Sustainable Agriculture: Best of 2016 & the wooden spoon

All good things come to an end. 2016 was a year just like any other; some dreadful things happened and some wonderful things happened, depending on who you talk to.

For people interested in sustainable agriculture, it was a pretty exciting year. But in keeping with the annual theme of misinformation, there were also plenty of fails. Here are some of the highlights for me:

Organic farming is a good idea for sustainable agriculture

Organic agriculture has been getting a bad rap of late (see the wooden spoon award below). This is partly because there is so little publicly-available research comparing organic systems with conventional or industrial agriculture, so evidence of differences is limited. And many of the recent meta-analyses on how ‘Agriculture’ negatively affects the environment use political or economic data that can’t distinguish between organic and conventional production.

This paper published in Nature Plants by John Reganold & Jonathan Wachter reviews hundreds of studies to compare organic and conventional agriculture across four main sustainability metrics: productivity, economic viability, environmental impact and social wellbeing. The authors found that organic farms generally produce lower yields than conventional farms, but overall are more profitable and environmentally friendly. Organic food is also equally or more nutritious than conventionally-farmed foods, with the added benefit of containing less (or no) pesticide residues. Most importantly, the evidence published to date suggests that organic agriculture systems can provide more ecosystem services and social benefits. Hence, organic practices are a good idea to build a sustainable agricultural system.

If you can’t find the paper online, you can read the author’s summary piece in The Guardian. And if you can get access, also read the authors’ Reply to a criticism of the original article.

Sustainable agriculture is not just labelled organic

This paper by Lucas Garibaldi et al. goes one step further than Reganold & Wachter’s review and considers multiple forms of alternative agriculture, not just certified organic. The authors make the important point that the debate over sustainable agriculture is often muddied when we ignore differences between different objectives of agricultural production versus food production versus food security. Food security is about people’s access to food, regardless of what and how much is actually being produced.

The paradigm of conventional agriculture is to maximise yield. But maximising any single component of a system inevitably results in reduction of the other components. To be sustainable, agriculture needs broad adoption and support for alternatives to the modern conventional model of high-input monocultures and mechanised production systems. Agriculture is about diversity of people, plants and animals. It’s about whole communities of people interacting with and benefitting from nature, not a select few making a profit at the expense of others.

Sustainable agriculture is not just about low prices and high yields

In 2015, Lauren Ponisio et al. published this article that found that diversification practices (like crop rotation, polyculture etc.) reduced the yield gap that is often found between organic and conventional agriculture. Jens Leifeld criticised the article, and Ponisio and Claire Kremen replied. Their reply is open access and a must-read. It provides responses to many of the misinformed arguments against organic and non-conventional agriculture systems.

“So-called low-cost food produced by industrialized, conventional agriculture comes at a great price to our soils, water, biodiversity, atmosphere and worker health.”

Endangered bees are a good thing

This year, the United States placed seven species of bee from Hawai’i on their endangered list. Panic stations.

But no, this does not mean that every one of the 21,000+ species of bee in the world is now endangered. And nor does it mean that the darling European honey bee is officially endangered.

Many of the news stories failed to mention that listing a species as endangered is actually a good thing. It means that there are now legal requirements in place for people to protect habitat and resources that those species need throughout their life-cycle. It also raises much-needed awareness about non-bee pollinator insects that many people don’t know about it, but are equally vital to crop production and ecosystem function. And it will benefit many other species that use similar resources but aren’t yet on the endangered list.

In Australia, we only have two species of native bee listed as endangered (out of 1600+ species), both from a limited region in Perth, Western Australia. So I’m a little bit envious.

Nature is priceless

This piece in Ensia magazine is penned by Anne Guerry, who works on the Natural Capital Project. She also led this recent paper showing how information on ecosystem services still has a long way to go in changing policies and decision-making. Like many ecologists, Guerry appears to be tired of the clamour that ‘putting a price on nature is immoral’. The concept of natural capital (and its associated concept ecosystem services) is a metaphor, an idea of money that inspires people living in a capitalist economy to care about what happens to nature.

“In reality, a natural capital approach is actually a way of correcting capitalism’s myopia, expanding its view.”

Learning and expanding our view sounds much better than haggling over prices.

And the wooden spoon award goes to:

This disappointing piece in New Scientist magazine that misrepresents the science on organic agriculture, and claims that organic food is bad for the planet. The article is not available to non-subscribers, but you can find a summary of the author’s main points in this YouTube version.


© Manu Saunders 2016