The world's population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050 — and that's putting extraordinary pressures on the agricultural sector, especially as climate change is expected to wither many productive areas around the world, while submerging others during increasingly frequent floods.
Echoing the mantra of the 1960s Green Revolution, many nations — and big agricultural interests — say chemical fertilizers and high-yield, industrial-scale farming operations are the logical response to this daunting task of producing more food under increasingly harsh environmental conditions.
Going against grain, though, are proponents of agroecology, which emphasizes growing many crops simultaneously, on smaller plots of land, without expensive chemistry. Rather than fertilizers, proponents of the practice use cover crops, such as arugula, buckwheat, and rye, to enrich their fields. And, instead of pesticides, they cultivate flowers and trees in order to attract insects that prey upon the bugs that might jeopardize their harvests.
While industrial agriculture has helped to boost yields, Albie Miles, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, said air, water, and soil quality, as well as human health, has been compromised.
"We are pursuing an industrial model of agriculture full throttle, which not only contributes significantly to global climate change, but poses risks to human health and biodiversity while undermining the natural resource base upon which agriculture and food security depends," Miles said.
As the global population expands and begins to feel the pinch of climate change, agroecologists believe that traditional forms of farming offer a bounty of solutions to the most seemingly vexing problems associated with food production.
"We have much to learn from traditional agricultural practitioners," said Miles. "We are in the face of global climate change, we need to fundamentally rethink our food and energy production, and make a transition to an ecologically based form of agriculture."
As much as 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come as a result of the world's tilling, planting, and harvesting according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not all agriculture systems are the same, though. In its latest report the climate agency noted that agroecological techniques reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as boost output.
"A range of agro-ecological options to improve agricultural practices … have potential to increase yields, while also providing a range of co-benefits such as increased soil organic matter," the report said.
Agroecological systems, said Miles, are more practical for developing countries and rural areas because genetically engineered seeds and pesticides are often too expensive. And, he added, localized food systems are more resilient because they shorten supply-chains.
Anna Jones-Crabtree and her husband Doug consider themselves a large-scale, financially successful model for agroecology, growing 21 different varieties of food on 4,700 acres in Northern Hill County, Montana.
"If we really want to have a different form of agriculture we have to get off the drugs," she told VICE News. "We want to be a model that shows that there's a different way to farm."
Regardless of her biases toward organics, Jones-Crabtree said she and her husband wouldn't have been able to start an industrial-scale farm because of the high cost of genetically modified seeds and chemical-enriched pesticides and fertilizers.
Seen from the air, their farm reveals other characteristics that differentiate agroecology practices from industrial agriculture. Twenty percent of their pastures are non-crop conservation land, areas set aside for those trees and flowers that might help fight off infestation. In contrast to that diversity of flora, a typical agricultural operation grows acre upon acre of the same crop.
While Vilicus Farms demonstrates the potential for alternatives to industrial agriculture, agroecology boosters face an uphill battle when seeking to scale up their methods, primarily due to a lack of institutional support.
And that's a situation that the University of Hawaii's Miles is trying to change.
In a recent study of US Department of Agriculture research funding, Miles and his colleagues found that less than 2 percent of USDA Research, Education, and Extension funding went toward developing and supporting certified organic agriculture in 2012.Now they are conducting a comprehensive analysis of USDA funding for agroecology, but they believe it to be similarly low.
"There's a very clear track, but the entire field has been marginalized," Miles told VICE News. "I think as we start to face further and further environmental degradation, agriculture will have to come to the floor. This is the biggest story to be told right now."
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