|Sustainable Agriculture and Industrial Ecology|
How 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?
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.
and food processing is the
industry with the most immediate dependence upon ecological systems; so
the industrial ecology approach of modeling human systems upon
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
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
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.)
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
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.
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
Populations 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Model organic farming village,
Palundian town, Liaoning Province, China
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