the 1985 census were left behind, which indicated a share of family farming in these products of around 70%. In terms of beans, for example, employer agriculture accounts for 88,4% of the production of colored beans (the most consumed), 65,6% of black-eyed peas and 58% of black beans. In rice production, employer agriculture accounts for 90% of production. Wheat 81%, eggs 91%, chicken 64%, pork 65% and beef 69%. Only in cassava production is family farming dominant, with 70% of production. And in milk, with 64%.

In other words, to increase the supply of basic foodstuffs for the 125 million in a situation of food insecurity, especially for the 33 million who are hungry, it will be necessary to formulate policies to stimulate employer agriculture. These policies should include the definition of minimum prices guaranteed by the government, facilitated credit, exemption from taxes on products and public purchases to replenish regulatory stocks, school lunches and others. From the point of view of the quality of supply, the government should promote an integrated pest management program and encourage the use of biological controls to reduce the use of pesticides and gradually remove subsidies for poisons.

Family farming accounts for 20 to 30% of basic food production and has room to increase its share. I have no idea of ​​the participation of family farmers in the production of vegetables, but it tends to be significant due to the very nature of this production.

Data from the 2017 census show that the number of family farmers dropped by almost 10% compared to the 2006 census. In round numbers, there were 416 thousand fewer families. This despite the fact that around 350 families were settled in the same period. This indicates that policies supporting family farming and agrarian reform during the Lula and Dilma governments did not yield the expected results. There are two interpretations of this inescapable fact: either they were not enough or they were wrong. I opt for the second interpretation. Credit, insurance and technical assistance policies focused on promoting the conventional production model and this led family farmers to get into debt and, in the worst cases, to lose their land.

The impact on organic production was even worse. Between the last two agricultural censuses, the number of producers dropped from 91 to 65, a loss of almost 30%. The censuses only point to certified organic producers and ignore agroecological producers who have not sought certification, but my personal estimate is that the number of the latter remained stable among the most advanced in the transition and with an increase in those who started this process. , maybe 100 to 120 thousand producers.

Data on land distribution among family farmers are controversial and subject to correction. The most detailed study I found (not necessarily the most correct), with data from the 2017 census, points to the existence of approximately 2 million minifundistas, just over half of the total number of family farmers.

The definition of minifundio is property with an area smaller than a fiscal module. The size of this module is defined by municipality and varies between 5 and 110 hectares. The lowest value is more present in the south and southeast regions and the highest in the north region. It indicates, theoretically, the minimum area for the viability of an agricultural property. The definition of the fiscal module is very questionable, as it ignores the possibility of an agroecological property and even a conventional one that adopts adequate production for its dimensions. To give an example, a farmer with only one hectare can adopt a vegetable production or other intensive production that fetches good prices in the market. One hectare of vegetables can provide an income greater than 5 hectares of soy or bean monoculture.

Smallholdings with less than two hectares of available area, half of the smallest fiscal module, and not all of this area is arable, add up to 1.153.000 family farmers. With or without agroecology, the contribution of these farmers to the production of food for the market is and will be minimal or null. However, they can produce to supply the family. With a correct support policy, this group can become self-sufficient in food, quantity and diversity. Knowing that there are 800 family farmers in a situation of severe food insecurity and 600 in moderate, a program aimed at promoting the food security of these families would already have an important impact in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.

Experiences in agroecology show that, even in environmentally difficult regions such as the semi-arid northeast, food for a family can be guaranteed with up to half a hectare of varied crops, as long as irrigation water is ensured, using the so-called underground dams or cisterns " boardwalk”. The first of these infrastructures was developed and applied by agroecological ATER NGOs and the second by Embrapa. Irrigated areas of 0,2 to 0,5 hectares allow for food self-sufficiency, while the larger ones also allow the production of surpluses for local markets.

The main investment in this program would be in water infrastructure, technical assistance, funding for farmers' collective learning and experimentation processes and the purchase of vegetable seeds. A food and even cooking education program would also be important, since the consumption of vegetables is not part of the culture of these traditional family farmers.

Family farmers with an area between 2 and 5 hectares (817), also classified among the minifundistas, have a greater potential for producing surpluses for the market, but are also among those who need to improve self-supply. Your contribution to local markets can be significant.

Production with a greater impact should depend on producers with areas between 10 and 100 hectares (just under 2 million families). It so happens that many of these producers, especially those who turned to agribusiness, are linked to productive export chains (soy and corn), especially in the southern region. Others are linked to the production of tobacco and the raising of poultry and pigs linked to processing industries under an integration regime. And among those with larger areas, many are dedicated to raising cattle. Attracting these producers to food production will be essential to ensure a quick response to the increased demand caused by the increased Bolsa Família program.

From the experience of years of assistance to agroecological development, I believe that a quick abandonment of conventional practices cannot be expected. The best hypothesis is the gradual adoption of replacing the use of chemical inputs with organic inputs, but for this to be possible, the government will have to stimulate the large-scale production of organic fertilizers from the composting of sewage sludge and garbage . It is something to be stimulated in a decentralized way in the municipalities, with credits and facilitation of flow.

It will also be fundamental to stimulate the production on a larger scale of biological pest control products and/or, as is done in Cuba, the local multiplication of natural enemies of the pests, to be released on the plantations. Support for small-scale mechanization will also be essential to increase production, as there is a strong decrease in the availability of work in family farming. Easy credit, government purchases and attractive minimum prices, production insurance and technical assistance are the key policies for this public. With regard to technical assistance, I believe that retraining agronomists and conventional technicians to adopt input replacement guidelines is something less complex than training them in agroecology paradigms and is viable in the short term. The collaboration of state governments and their Technical Assistance and Rural Extension Companies will be important.

Agroecological production should be focused on the minifundistas in their small areas and the slightly larger properties that have already engaged in the transition processes. For these, I defend the creation of a program to strengthen the agroecological transition. This program must provide funds for agroecological development projects that allow financing non-bank credit revolving funds, encouraging experimentation by farmers, collective activities for exchanging experiences, technical assistance and government purchases (PAA and PNAE).

I have already written in another article that production aimed at food self-sufficiency must be directed towards women farmers and guided by agronomists and agricultural techniques. And receive funds for the construction of water infrastructure and other necessary improvements.

The training of agroecological ATER technicians must be strengthened, promoting the relationship between agrarian universities, state and non-governmental ATER services and farmers' organizations.

I hope that my fellow defenders of agroecology understand the limits of the situation we are in and do not insist on wanting to guide all public policies aimed at agriculture towards agroecological policies, in the next four years. Unfortunately, previous attempts have not been successful and insisting will be a disaster.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).

 


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