By: Gerard Rass
Today all international organizations are announcing the biggest food crisis in history.
The most visible culprit is obviously Putin and his personal war on Ukraine, an important agricultural exporting country, whose production is necessary to maintain the world’s food supply.
What is less visible is that the leaders of the European Union also bear a great responsibility. Their Malthusian environmentalist policy is adding to world food insecurity in a very deliberate way, by simultaneously decreeing in Europe a decrease in cultivated areas, an increase in less productive organic farming areas, and a restriction on production tools, all while restricting food trade by imposing its import standards.
Europe is a major consumer, but also producer of agriculture commodities. In this context, it is urgent to look at the contribution of European farmers to the food supply of fellow citizens, without forgetting our responsibilities to the environment and the resilience of the global food system.
This is the objective of the Global Conservation Agriculture Network (GCAN), a worldwide network of farmers’ associations that develop Conservation Agriculture (CA) on their farms encouraging adoption through “Farmer to Farmer” interactions sharing examples and experimentations between farmers.
As key players in agriculture, experienced farmers are well placed to know which public policies are needed to accelerate changes in the world’s food system.
GENESIS OF DIRECT SEEDING: A TECHNIQUE AT THE SERVICE OF SOIL CONSERVATION
No Tillage (NT) consists of sowing and conducting a crop without any mechanical tillage, apart from the placement of seeds in the soil by a specialized seeder. Its ancestor is the hand-operated burrowing stick used by small growers that planted crops into undisturbed soil.
NT agriculture systems were developed in the 1970s in Brazil and Argentina where water erosion was widespread on bare soil resulting from conventional agriculture using tillage, ploughs and harrows.
The pioneer farmers of DS Herbert Bartz, Nono Pereira, Franke Djikstra and agronomist Rolf Derpsch saw thatNT was not enough, and supplemented it with cover crops sown directly in the cash crops’ rotations. It was known throughout Latin America as “NT Systems”.
This inspired a group of FAO experts to formally define Conservation Agriculture (CA) at the World Conservation Agriculture Congress in Madrid in 2001 as a cropping system that simultaneously combines three practices:
- total elimination of mechanical tillage (i.e. NT),
- permanent soil cover with cash crops, or live or dead intermediate vegetation cover (thus incompatible with tillage),
- diverse plant rotations.
The French agriculture research institute CIRAD has named this system Sowing under Vegetation Cover (SCV), which they worked on in Brazil, Madagascar, Laos, but not in France. Lucien Séguy, international agronomist with CIRAD, was popular with French pioneer farmers for his valuable advice, against the tide of metropolitan institutional agronomists.
NT developed rapidly wherever innovative farmers are not restricted of their technical choices, are not subsidized, and whose performance determines economic results such as in Latin America, Australia and New Zealand. In North America the technique promoted for soil protection by the national resource conservation service (NRCS), was for a long time a reduced level of tillage, under the term of Conservation Tillage, which inspired the Simplified Cultural Techniques (SCT) in Europe from 1980s onwards which now cover about a third of Europe’s’ cultivated surfaces.
The World Congress of Conservation Agriculture in Winnipeg in 2014 confirmed that “Conservation Tillage” is an oxymoron, because its practice (SCT) does not sufficiently protect the soil, and generates many technical dead ends, in particular erosion, weed control, loss of organic matter, CO2 and nitrogen, increasing costs to the farmer and the environment.
The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) saw the emergence of an informal network, the Global Conservation Agriculture Network (GCAN) with many national and international associations of farmers and experts developing and deploying Conservation Agriculture as defined by the FAO. Conservation Agriculture, (Agriculture de Conservation des Sols, ACS), is represented in Europe by the French organization APAD (Association for the Promotion of Sustainable Agriculture).
AT THE SERVICE OF THE FARMER AND HIS NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
These systems, when successfully implemented following the knowledge of experienced farmers and experts, allow farmers to suppress erosion and runoff, increase the organic matter and fertility of their soils, water storage capacity ,drought resistance, as well as reduce weed invasion, insects, pests and diseases, while considerably saving labor time, fuel, equipment, fertilizers, phytosanitary products, and increasing the production potential by:
- more production on a cultivated area
- lengthening production periods by eliminating periods of bare soil, harmful as much to the production of useful biomass as to the life of the soil
This results in better profits for farmers, better productivity of land and human effort, and better capital investment, as well as increasingly valuable services for the community:
- the most relevant indicator is certainly an increase in organic matter observed by the implementation of conservation agriculture on soils degraded by tillage: easily a gain in organic matter rate of 1 percent in 10 yearsand quicker in favorable conditions,
- a more resilient and abundant production, making it safer to feed a growing population,
- a system less dependent on fossil fuels (fuel and nitrogen fertilizers in particular),
- a potential additional production for energy uses (biogas, biofuels) as more biomass in produced, provided that food and soil needs are first met after several years of restoration of organic matter,
- a more secure watershed management (quantitative and qualitative water supply),
- an increase in biodiversity in the fields, but also the possibility of leaving some room for biodiversity outside of the fields on areas least suitable for profitable and sustainable agricultural production,
- a more climate resilient system, both through its adaptation to drought, and through the sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in soils by organic matter production.
The International Initiative “4pour1000” for Food Security and Climate, launched in 2015 at COP21 by Stéphane Le Foll for the French Government, was directly inspired by CA as the agricultural system that can mitigate a large part of the GHG emissions of human activity, while producing more food and improving the overall ecosystem services of cultivated agriculture.
ALREADY 200 MILLION HECTARES OF LAND “IN FREEDOM”
In 2008 and 2009, the SoCo project of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre recorded all of these benefits in concrete cases in several European countries.
Its benefits for farmers explain the development of Conservation Agriculture in countries where farmers are free to make their own technical choices, and are not protected from climatic or commercial hazards by subsidies, but also not hindered by regulatory discrimination, or distortions of competition in favor of other politically supported systems.
The area under CA is rapidly increasing, reaching over 200 million hectares worldwide. It varies from 50% to 95% of the annually cultivated land in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Latin America is the most dynamic leader, with Argentina and the AAPRESID farmers association capablewho transformed in less than 10 years most of Argentina’s soybean monoculture production into a high-performance CA system. They diversified their rotations by adding corn, wheat, barley, rye, rapeseed, sunflower, legumes and meadows, implementing high biomass service crops intended for the soil, for the protection of their cash crops, but also biodiversity.
Africa, besides Southern Africa which is usually more advanced, is beginning to successfully develop CA in Western and Eastern African countries, as a basis for the agricultural and human development. This is due in a large part to private partnerships between African farmers from Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone, and their Argentinian peers (AAPRESID International and WARC Group) who are investing in the region with the declared ambition of making Africa the Breadbasket of the World (according to Jorge Lopez Menendez, leader of the WARC Group, based with his family in Ghana). Favorable to this development is the resolutely liberal, realistic, pragmatic policy, open to modernity, science, technology and results, independent of the old Western ideologies and quarrels, of certain leaders such as Nana Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana.
In Europe, the areas under CA have stagnated since the 1980s at around 1 to a few percent depending on the country. Long held back by the myth of the need to work the soil and by the competition of the development of simplified cultural techniques (SCT), CA has for the past ten years or so, generated a great deal of interest among farmers . More or less organized groups of farmers have started to appear, of which the APAD is the specialized national association in France, partially recognized by the authorities, even though it is the most active in terms of advocacy and organized activity in the field, and benefits from GCAN’s experience, which helps guide its strategy.
EUROPE AND FRANCE IN RETREAT AND UNDER INFLUENCE
Nevertheless, European and French policies remain strongly under the influence of environmental lobbies which are hostile to the very notion of production and the use of technologies. The authorities have seen fit to spare the susceptibility and interest of the environmental movement to promote organic farming, while at the same time conventional and conservative farmers have reasoned according to a subsidies logic, which is still in the majority in old Europe, and avoided promoting CA too strongly.
The last two years have even seen a major retreat from productive agriculture to the detriment of the decreasing models of organic farming, agroecology, and other so-called “natural” agricultural systems, in the sense that they reject the use of modern solutions for plant protection, nutrition, and genetics.
As a result, our overall production has declined. France has gone from being an exporter, contributing to feed Europe and neighboring countries such as North Africa, to an importer.
The European agricultural policy passed by the European Parliament in November 2021 , “Farm to Fork”, displays objectives of reducing cultivated areas at the same time as reducing production per hectare with the subsidized and constrained progression of organic farming, which can only condemn Europe to be more and more dependent on imports.
No less than four expert reports have reached the same conclusion. Of particular interest among these is the very messy analysis of the USDA, and that of the JRC, the scientists of the commission who nevertheless helped to invent this policy. Many informed commentators have warned for months that this policy of a voluntary decrease in agricultural production is a major threat to food security, not only in Europe itself, but also in the countries to which we export our agricultural raw materials, particularly cereals, both because of the deficit in relation to demand, the encouragement of speculation caused by this shortfall, and the habit of the authorities of many developing countries of being influenced by and copying European policies.
In particular, the removal of a molecule in Europe is often very quickly imitated by these countries. Several African and Indian farmers’ organizations are very concerned the possible ban on insecticides and herbicides would completely prevent them from adopting practices and systems that would allow them to improve their soil, which is generally extremely degraded by slash-and-burn, overgrazing, ploughing and mechanical work, including manual work, and therefore vulnerable to rain, drought and erosion. They are well aware that degraded soils produce less, and that low biomass production in turn leads to soil degradation, in a spiral of degradation leading to desertification, not only in dry areas, but even in humid tropical or equatorial environments.
MEASURES TO BE TAKEN QUICKLY FOR GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY
This threat to the world’s food security, encouraged by counterproductive and European policies, which was already announced more than a year ago and was increasingly denounced in January and until February 23rd by informed people. Suddenly it was amplified after the February 24th attack launched by Russian President Putin against Ukraine. All serious forecasters, from the FAO to the World Bank, in particular the World Food Fund (Martin Frick), are now announcing a global deficit in cereal production that could lead to famine in the poorer regions.
In this context, it is urgent that European leaders of the countries capable of producing, with France in mind, take the initiative of solidarity, and therefore should unleash the production potential of our countries.To do this, farmers need the freedom to use all the tools necessary to maximize production, be it phytosanitary products, fertilizers, as well as improved seeds (including enhanced genetics with CRISPR technology). It goes without saying that the “Farm to Fork” policy must be abolished immediately because it does not address any of the issues at stake, neither food security, nor climate change (it promotes tillage and makes No-Till impossible), nor biodiversity (it uses more agricultural land for the same amount of production, land that could be used for wildlife conservation).
On the other hand, a proactive policy should be put in place to encourage farmers to use high biomass intercropping and NT, the first step necessary to embark on the path of conservation agriculture.
TRAIN FARMERS QUICKLY
In parallel, animations, demonstrations and accelerated training should be massively implemented, relying on the knowledge of pioneer farmers’ associations that have experience in agricultural development.
Where state-subsidized technostructures or merchants and advisors (but not payers) have failed to develop CA in Europe, GCAN demonstrates that farmers are capable to coach and train their colleagues.
Only those who have experienced and overcome the anguish of the existential risk of changing its agricultural system; risk on their crop yields, their income, and their family’s livelihood; and have then successfully managed to technically and economically transform their production to a more productive, sustainable and profitable system, can then share, guide, and train their colleagues with the necessary benevolence, leadership and pedagogy.
Such farmers, leaders, exist within the global network of Conservation Agriculture, they are organized in groups such as the WARC Group (Western Africa), AAPRRESID (Argentina), African networks, APAD (France). They are committed to this vital cause for humanity and for the planet without asking anything from anyone.
Alone, they will continue to do their best, despite all the obstacles they will encounter, but their strength alone is insufficient to successfully avoid famine and misery worldwide, especially at their scale and in the limited time remaining to face these challenges. Other actors can support them without difficulty if only they decide to do so.
The main decision makers are the governments as representatives of their people. They can take the right decisions to solve problems, and make the right policies for change, they will be held accountable before Humanity and History for having done so, or not. And if they don’t, why did they ever want to be in power?
The financing of this development can be done without injecting public money thanks to the development of the carbon offset market from which farmers can benefit. Such a development scheme already exists. APAD has set up a label “Au Coeur des Sols” (At the Heart of the Soil), which is self-managed by farmers who are experts in CA. This label defines the stages of improvement enabling farmers to be remunerated by the Carbon Funds for their progress in carbon sequestration. All that the authorities would have to do is to approve this scheme, directed towards CA, and to trust farmers and their associations to steer the transition and provide the technical and pedagogical guarantee and support.
They are skilled at what they do, and just need the trust, freedom and logistical and human resources for their organizations. In this way, the objectives of considerably increasing agricultural production, improving soils and all agricultural ecosystems would be met. It would be led by farmers, who will be entrusted with the mission and responsibility of carrying out what is at the heart of their profession: production, management of agricultural ecosystems, transmission and improvement of their heritage which is also a shared heritage, and the extension of their know-how. The experience gained by the international networks of CA, represented by GCAN in European Agriculture, with the help and support of France and allied countries.
Talks are already underway with emerging projects and an adequate institutional framework: FAO’s Global Soil Partnership has a Soil Doctors program of “Farmer to Farmer” agricultural development similar to what GCAN is doing, and a RecSoil program of agricultural soil recarbonation to finance these development programmes through carbon credits. GCAN is partnering to bring these projects to life and to engage the entire global agricultural community.
The farmers involved have the capacity and know-how to do this. What they lack is the logistical and financial support to scale up their efforts to drastically accelerate the transition, and very quickly produce much more while improving our ecosystems. We need to move beyond pilot projects and move quickly to a more global scale.
The dynamism and operational know-how of farmers in the field, and the methodological and diplomatic know-how of the UN and EU institutions should be able, together, to do the necessary work on a more global scale and within the timeframes required to avoid the predicted disasters.
Otherwise, what is the use of our governments if they cannot, or will not, support the actors who are committed and capable of doing the work that is required?
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