Monday, November 17, 2008

Sustainable Agriculture and Industrial Ecology

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Guelin strawberriesHow will we feed growing populations while reducing the environmental impacts of farming?

What industrial sectors have strong self-interest in furthering the transition to sustainable agriculture?

How can owners of farm land best preserve the long-term value of their assets?

How will investors in agribusiness cover the risks of a transition to new, sustainable farming practices?

How will we balance public R & D funding between high tech and ecologically-based solutions?

What mode of research will be be adequate for validating sustainable farming practices, given their systems how will the public sector define an appropriate role and limits to the use of genetically modified organisms, given the huge capital investments in this area?

How will we preserve and restore the viability of rural communities and family farming?

Indigo's concept of agro-eco-industrial parks is an integrated approach to answering many of these questions. See summary below and links to more extensive discussion.

Why "industrial" ecology for sustainable agriculture?

Agriculture and food processing is the industry with the most immediate dependence upon ecological systems; so the industrial ecology approach of modeling human systems upon ecosystems seems particularly applicable to this field. We believe that IE has the breadth required for modeling the transition to sustainable food and fiber production. This transformation will require interdisciplinary coordination among many fields of research and practice -- technical, economic, social, political, and ecological. IE's systems approach provides an excellent context for evaluating partial and high-risk solutions, such as genetic engineering, in terms of their potential benefits and risks for the whole food and fiber system as well as for the health of humans and ecosystems. Industrial ecologists appreciate the valuable contributions of reductionist sciences, such as genetic engineering, however, we insist that a systems view is necessary to understand the appropriate application of such innovations.

One of the central challenges of sustainable development is providing increasing quantities of food and fiber to a growing world population. This issue is compounded by constraints on production that include urban development of farm land, competition for water, deterioration of agricultural land, and the impacts of global and regional climate change. The negative environmental impacts of industrialized farming add another major constraint. We are facing an escalating food crisis and the subject is not yet on the front burner of public issues. (So far there is only vague notice of even the near-term human impacts of recent years' floods, droughts, fires, and crop failures in Asia, US, Latin America, and Africa.)

Industrialized, input-intensive agriculture has increased production over the last decades but appears now to be running into fundamental ecological limits. Organic farmers and agroecologists continue to evolve and demonstrate a model of sustainable agriculture in many countries. On the other hand, huge genetic engineering firms are claiming to have the key to sustainable agriculture. Many environmental groups fight their efforts to introduce genetically modified organisms into farming. The scientific evidence the two sides offer reflect divergent worldviews and evoke cries of "bad science". IE provides both analytic and integrative tools to support agronomists and others trying to

Industrial ecologists can benefit directly from research in sustainable agriculture. Organic farming offers powerful insight into the nature of business systems guided by ecological principles and dynamics. We can learn to use IE's ecological metaphor with much greater depth by studying the practice of organic farmers and the research in agroecology.

The Journal of Industrial Ecology published a double issue on the theme of Biobased Products that is a breakthrough in applying the tools of industrial ecology, such as lifecycle analysis, to production of bio-energy and bio-plastics from farm products or residues and other related issues. Journal of Industrial Ecology, Vol 2, Number 3-4, Summer-Fall 2003

Meeting global needs for food and fiber is a complex challenge

baloon root, grown in China's Shandong Province for export to South Korea

baloon rootPopulations are still growing, steeply in many regions. As countries develop, more people are eating higher on the food chain This increased demand for meat means more grain and land supports production of animals, cutting net efficiency of food production.

While demand grows, there are serious constraints on increasing production. Forming a whole system view of the interaction among such limits as land and water available for farming, competition for resources, and impacts of climate change is basic to designing a strategy for meeting world demand.

Industrial agriculture and food processing is not a sustainable means of production. It is energy and chemical intensive and so quite vulnerable to oil price increases. Pesticides, herbicides, and animal wastes are heavily polluting. In both developing and developed countries the social and economic impacts of plantation farming on rural economies and societies add to the costs.

The corporate interests of agribusiness -- large scale farming and its suppliers, processors, and distributors -- constitute a major power block that dominates trade and farm policy and the setting of research agendas. Creative leadership is essential within this cluster of industries and in other industries that may benefit from the transition to sustainable agriculture. The products and services needed by organic farmers, for instance, are quite different from those needed by industrial agriculture. In sustainable farming the flow of information and education is much more important than the flow of expensive materials.

Enormous investment in genetic engineering creates an economic and political force for release of genetically modified organisms before we understand the risks adequately. Genetically engineered plants, animals, and enzymes are likely to play a useful role in agriculture and food processing, helping to adapt to climate change, to increase productivity, and to lower pesticide and water use. However, this technology is no silver bullet and too rapid, commercially-driven deployment is risking damaging productivity, biodiversity, and ecological systems.

Making the transition from industrial agriculture to an ecologically-based model will be a balancing process: phasing out unsustainable practices, piloting new practices, testing options for integrating sets of practices, and learning from experience. Policies to support this process should set broad objectives, not specific solutions.

Constraints on increasing food and fiber production

Designing strategies to break through the following complex set of limits demands the sort of multidisciplinary systems approach that industrial ecology offers.

Major tracts of new land are not available for new agricultural uses.

  • Most arable land is already in production.
  • The condition of farm land is deteriorating due to pollution, compaction, erosion, and loss of biodiversity in soil systems.
  • Urban development is removing farm land from production.

There is increasing competition for land and water between:

  • Preservation and restoration of natural ecosystems
  • Farming
  • Recreation
  • New agricultural outputs, e.g. biofuels and biomaterials
  • Urban and industrial development
  • Transportation, water, and energy infrastructure

Climate change is likely to have major impacts on agriculture productivity. Floods, droughts, and storms in recent years may indicate the process has already started.

  • Crop loss due to floods, storms, and droughts
  • Unpredictable changes in farming habitats
  • Water supplies
  • Fishing
  • Coastal waters

Sustainable Farming

There are many definitions of sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and ecological farming. (An internet search on “sustainable agriculture” returned 600,000 hits!) It is helpful to start with an ideal approach called ecological farming, since the ideal is being realized on many profitable farms across North America and Europe. Its characteristics include:

1. The farmer understands the land as a living system in which s/he acts to support a dynamic balance among the plants, animals, insects, soil, and water.

2. Labor and knowledge are the intensive inputs.

3. Animal and plant production is integrated and synergistic.

4. Farm plant and animal residues and by-products are recycled, on the farm whenever possible.

5. Farming maintains biodiversity and soil health through polyculture, crop rotation, cover crops, and appropriate application of compost and organic fertilizer.

6. Diversified cropping, windbreaks, hedgerows, and vegetation at field margins contribute to improved and varied wildlife habitat, including encouragement of beneficial predator insects.

7. Pests and weeds are controlled through the whole pattern of farming, with little or no application of chemical pesticides or herbicides. Similarly, animal health is maintained through avoiding large concentrations and with minimal use of antibiotics.

8. Energy consumption is much lower at all stages of the production cycle and uses renewable sources wherever possible.

9. Farm equipment is relatively lightweight with low energy demand and impact on soils.

This partial list of agro-ecological practices goes beyond most standards for organic farming but points toward a broader understanding of what is required for truly sustainable agriculture. The essentials are seeing one’s farmland as a living system embedded in a broader ecosystem and understanding how to manage all farm practices on the basis of this holistic perception.

This way of seeing naturally leads to involvement of sustainable farmers in village and regional programs for water management, watershed conservation, rebuilding soil quality, ecosystem restoration, and reforestation. Best farming practices on any one farm contribute directly to the success of such area-wide programs. Sustainable farmers have an understanding needed in the programs' management, as well as a very large stake in achieving their goals of a healthy and clean environment. One role of an agro-eco-industrial park is giving sustainable farmers effective channels for playing this regional role.

Indigo's Concept of an Agro-Eco-Industrial Park

The purpose of an agro-eco-park is to provide a base for companies and service organizations that support rural populations in achieving a transition to fully sustainable and organic farming and to develop revenues above the poverty level. Indigo is collaborating with the Environmental Education Media Project Center in Beijing and the International Center for Sustainable development to seek sites for an agro-eco-industrial park in China. Chapter six of the EIP Handbook includes a summary of the basic concept.

The park will be developed and operated as a public private partnership, including Chinese and international partners. It will be home to food processing and distribution companies, equipment manufacturers, energy generators and manufacturers using rural and urban biomass discards, an organic agriculture training and research center, and a demonstration farm.

The agro-eco-industrial park will provide a home base for food processing and value added production companies, marketing cooperatives, a sustainable agriculture training center, and a demonstration farm. Through this AEIP infrastructure, poor farmers would learn farming practices to improve the value of their output and gain marketing channels to domestic and international markets. Through the training and research programs the eco-industrial park would coordinate with regional watershed and land use management, ecological restoration, soil restoration, and economic development programs.

See the white paper outlining the concept for this AEIP in China. The section on AEIPs from the EIP Handbook is also available.

Manure into Gold

"Nutrient management" is the subject of this report Indigo prepared for the CRESTech Center in Ontario, Canada. More bluntly, the question is, how can large amounts of farm manure be managed so as to reduce negative impacts on water, land, and air? Rather than taking a narrow technical approach, the authors, Ivan Weber and Ernest Lowe, researched farm practices and business models for enabling successful utilization of manure, as well as the technologies themselves. In order to gain the necessary economic support for effective manure management, they argue that the inevitable transition to sustainable farming is the appropriate context. See the report's executive summary and download the report files.