Farmer, is selling her products at Kungyangone market. Image: Oxfam
Farmer, is selling her products at Kungyangone market. Image: Oxfam

Day 4: Sustainable food production promotes healthy food and healthy living

12 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

The challenges faced by biodiversity-based ecological agriculture are not primarily technical but political. Evidence from three countries shows farming without fossil fuels works. But such methods will only be adopted widely once we prevail over the political power of agribusiness.

By Sarojeni V. Rengam, Executive Director of the Pesticide Network Asia and the Pacific.

Food production systems that do not use or make minimal use of fossil fuels exist and are successfully feeding communities. Across the world, smallholder farmers, gardeners and other small-scale food producers have decided to minimize the use of unsustainable and harmful inputs that depend on fossil fuels, such as pesticides and fertilizers, as well as heavy machinery –and have in the process reduced their carbon footprint.

Biodiversity-based ecological agriculture
Biodiversity-based ecological agriculture (BEA) conserves biodiversity and reinforces ecological principles that are suitable for local ecosystems. The starting point is maintaining soil fertility and, as Professor Norman Uphoff of Cornell University says, “Feed the soil and soil will feed the plant.”  Soil fertility can be maintained by using alternative sources of soil nitrogen, reducing soil erosion, practicing soil and water conservation, using animal and green manures, mulching and composting.  

Such ecological practices include crop rotations that mitigate weeds, disease, insect and other pest problems, as well as farmer field school integrated pest management through understanding crop ecology and pest life cycles. Farmers can make informed decisions in the fields on the use of resistant varieties, the timing of planting, biological pest controls and increased mechanical and biological weed control.  

“The starting point of biodiversity-based agriculture is maintaining soil fertility.”

Many of these practices make use of local ecological resources in a balanced way and then regenerate them.  They build on local and indigenous knowledge developed by women and men small-scale food producers over generations, through experimentation and innovation when faced with problems.

These BEA models are in widespread use. For example, 20,000 rice farmers practice low external-input sustainable agriculture in Tamil Nadu; 56,000 rice farmers practice non-chemical System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Cambodia and around 35,000 BEA rice farmers use the MASIPAG approach in the Philippines.  

The SRI farmer I met in Cambodia grows rice, herbs and vegetables, keeps hens and ducks, and maintains a one-hectare rice plot with his family members.  With the SRI method, the rice has more tillers per plant, larger panicles and heavier grains, and uses less water. Due to stronger root systems, the SRI plant is more resistant to climatic “extreme events,” such as storms or heat spells.  Savings from not using commercial pesticides and fertilizers mean the farmer earns more net income. His daughter and son who had left to earn a living in the city have returned to work with him on the farm.  The family’s total earnings now are substantially higher than when they were working in the city as labourers.   

“His daughter and son who had left to earn a living in the city have returned to work with him on the farm”

In the Philippines, MASIPAG was first organized 27 years ago as a collaborative initiative between farmers and scientists to conserve traditional rice varieties and breed new ones.  Today, the program maintains an in-situ reserve of a thousand local varieties and another thousand MASIPAG-bred rice selections, some 300 of which were bred by farmers. These include varieties that are higher yielding, more nutritious, and better able to resist pest attacks.  

The approach prioritizes farmers’ empowerment and organizing so that rice research and development is needs-driven and builds a sense of ownership among farmers. The MASIPAG farmers continuously experiment with participatory methods as well as ecological farm management and local market development.  The program has also expanded into corn breeding, livestock breeding and production, diversified integrated farm systems and local organic market development.   

In Tamil Nadu, I met Ganapathy some time ago, a farmer who practices integrated farming with low external input sustainable agriculture.  He grows rice, fruits and vegetables, keeps cows, hens and ducks, and rears fish in the rice field.  His ducks and fish keep the rice pests in check and fertilize his fields with their waste. The ducks are let into the paddy field to eat the weeds, which has reduced the need for manual labour. The ducks also feed on insects and their egg masses. His small one-hectare farm is fully sustainable and he receives good income from it.  His only major external input was a pump that draws underground water.  With a small investment in a solar water pump or photovoltaic water pump system, even this conventional pump could become a thing of the past.  

“Ducks and fish keep pests in check and fertilize fields with their waste.”

SIBAT, a civil society organization in the Philippines has lit up the lives of villages by perfecting a micro-hydro system that generates electricity without the use of fossil fuels. This community-managed system provides lights and energy for food and crop processing, and household livelihood needs. 

As these diverse BEA examples show, it is possible to produce food and fiber without any fossil fuel: from farmers’ seed production and sharing, to ecological food production without the use of pesticides and fertilizers, to alternative non-fossil fuel energy for electricity and processing.  

The biggest challenge that remains is the transportation of food products to cities, since most of our transportation still depends on fossil fuel.  To reduce this dependency, communities around the world are opting for local food production and local markets. 

Local foods and local markets 
Growing food locally and consuming locally grown food makes sense since transport costs are minimized, and we can benefit from nutrients that are often lost when foods are processed and transported to urban supermarkets.  One system that works is community supported agriculture (for example, the Teikei system in Japan) where consumers invest in organic or BEA farmers by subscription. The organic farmers are guaranteed a fair price and consumers are assured that the produce they receive is clean and free of fossil fuel additives.  .  

As consumers become more concerned about their health and are armed with information, they are opting for more BEA foods. However, access to safe food for urban consumers remains a challenge even with emerging urban gardening projects around the world.  This is where we will still need political will and government financial support to fast-track the development of BEA food production and cleaner, renewable energy technologies. 

“The main challenges to mainstreaming BEA food systems are not technical but political.”

The main challenge to mainstream BEA food systems is not technical but political.  We need to prevail over the political and economic power of the agribusiness sector that drives the expansion of the unsustainable corporate model of farming. Government subsidies that fuel these unsustainable production systems – both direct and hidden – have to stop. 

Instead, we need to put in place policies and programs that stimulate the widespread adoption of BEA to meet the future challenges of food production and distribution.  These polices should promote the conservation of biodiversity, including agro-biodiversity, and encourage local seed banks.  Decentralized participatory research that builds on farmers’ and indigenous knowledge systems should be funded and institutionalized, and the MASIPAG approach of farmer-scientist partnerships should be emulated.  

“Since BEA is knowledge intensive, farmer-to-farmer sharing must be ongoing.”

The sharing of information, knowledge and innovation has to be an ongoing process since BEA is knowledge intensive. Sharing through farmer-to-farmer learning exchanges and easily accessible information platforms are good initiatives.  

Mainstreaming BEA will also require support for the full participation of organizations and movements of small food producers.  Their rights, particularly those of women producers, to land and productive resources must be guaranteed so that they can make long-term investments in soil fertility, can develop innovations in agro-ecological practices and can access local markets or develop systems of community supported agriculture. In addition, governments should reorient public agriculture spending toward strengthening and expanding agro-ecological practices through extension services and research.  

I believe we can break the food system’s dependence on fossil fuels, but the way forward will require a major paradigm shift that needs strong political and societal commitment starting now.  

Download: Sustainable food production promotes healthy food and healthy living


Agriculture and energy too closely intertwined

Yesterday's three essays on fossil fuels' role in agriculture provoked some thoughtful responses discussing, amongst other topics, the merits of nutrient recycling and whether it makes sense to look for a one size fits all approach to increasing yields.

Today the debate continues on agriculture and energy. Da Silva and Rengam show that agriculture and energy markets are too closely intertwined. They show that reducing agriculture’s dependency on fossil fuels will have global benefits for the climate, and local benefits for farmers, communities and biological diversity.

But is zero use of fossil fuels a technical challenge too far, or are the main challenges more political and societal in nature?

Sustainable consumption for sustainable production

Why would suddenly sustainable agricultural production systems become the main practice? When we take a look at the forces which have shaped the transformation of agriculture and food production, we see that the drivers are "exogenous" that is they do not come from the offer but from the demand. What is new and could make the next transformation moving toward more sustainable food production is a potential shift of the origin (and nature) of the demand for food from the processing/ agroindustrial sector to the consumer sector. Forget about policies as a direct force which would deliberately orient production systems towards more sustainable paths.

Policy-makers are too much linked with the downstream sector of the commodity chains to take such decisions 'spontaneously" for the sake of human being welfare and planetary concern about resources. Our only hope is that and consumers will take over agro-industries in the definition of the food they want to eat and that what they want to eat will be more sustainable from the production side. Will consumers have the power to change the ways food is processed, transported and thus produced?

A better understanding of the forces which are now shaping consumers' preferences for food and their potential evolution will be more than helpful to anticipate, explore and decide about the nature of food we want to have in our plates in 2030 or 2050 and who will produce it, where and how.


I agree with Robin above. Why are there less GMOs in Europe? Because consumers dont want them. Yet we must remember that the consumers are not only those in the cities. Farmers are also consumers> and they do not only consume the food they produce. They also want education for their children, and health services, and entertainment. This also has to be there, or agriculatural production becomes impossible.



alternatives and farmers' rights

I do agree with Sarojeni as she expounded on the principles that underlie BEA -- a system that protects the rights of communities, not only to have a healthier living and good and safe nutrition but also encompasses their right to food, to produce food, to productive resources and to sustainable livelihoods.

For most underdeveloped nations, they derive their food security from the production of small-scale and backyard agriculture, which is built on local, indigenous and gender-based knowledge, and employing biodiversity-based techniques.

A strong political commitment is needed that strongly promotes the welfare not only of consumers, but with a particular focus on guaranteeing the rights of small-food producers, who are most often deprived of basic rights.

Most farmer-consumers from the rural communities, who comprise the majority of the population of developing nations, earn less than $2 a day.  With this meager amount, people do not have the choice but purchase whatever is cheapest in the market, sacrificing their right to choose what kind of food to eat, what kind of education they want for their kids, etc. Most governments in the developing countries do not provide or subsidize these basic needs; worse, the poor are left with the available yet unaffordable basic goods and services of education, health and food.

Given this situation, farming communities explore the “available“ resources in their communities (this does not discount the fact that most of the farming communities do not even own the land they till or lack access to most resources such as water, inputs).  I have worked with rural communities who had found alternatives tothe corporate model of farming that are much more economically viable, environmentally sound and community-centred, that in the end could sustain their families and livelihoods.

practices of Permaculture?

 What about the traditional practices of Permaculture?

 Somehow, I missed somehow permaculture agriculture practices in your write up , which is an integrated, self-sustaining system and still this system is existence in practices.  If possible from the perspectives of   BEA programme point of view, please provide your thoughts on how best we can develop  and integrate this practice.

Sustainability = Food and Life

Sustainability should be the word for food and for life. I love the way how Sarojeni Rengam indicates that it means for all of us to prevail over the political power of agribusiness. She is connecting with Bill McKibben and Anna Lappé yesterday: though methods are technical, the real battle is more political, linking the sustainable options with Agro-ecological Agriculture built on local and indigenous knowledge developed and kept by men and women.

The smallholders have demonstrated their ownership of agriculture and people in the urban centers understand the value of buying from local production and from local markets. Government subsidies fueling unsustainable production and consumption have to stop!


comentario sobre la nota de saro



I agree with Saro note, here also in Latin America has shown agroecology as an excellent alternative to produce high quality food in addition to reduce, mitigate and adapt to climate change critically.


Local markets are a great estrategiaia procucción reducing costs and lower food prices, in addition to producers and consumers pemite linked.


conservation and native seed exchange has become an excellent strategy to generate work adapatadas plants to soil, climate and local food habit


javier Sozua Casadinho


BEA is not mainly technical but political

That the mainstreaming of BEA is not mainly technical, but political, as sasserted by Sarojeni Rengam, and is shown by the efforts of poor farmers in Bohol province of the Philippines, to campaign for the expansion of BEA in their agrarian reform communities.  The gains or positive outcomes of BEA have enabled them to strengthen their resolve to fight for their land that had been constantly threatened to be retaken by former landlords.  Farmers of Humabol Federation in Trinidad municipality in Bohol, for instance,  have taken the lead in GARSA (genuine AR and SA) campaign, after seeing the potent  productive outcomes of BEA now undertaken by 116 farmers over 60 hectares of Trinidad farmland.  In five years time,  farmers have reaped a substantial  increase in harvest of rice (from 25 to 60 cavans of palay per cropping) , increased and diversified their food crops (varietal diversity),  allowed them to eat three times a day (with adequate rice and vegetables),  and thus reduced the perennial lean months. Their strides in sustainable production had invited visits by farmers from other  barangays and municipalities, turning their community into a farmer learning center.  Similarly, in Barangay Aloquinsan, Cebu, 96 farmers have expanded BEA over 60 hectares of farmland to strengthen their claim over their land threatened by land grabbing (legal land claim is strengthened for productive land).   Theirs is a corn growing area that was perennially beset by hunger, but now enjoying higher and diverse productivity.  In both instances, in Trinidad and Aloquinsan,  the farmers worked together on their farming resources (which were then being destroyed by chemical farming practices) through allayon or traditional cooperativism:  improved and multiplied the diversity of their  local rice and vegetable seeds, improved the fertility of the soil, installed water systems to irrigate farmland, water their gardens and grow their livestock.  Women farmers of Trinidad and Aloquinsan have now gained popularity in the volume of vegetables that they bring weekly to the local markets, when the only products they could originally sell were rootcrops (sweet potatoes and cassava).   BEA utilized and enriched available resources in the farmland, and  had none of the  chemical-related expenditures  that crippled farmers in indebtedness.   The GARSA campaign is now making big strides in Central Visayas, Philippines, which is a call for poor farmers to take the future of agriculture in their hands.  These efforts are outcomes of cooperation among the local NGO (FARDEC), SIBAT and the farmer federation HUMABOL.


Agribusiness stands in the way; but governments are to blame

There is no longer any question that biodiversity-based ecological agriculture can feed the world and especially those poeple who are currently starving or malnourished. There are countless examples around the world of sucess stories, some on a grand scale, such as in Andra Pradesh in India where over  1 million farmers have taken up Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture and improved their incomes, food security, land ownership security, health and their environment. As Sarojeni says, its not the lack of technology or knowledge that stands in the way, but agri corporates that would lose huge profits on pesticides, chemical fertilisers, seeds, food processing and food distribution. Some UN agencies, and the UN Special rapporteur for the Right to Food, have recognised that agroecology is the only solution for feeding the world.  But national authorities, under the infuence of  powerful profiteering interests are failing to follow their lead.  Yes, consumers in some countries can exert some influence on the food chain through their purchasing decisions. Especially by purchasing locally grown food through farmers markets, and where they can growing some themselves, to help break corporate control of the food system. But change must happen at all levels simultaneously. Presure must be continually applied at the UN level, national level, and local level. 

Another point of view

I really like your writing style, fantastic information, thankyou for posting : D.

Happier animals = healthier foods

Thanks Oxfam for this great initiative. Compassion in World Farming research has found that farming which is kinder to animals also produces food which is healthier for the consumer. We think it's vital that animal welfare is supported throughout farming systems world wide as part of the ethical pillar of sustianable farming. Healthier animals supports farmer livelihoods as well as providing foods which are more nutritious to our bodies and our consciences. Please read more online:  Best wishes, Emily.