Agroecology in times of Covid-19

As never before, the coronavirus pandemic reveals to us the systemic essence of our world, reminding us that human, animal, plant and ecological health are closely linked. Without a doubt, the Covid-19 is a call for humanity to rethink our way of capitalist development and to question the ways in which we relate to nature.

Agroecology is a powerful systemic approach that, at this time of the coronavirus pandemic, helps us explore the links between agriculture and health, demonstrating that the way agriculture is practiced can support well-being or, conversely , if practiced as industrial agriculture does, it can generate great risks and damage to health.

Large-scale monocultures that occupy about 80% of the 1 billion arable hectares worldwide, lack ecological diversity, and are highly vulnerable to pests. To control them, around 500 billion kilograms of pesticides are applied globally each year, causing environmental and public health damages estimated at more than 2 billion dollars a year in the United States alone. These calculations do not consider the costs associated with the acute and / or chronic toxic effects that pesticides cause through their residues in food.

Factory farming confined in feedlots is particularly vulnerable to devastation by different viruses such as avian flu and influenza. The practices in these industrial operations with thousands of chickens, pigs, cows (confinement, respiratory exposure to high concentrations of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, etc. that emanate from the waste they generate) not only make the animals more susceptible to infections viral, but may sponsor the conditions by which pathogens can evolve into more virulent and infectious types. These constantly changing viruses give rise to the next human pandemic, as happened in April 2009, with a new strain of influenza known as the H1N1 or swine flu.

The massive and indiscriminate use of antibiotic products and growth promoters in industrial livestock models, which in addition to being contaminating and expensive, its worst effect on human health is the creation of conditions of resistance of pathogenic strains to drugs against super bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coliStaphylococcus aureus and Salmonellas. The situation worsens as the biodiverse agro-landscapes are being replaced by large monoculture areas that cause deforestation and with it the "migration" of organisms from the forest to the cities, which cause the appearance of "new" diseases. Many of these new pathogens previously controlled by long-standing forest ecologies are being released, threatening the entire world. In other words, pathogens previously encased in natural habitats are spreading to farming, livestock, and human communities, due to disruptions caused by industrial agriculture and its agrochemicals and biotechnological innovations.

These days - as governments impose restrictions on travel and commerce, and impose the blockade of entire cities to prevent the spread of Covid-19 - the fragility of the globalized food system becomes very evident. More trade and transport restrictions could limit the influx of imported food, either from other countries or from other regions within a particular country. This has devastating consequences on access to food, particularly by poorer sectors. This is critical for countries that import more than 50% of the food consumed by their populations. Also access to food is critical for cities with more than five million inhabitants who, in order to feed their citizens, need to import at least two thousand tons of food per day, who also travel an average of about 1 kilometers . Clearly this is a highly unsustainable food system and vulnerable to external factors such as natural disasters or pandemics.

Faced with such global trends, agroecology provides the basis for the transition to an agriculture that not only has the capacity to provide rural families with significant social, economic and environmental benefits, but also has the capacity to feed the urban masses in a way that equitable and sustainable. There is an urgent need to promote new local food systems to ensure the production of abundant, healthy and affordable food for a growing urbanized human population.

There is no doubt that the best agricultural system that will be able to meet future challenges is one that is based on agroecological principles, and that exhibits high levels of diversity and resilience while offering reasonable yields, and ecosystem functions and services. Agroecology proposes to restore the landscapes that surround the farms, which enriches the ecological matrix and its functions such as natural pest control, soil and water conservation, climate regulation, biological regulation, among many others. With this, landscape restoration through agroecology also creates "ecological firebreakers" that can help prevent pathogens from "escaping" from their habitats.

Agroecology favors livestock production systems such as silvopastoral systems, which ensure healthy animal production, in addition, restore landscapes and are less conducive to causing epidemics. Antibiotics are not used in these systems, since the livestock diet is based on natural foods that come from healthy soils, thus strengthening the immune systems of these animals.

Agroecology has contributed to restoring the production capacities of small farmers, promoting an increase in traditional agricultural yields and improvement of agrobiodiversity with positive effects on food security and environmental integrity. Agroecology's achievements have been key to the food sovereignty of many communities, especially considering that small farmers manage only 30% of the world's arable land, yet produce between 50% and 70% of the foods consumed in most countries.

The production of fresh fruits, vegetables and some animal products in cities can also be improved using agroecology, thus contributing to food provision and nutrition for families at the local level. It is expected that as people recognize that, in times of crisis, access to locally produced food is strategic, urban food production will expand. Eating nutritious plant and animal foods produced on local agroecological farms helps strengthen our immune system, possibly improving our ability to resist various threats, including contagious viruses like Covid-19.

Agroecology has the potential to locally produce much of the food needed for rural and urban communities, particularly in a world threatened by climate change and other unrest, such as pandemics. What is needed is support to amplify agroecology in order to optimize, restore and improve the productive capacities of small local and urban farmers. To improve the economic viability of such efforts, equitable local and regional market opportunities must also be developed governed by the principles of the solidarity economy. At this point, the role of consumers is key if they understand that eating is an ecological and political act, so that when they support local farmers, rather than a corporate food chain, they create sustainability and resilience. socio-ecological. The transition of agriculture through government policies will take time, but each of us can accelerate the process by making daily choices to help small farmers, the planet and, ultimately, our own health.

The transition to agroecology for a socially fairer, economically viable, environmentally sound and healthy agriculture will be the result of the confluence between rural and urban social movements that, in a coordinated way, work for the radical transformation of the globalized food system that is collapsing.

It is wise these days to reflect on the fact that ecosystems support economies (and health); but economies do not support ecosystems. Covid-19 reminds us that disrespectful treatment of nature, including plant and animal biodiversity, has profound consequences, and when it is ultimately damaged, we are also hurting humans.

Hopefully this current crisis sparked by Covid-19 will help illuminate humanity to lay the foundations for a new world and for more respectful ways of interacting with nature.

Miguel A. Altieri and Clara Inés Nicholls
University of California, Berkeley / CELIA

Organic Way

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