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Eco-Cultivation as an Answer to Population Growth

Sylvain Coiplet



If it will come to the widely expected population growth, food production in developing countries will have to be expanded substantially in the next decades. Not genetic engineering, but eco-cultivation could contribute to the solution of this problem.

At present it is estimated, that by the year 2025 there will be approximately eight billion humans living on earth. In order to nourish them all sufficiently, about twice as much food as today will be necessary - to the largest part in the developing countries, as the population growth is highest there. Thus the required agricultural yield increase must be realised there - and not necessarily in the developed countries.

However, there is not enough farming land available any longer, in order to achieve this aim through the expansion of the used area. Extended areas of land are already claimed today by a few large owners, who according to experience do not use them intensively. A serious problem, which cannot be solved through any technology, but only through a reform of the soil-right. Thus the remaining small farmers need intensive methods which allow higher yields in the same cultivated area and save the environment at the same time.

Through ecological agriculture, soil productivity can be maximized and at the same time harmful effects on humans and nature can be avoided.

The most important advantages of eco-cultivation are:

  • Eco-cultivation helps to save resources through the use of renewable energies,
  • uses farmers' know-how and abilities,
  • does not cause dependencies,
  • regards local conditions.

Eco-Cultivation: Small Complexity, Large Effect

The methods of ecological agriculture often demand only very little complexity. Potato farmers in the Bolivian highlands made this experience in such a way. Leached out by erosion and lacking fertilization, the municipal field of the Indian village Wenqaylla drove inhabitants into poverty. The drift into the slums of the large cities threatened the Indians until development workers recommended Tarwi as a fertiliser. That is an apparently useless lupine species, which grows there smoothly. The secret of Tarwi is highly concentrated nitrogen deposits at the roots, which take on each artificial fertiliser. They only have to be ploughed in during anthesis. In addition, with 18 dollar per hectare, the lupines are approximately ten times cheaper than artificial fertilizers.

Additionally, the Indians experimented with different potato species and planting methods, in order to adapt cultivation to the particular soil. The farmers themselves took the education campaign. That helped to overcome provisions about the unknown methods successfully, as for approximately 2000 farmers and their families in the Potosí region, agriculture offers a perspective again.

Apart from adequate self-sufficiency and nature conservancy, surplus sales are above all a large incentive for the conversion to eco-cultivation. In Europe exists increasing demand for ecological food. Reclusively in Germany, the market reaches an amount of 2.5 billion Euro.

It was emphasized by a common survey of IFOAM and Greenpeace that Madagascar is an example of the successful conversion of the eco-cultivation. Here the "System of Rice Intensification" was developed. Only one tenth of the usual seed quantity is sown in the plant beds, where the tillers remain only eight to twelve days instead of four weeks. After this term, the plantation into the actual field is particularly energizing. In order to make use of this spurt, each individual plant receives more space for leaves and roots. Above all it was recognized that rice needs a lot of water, but must not constantly be flooded. The plants grow rather more rankly, if the farmer waters more economically.

Here the ecological rice cultivation promises more yield than conventional rice cultivation, but requires more skills at the same time. Nevertheless, more than 50,000 farmers in Madagascar have been convinced so far. The best argument is: their crops are on average twice as large as before. That yields surplus for sales and capacities for other fruits and thus a more balanced nutrition. A particularly impressing example of the advantages of eco-cultivation is the biological-dynamically cultivated cotton of the Sekem farm in Egypt. This cotton is cultivated without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Used as fertilizers are exclusively compost from botanical surpluses and cow dung. A larger crop of raw cotton is yielded through these soil-ameliorating and plant growth stimulating measures.

Special care methods were developed for cotton plants, which are affected by an unusually lot of diseases and parasites throughout the world. For example, pheromone and water traps against ravenous caterpillars and other insects belong to that category. The abandonment of defoliant and other chemicals guarantees the health protection of humans, who work on the cotton plantations and pick the cotton carefully and gently by hand. Sekem succeeded in getting the production controlled and certified locally, so that nothing more stands in the way to export the sales from cotton and clothes to Europe. The biological-dynamic cotton production and processing meet the Demeter guidelines recognized in Europe.

However, it is specific for Sekem that the insights gained are not exclusively used by organic farmers. Sekem's leader and Right Livelihood Award laureate Ibrahim Abouleish could convince the Egyptian Ministry Of Agriculture to make use of it in the conventional cotton cultivation. The result: Throughout Egypt, pesticide usage in cotton cultivation decreased by 90 % and production was increased by 30 %.

Eco-Cultivation: Teaming up with Fair Trade

Nowadays such projects as in Bolivia, Madagascar and Egypt exist everywhere in the world. Of course, they will not be sufficient as an answer to population growth, since world hunger is not only a technical problem. Apart from the land waste by the domestic great land owners, small farmers in developing countries suffer also from the competition of the highly subsidized agricultural products in Europe and America. This leads to a Catch-22 situations in such a way as despite today's world-wide overproduction hunger emergencies can arise. Here the Fair Trade plays an increasing important role. Customers from the industrialized countries pay a fixed price for their products, which is clearly more than the manipulated world market price that the small farmers normally receive from the developing countries. The price is guided by the income, which the small farmers actually need in order to live in dignity and not only to nourish their family, but also to pay for their children's right to education.

It can be spoken of a contract economy, which is about to replace the blindfolded free-market economy. It is significant that many farmers who profit from the Fair Trade switch to eco-cultivation soon, so that in the meantime over 40 % of the Fair Traded agricultural products are from eco-cultivation. Here two positive aspects form a common approach, which will rather be capable to face the challenges of population growth. It is well-known that a higher educational level leads to a decrease in birth rates.

Eco-Cultivation: Perfect for Developing Countries

In industrialized countries - thus also by many development assistance advisors - ecological agriculture is underestimated, as it has the image to reduce agricultural produce. It is argued consequently that environmental protection is nice and good, but developing countries could not afford such a decrease in production in the face of population growth. However, this statement is based on simple unawareness. Organic farmers in Europe harvest approximately a third less than conventional farmers. In developing countries, eco-cultivation yields a larger crop. The reason: The methods are very suitable for poorer soils, which are cultivated without machines and chemistry anyway. It is close to irresponsibility if politicians in Europe stand in for genetic engineering with the argument that this is the only way to fight against starvation in the world. The eco-cultivation is much more effective in developing countries - and also cheaper. The genetic engineering can, if at all, at most lead to production increase, whereas conventional agriculture - including pesticide usage - has already become widely accepted, i.e. in America and Europe. However, those are the countries that already suffer from overproduction and ruin the small farmers in developing countries by the fact that they sell their agricultural products at a loss on the world market while receiving public subventions. The small farmers become impoverished and end up in the slums of the large cities, where population growth is strongest.

Green Genetic Engineering: A Trap for Farmers

For years the deployment of genetically altered organisms in agriculture has been discussed world-wide. Either additional genes are transferred from other organisms to plants or animals or an originally existing gene is removed directly. For example, rice contains no vitamin A. Nevertheless, through transmission of a genetic characteristic of the narcissus, the rice plant can produce the vital material - but so far only in an insignificant quantity. In the fight against weeds and harmful insects plants can be equipped with genes which make them immune to certain herbicides or insecticides. However, farmers in developing countries become dependent on Western chemical products. Not for nothing, genetic engineering developed as an answer of large industrial groups to the world-wide decrease in pesticide sales. Where genetic engineering is deployed, it leads to a substantial increase in pesticide deployment accordingly. And should farmers in developing countries be able to afford this?

Since the introduction of the genetic engineering to India, the suicide rate with farmers has risen dramatically. So it must be quite cynical to see genetic engineering as an answer to population growth in India. Large-scale attempts also proved that the new sorts could displace other plants and thus limit the natural variety irrevocably, because once genes are set free, they cannot be removed from nature again. Exports of genetically altered food into the European Union must be declared, but due to European consumer's rejecting attitude have only very small sales prospects accordingly. On developing countries' domestic markets, the chances for gene products are bad as well, because here the risks are taken very seriously by consumers.

Eco-Cultivation: A Sound Variety

Eco-cultivation increases quantity and quality of food - as it does not contain chemicals and because higher yields in staple foods also mean more acreage for produce. Therefore eco-cultivation makes more sense than the intention to manipulate rice genetically in order to make it an all-in-one device suitable for every purpose.

Sylvain Coiplet

Translated from the German by Matthias Hammelehle