Friday, September 4, 2009
The total-ecosystem-management view of agriculture put forward in Permaculture and Natural Farming are increasingly gaining acceptance as a legitimate academic research subject, often called Agroecology. Almost all major universities in the US now have agroecology research and education programs: UC Berkeley, Penn State, UC Santa Cruz, NCSU, UIUC, and Iowa State, to name just a few.
Miguel Altieri (UC Berkeley) and Stephen Gleissman (UC Santa Cruz) are probably the leading academic researchers in this field.
Despite this activity, true sustainability in agriculture is faced with multiple challenges. From the "Barriers to Implementation" section of Prof Altieri's article* Modern Agriculture: Ecological Impacts and the Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming:
...some well-intentioned groups suffer from "technological determinism", and emphasize as a key strategy only the development and dissemination of low-input or appropriate technologies as if these technologies in themselves have the capability of initiating beneficial social changes. The organic farming school that emphasizes input substitution (i.e. a toxic chemical substituted by a biological insecticide) but leaving the monoculture structure untouched, epitomizes those groups that have a relatively benign view of capitalist agriculture. Such perspective has unfortunately prevented many groups from understanding the structural roots of environmental degradation linked to monoculture farming....
On the other hand, the large influence of multinational companies in promoting sales of agrochemicals cannot be ignored as a barrier to sustainable farming. Most MNCs have taken advantage of existing policies that promote the enhanced participation of the private sector in technology development and delivery, positioning themselves in a powerful position to scale up promotion and marketing of pesticides. Realistically then the future of agriculture will be determined by power relations, and there is no reason why farmers and the public in general, if sufficiently empowered, could not influence the direction of agriculture along sustainability goals.
* The whole article is a must-read. In just under 4000 words, Altieri gives an excellent overview of
- the effects of industrial agriculture
- the anticipated (and current) effects of genetic engineering
- the alternative offered by Agroecological approaches
- and the barriers to implementation