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Green agriculture: Foundations for biodiverse, resilient and productive agricultural systems. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 10, 61-75

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There are many visions on how to achieve a sustainable agriculture that provides enough food and ecosystem services for present and future generations in an era of climate change, increasing costs of energy, social unrest, financial instability and increasing environmental degradation. New agricultural systems that are able to confront the challenges of a rapidly changing world require a minimum of ten attributes that constitute the defining elements of a Green Agriculture. A major challenge is to identify a set of thresholds that any agricultural production strategy must meet, beyond which unsustainable trends caused by the farming technologies would lead to tipping-point phenomena. Only those styles of agriculture that meet the established threshold criteria while advancing rural communities towards food, energy and technological sovereignty would be considered viable forms of Green Agriculture. Considering the diversity of ecological, socio-economic, historical and political contexts in which agricultural systems have developed and are evolving in, it is only wise to define a set of flexible and locally adaptable principles and boundaries of sustainability and resiliency for the agroecosystems of the immediate future.
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Green Agriculture: foundations for
biodiverse, resilient and productive
agricultural systems
Parviz Koohafkan
a
, Miguel A. Altieri
b
& Eric Holt Gimenez
c
a
Land and Water Division, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the
United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00153, Rome, Italy
b
College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley, CA,
94720, USA
c
Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), Oakland, CA,
94618, USA
Available online: 17 Nov 2011
To cite this article: Parviz Koohafkan, Miguel A. Altieri & Eric Holt Gimenez (2011): Green Agriculture:
foundations for biodiverse, resilient and productive agricultural systems, International Journal of Agricultural
Sustainability, DOI:10.1080/14735903.2011.610206
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Green Agriculture: foundations for
biodiverse, resilient and productive
agricultural systems
Parviz Koohafkan
1
, Miguel A. Altieri
2
* and Eric Holt Gimenez
3
1
Land and Water Division, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla,
00153 Rome, Italy
2
College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
3
Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), Oakland, CA 94618, USA
There are many visions on how to achieve a sustainable agriculture that provides enough food and ecosystem services
for present and future generations in an era of climate change, increasing costs of energy, social unrest, financial
instability and increasing environmental degradation. New agricultural systems that are able to confront the
challenges of a rapidly changing world require a minimum of ten attributes that constitute the defining elements of a
Green Agriculture. A major challenge is to identify a set of thresholds that any agricultural production strategy must
meet, beyond which unsustainable trends caused by the farming technologies would lead to tipping-point
phenomena. Only those styles of agriculture that meet the established threshold criteria while advancing rural
communities towards food, energy and technological sovereignty would be considered viable forms of Green
Agriculture. Considering the diversity of ecological, socio-economic, historical and political contexts in which
agricultural systems have developed and are evolving in, it is only wise to define a set of flexible and locally
adaptable principles and boundaries of sustainability and resiliency for the agroecosystems of the immediate future.
Keywords: food sovereignty; global agriculture; sustainability; thresholds
Introduction
There are several approaches on how to enhance
agricultural yields, ranging from expanding into
new land to increasing the yield per hectare via
higher input use or genetic modification or increas-
ing the output per unit of inputs such as water, nitro-
gen or phosphorus (NRC, 2010). Intensification of
agriculture via the use of high-yielding crop var-
ieties, fertilization, irrigation and pesticides has con-
tributed substantially to the increases in food
production over the last 50 years. The food and
agricultural sector has been largely successful in
providing for an increasing and wealthier global
population (Royal Society, 2009). The rate of
growth in total factor productivity in agriculture
has exceeded the population growth rate, although
in some countries and regions such as Africa, the
productivity has been low.
Today, most food and agriculture experts agree that
food production will have to increase substantially by
2050 (Godfray et al., 2010). Almost 90 per cent of
the projected 70 per cent increases in food production
are expected to come from intensification, including
*Corresponding author. Email: agroeco3@berkeley.edu
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zones where land and water are already scarce.
But matters become complicated as the rates of
growth of agricultural production have been declining
and the competition for scarce land and water
resources shows no sign of relaxing. Lately, the
growing volatility of food prices has severely
impacted on the world’s poor, most notably during
the food price peaks of 20072008 (Holt-Gimenez
and Patel, 2009).
The relationship between agricultural intensifica-
tion, natural resources management and socio-
economic development is complex, as production
activities impact heavily on natural resources
with serious health and environmental impli-
cations. When the petroleum dependence and the
ecological risks of industrial agriculture are
accounted for, serious questions about the social,
economic and environmental sustainability of
certain agricultural strategies arise (IAASTD,
2009).
Unless the footprints of agriculture are carefully
reduced through improved agroecological manage-
ment, both agricultural systems and remaining
natural ecosystems will suffer further degradation,
thus increasing the proportion of the world’s species
threatened with extinction and further limiting the
ecosystem services provided by agriculture for
humankind (Perfecto et al., 2009). An additional com-
plication is that most modern monoculture systems
are particularly vulnerable to climate change and
little has been done to enhance their adaptability to
changing patterns of precipitation, temperature and
extreme weather events (Rosenzweig and Hillel,
2008). This realization has led many experts to
suggest that the use of ecologically based manage-
ment strategies may increase the productivity, sustain-
ability and resilience of agricultural production
while reducing undesirable impacts (Altieri, 2002;
de Schutter, 2010).
Therefore, a key challenge for the future in the
management of agroecosystems lies in increasing
the efficiency of resource use in order to ensure
increased production and conservation of biodiver-
sity and scarce natural resources, while building in
resilience in agroecosystems in the face of increas-
ing climate-related hazards, biotic stresses and
economic shocks (Tilman et al., 2002, Pretty
et al., 2011).
The requirements of a sustainable
agriculture
In his report to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN
Special Rapporteur on the right to food stated that in
order to take effective measures towards the realiz-
ation of the right to food, food systems must ensure
the availability of food for everyone, warning,
however, that increasing food production to meet
future needs, while necessary, is not sufficient. The
report stressed the fact that agriculture must develop
in ways that increase the incomes of smallholders
and of poor consumers as hunger is caused not by
low food stocks but by poverty. It also emphasized
that agriculture must not compromise its ability to
satisfy future needs by undermining biodiversity and
the natural resource base. The report highlights the
potential of agroecology as the best approach to
move towards the realization of the right to adequate
food in its different dimensions: availability, accessi-
bility, adequacy, sustainability and participation (de
Schutter, 2010).
Although there is no consensus on a particular defi-
nition of sustainable agriculture, promoting a new
agricultural production paradigm in order to ensure
the production of abundant, healthy and affordable
food for an increasing human population is an
urgent and unavoidable task. This challenge will
have to be met using environmentally friendly and
socially equitable technologies and methods, in a
world with a shrinking arable land base (which is
also being diverted to produce biofuels), with less
and more expensive petroleum, increasingly limited
supplies of water and nitrogen and within a scen-
ario of a rapidly changing climate, social unrest
and economic uncertainty (IAASTD, 2009). The
only agricultural system that will be able to con-
front future challenges is one that will exhibit
high levels of diversity, productivity and efficiency
(top left quadrant in Figure 1, Funes-Monzote,
2009). To transform agricultural production so
that it not only produces abundant food but also
becomes a major contributor to global biodiversity
conservation and a continuing source of redistribu-
tive ecosystem and socio-economic services is
unquestionably a key endeavour for both scientists
and farmers in the second decade of the 21st
century (Godfray et al., 2010).
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Standards for sustainable
agriculture
Several sustainable agriculture standard-setting
initiatives are under way aiming at establishing a com-
prehensive, continuous improvement framework with
a common set of economic, environmental and social
metrics to determine whether an agricultural system
is being managed in a sustainable manner (e.g. the
sustainable agriculture standard of the Leonardo
Academy (2007) and the Global Bioenergy Partner-
ship, 2010). In addition, several agricultural enter-
prises interested in implementing a sustainability
programme are engaged in developing a self-
assessment protocol of their particular agricultural
operations. The main idea is for the enterprise pro-
moting an agricultural development or business
model to find ways to implement the sustainability
plan in order to assess its goals and use methods
that improve its performance in the environmental
and economic spheres. Several companies have
developed their own sustainable agriculture code
and ask their suppliers, and the farmers who
supply them, to adopt sustainable practices on
their farms. For example, Unilever adopted a
series of agricultural sustainability principles
(Pretty et al ., 2008a) and expects all their suppliers
of agricultural raw materials to commit to
minimum standards of performance and to
continuously improve performance over time to
reach sustainability targets. During an analysis of
this initiative, researchers selected 10 sustainability
indicators for various crops (peas, spinach, toma-
toes, tea and oil palm) in 11 countries to assess
progress towards the sustainable supply of these
crops (Pretty et al., 2008b). Apparently, these
assessments have been important for Unilever in
developing a more mature approach to measuring
and monitoring agricultural sustainability.
However, due to methodological and institutional
constraints, multi-indicator, multi-year monitoring
programmes as originally envisaged are unlikely
to be applicable to whole product supply chains
in the short term.
The idea behind establishing a set of agronomic,
ecological, social, economic and environmental stan-
dards is that if contracted producers follow such stan-
dards they should be able to promote a more efficient
agriculture, biodiversity conservation and benefit
their communities. The use of the standards and the
auditing of such standards should foster best manage-
ment practices that support sustainability and resili-
ence. Compliance is evaluated by audits conducted
by authorized inspection and/or certification bodies
that measure the degree of the farm’s conformity to
the environmental and social norms indicated in the
standard’s criteria. As a tool the method is useful for
companies and associated farmers interested in miti-
gating environmental and social risks caused by
their agricultural activities through a process that
motivates continual improvement, as well as provide
a measure of each farm’s social and environmental
performance and best management practices. For
example, the Rainforest Alliance (2007) developed a
series of standards that cover the environmental,
social, labour and agronomic management of farms.
The Rainforest Alliance certification is built on the
three pillars of sustainability: environmental protec-
tion, social equity and economic viability. Among
the trends expected in tropical farms that follow the
standards are less soil erosion, pollution and waste,
enhanced habitat for wildlife, reduced threats to
human health and improved conditions for farm
workers.
Recently, Conservation International and the Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation convened a workshop
to create a network for the global monitoring of
Figure 1
|
Features of green agroecosystems of the future:
productivity, diversity, integration and efficiency
Source: Funes-Monzote (2009).
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agriculture, ecosystem services and livelihoods. The
goal of the network will be to provide a system for
integrated measurement and analysis of agriculture’s
human well-being and environmental outcomes to
ensure that agricultural development is sustainable
(Conservation International, 2011). They proposed a
group of three types of metric and synthetic indicators
to be used during the agricultural intensification
process:
1. a set of indicators to identify areas suitable either
for intensification or for ecosystem services;
2. indicators to assess the performance of the intensi-
fication process;
3. situational awareness indicators to capture
the different dimensions of impact of
intensification.
An apparent drawback of this proposal is that it ident-
ifies intensification (increase the production per area
via the efficient use of inputs) as the only agricultural
path for agricultural production, disregarding the
diversity of other agroecological approaches that,
instead of intensification, emphasize diversification,
synergies and recycling. The methodology also
creates a dichotomy between areas for agriculture
and areas for nature, ignoring the fact that there are
forms of agriculture (notably smallholder diversified
farms) that simultaneously produce food and conserve
biodiversity and associated ecosystem services
(Perfecto et al., 2009).
While such principles and standards are of great
importance for assessing the sustainability of agri-
cultural operations, groups engaged in such pro-
cesses have encountered great difficulty in arriving
at agreement on criteria, let alone standards; there-
fore, a number of shortcomings persist and the
application of standards remains rather limited.
Some people believe that the imposition of general
and rigid standards that may not fit within the spe-
cificities of each agricultural region can actually
inhibit the diversity of agricultural production
approaches and be counterproductive to the evol-
ution of sustainable agriculture. Others argue that
the science underpinning such an audit is still not
in place. Another problem with many certification
schemes is that they judge the farmer rather than
the technologies promoted and in most cases it
leaves the costs of remediation and conversion to
the farmers to meet the certification standards
while the enterprises usually continue paying the
same prices for products. Many farmers linked to
local and regional markets, constrained by standards
tailored for export agriculture, have opted for other
types of certification programmes, such as the parti-
cipatory certification of the Rede Ecovida in
southern Brazil (Dos Santos and Mayer, 2007).
Ecovida consists of a space of articulation between
organized family farmers, supportive NGOs and
consumers whose objective is to promote agroecolo-
gical alternatives and develop solidarious markets
that tighten the circle between local producers and
consumers, ensuring local food security and that
the generated wealth remains in the community
(Van der Ploeg, 2009).
Basic attributes and goals of a
‘Green Agriculture’
There are many competing visions on how to achieve
new models of a biodiverse, resilient, productive and
resource-efficient agriculture that humanity despe-
rately needs in the immediate future. Conservation
(no or minimum tillage) agriculture, sustainable inten-
sification production, transgenic crops, organic agri-
culture and agroecological systems are some of the
proposed approaches, each claiming to serve as the
durable foundation for a sustainable food production
strategy. Although the goals of all approaches may
be similar, technologies-proposed (high- versus low-
input) methodologies (farmer led versus market
driven) and scales (large-scale monocultures versus
biodiverse small farms) are quite different and often
antagonistic. With more than a billion hungry
people on the planet and future climate and economic
disruptions immanent, there is an urgent need for the
entire development community to work together to
design and scale up truly sustainable agricultural
systems.
A starting point is to agree on the basic attributes
that a sustainable production system should exhibit.
Criteria derived from the extensive literature on
agroecology and sustainable agriculture suggest a
series of attributes (Table 1) that any agricultural
system should exhibit in order to be considered
P. Koohafkan, M. A. Altieri and E. H. Gimenez4
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sustainable (Gliessman, 1998; Altieri, 2002; UK
Food Group, 2010). Most researchers agree that a
basic attribute is the maintenance of agroecosystem
diversity and the ecological services derived from
beneficial ecological interactions among crops,
animals and soils. Increasingly, research suggests
that the level of internal regulation of function in
agroecosystems is largely dependent on the level
of plant and animal biodiversity present in the
system and its surrounding environment (Altieri
and Nicholls, 2004). Biodiversity performs a
variety of ecological services beyond the production
of food, including recycling of nutrients, regulation
of microclimate and local hydrological processes,
suppression of undesirable organisms, detoxification
of noxious chemicals, etc. (Figure 2). Because
biodiversity-mediated renewal processes and eco-
logical services are largely biological, their persist-
ence depends on the maintenance of biological
integrity and diversity in agroecosystems. Tra-
ditional farmers as well as a generation of agroecol-
ogists offer a wide array of management options and
designs that enhance functional biodiversity in crop
fields (Uphoff, 2002; Altieri and Koohafkan, 2008;
Toledo and Barrera-Bassals, 2009).
Another way of exploring the potential sustain-
ability of particular agricultural interventions in
addressing pressing concerns is to establish a set
of questions (Table 2) that examine whether or not
current management practices are contributing to
sustainable livelihoods by improving natural,
human, social, physical and financial capital. In
this regard, many organizations (notably the Inter-
national Fund for Agricultural Development and
UK’s Overseas Development Institute) have pro-
moted the sustainable livelihoods approach. This
tool provides an analytical framework that promotes
systematic analysis of the underlying processes and
causes of poverty, food insecurity and environ-
mental degradation. Although it is not the only
such framework, its advantages are that it focuses
attention on people’s own definitions of poverty,
food security, etc. and takes into account a wide
range of factors that cause or contribute to commu-
nity problems. These are shown schematically in a
framework that identifies the state of the capitals,
the threats and the livelihood outcomes, enabling
multiple stakeholder perspectives to be taken into
Table 1 | Basic attributes of sustainable agricultural
systems
1. Use of local and improved crop varieties and
livestock breeds so as to enhance genetic diversity
and enhance adaptation to changing biotic and
environmental conditions
2. Avoid the unnecessary use of agrochemical and
other technologies that adversely impact on the
environment and on human health (e.g. heavy
machineries, transgenic crops, etc.)
3. Efficient use of resources (nutrients, water,
energy, etc.), reduced use of non-renewable
energy and reduced farmer dependence on
external inputs
4. Harness agroecological principals and processes
such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen fixation,
allelopathy, biological control via promotion of
diversified farming systems and harnessing
functional biodiversity
5. Making productive use of human capital in the form
of traditional and modern scientific knowledge and
skills to innovate and the use of social capital
through recognition of cultural identity, participatory
methods and farmer networks to enhance solidarity
and exchange of innovations and technologies to
resolve problems
6. Reduce the ecological footprint of production,
distribution and consumption practices, thereby
minimizing GHG emissions and soil and water
pollution
7. Promoting practices that enhance clean water
availability, carbon sequestration, conservation of
biodiversity, soil and water conservation, etc.
8. Enhanced adaptive capacity based on the
premise that the key to coping with rapid and
unforeseeable change is to strengthen the ability to
adequately respond to change to sustain a balance
between long-term adaptability and short-term
efficiency
9. Strengthen adaptive capacity and resilience of the
farming system by maintaining agroecosystem
diversity, which not only allows various responses
to change, but also ensures key functions on
the farm
10. Recognition and dynamic conservation of
agricultural heritage systems that allows social
cohesion and a sense of pride and promote a sense
of belonging and reduce migration
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account in the identification of practical priorities
for action to confront the threats and enhance the
capitals (Scoones, 2008).
Defining indicators to assess the
sustainability of agricultural
systems
Agricultural systems even the most traditional ones
are not static systems; in fact they are constantly chan-
ging over time. The major forces that shape current
agricultural changes are: population increase and
dynamics, global market forces, investment in agri-
culture and rural sector, important advances in
science and technology, climatic change and variabil-
ity, consumer demands, agricultural subsidies and the
pressures from social movements demanding food
sovereignty, land reform and poverty reduction.
Only food and agricultural policies and practices
that are capable of responding adequately to these
forces have the possibility of being sustainable in a
rapidly changing world.
The design of agroecosystems that exhibit many
of the attributes of sustainability (see Table 1) has
become a leading objective of scientific research and
policy agendas, while their performance assessment
remains an important challenge. Many authors have
developed methods to evaluate the ecological, econ-
omic and social sustainability of particular forms of
agriculture at the farm level, estimating the pro-
ductivity, stability, resilience and adaptability of par-
ticular production systems (Hansen and Jones, 1996;
Van der Werf and Petit, 2002).
How does a given strategy impact on the overall
sustainability of the natural resource management
system? What is the appropriate approach to explore
the economic, environmental and social dimensions
of farming systems? How can the sustainability of
an agroecosystem be evaluated? These are unavoid-
able questions faced by scientists and development
practitioners dealing with complex agroecosystems
in a rapidly changing world.
At the farm level a major task is to identify indicators
that signal performance or specific management pro-
blems or identify undesirable environmental changes
and what action to take. The focus is on changing prac-
tices at the farm scale in a way likely to improve overall
farm health (Rigby et al., 2001). There is much argu-
ment on whether to use location-specific or universal
indicators. Some argue that the important indicators
of sustainability are location specific and vary
Figure 2
|
The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystem function and the provision of ecosystem services by
diversified farming systems
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between ecoregions. For example, on hillsides, soil
erosion has a major impact on sustainability, but in
the flat lowlands, this is insignificant and may not be
a useful indicator; rather soil organic matter content
may be more relevant. Although usually each indicator
deals with one aspect of sustainability, a complete
assessment of a farming system should include
several indicator values, but instead of being presented
separately, they are integrated to provide a more holis-
tic evaluation of socio-economic, agronomic and
environmental dimensions (Castoldi and Bechini,
2010).
A strong current of opinion believes that the defi-
nition and consequently the procedure for measuring
sustainable agriculture is the same regardless of the
diversity of situations that prevails on different
farms. Under this principle, sustainability is defined
by a set of requirements that must be met by any
farm regardless of the wide differences in the prevail-
ing situation (Harrington, 1992). The procedure of
using a common set of indicators offers a protocol
for measuring sustainability at the farm level by:
defining the requirements for sustainability and then
selecting a common set of indicators to assess
whether the requirements are met. According to
most methods, a farming system is considered sustain-
able if it conserves the natural resource base and con-
tinues to satisfy the needs of the farmer in the long
term. Any system that fails to satisfy these two
requirements is bound to degrade significantly over
the short term and is therefore considered to be not
sustainable.
The Indicator-based Framework for Evaluation of
Natural Resource Management Systems (MESMIS)
proposes an integrated interdisciplinary approach to
assess sustainability of farming systems (Lopez-
Ridaura et al., 2002). The framework is applicable
within the following parameters:
1. Sustainability of natural resource management
systems is defined by seven general attributes: pro-
ductivity, stability, reliability, resilience, adapta-
bility, equity and self-reliance.
2. The assessment is only valid for a management
system in a given geographical location, spatial
scale (e.g. parcel, production unit, community,
etc.) and determined in a time period.
3. It is a participatory process requiring an interdisci-
plinary evaluation team. The evaluation team
usually includes outsiders and local participants.
4. Sustainability is not measured per se, but is
measured through the comparison of two or more
Table 2 | A set of guiding questions to assess if
proposed agricultural systems are contributing to
sustainable livelihoods
1. Are they reducing poverty?
2. Are they based on rights and social equity?
3. Do they reduce social exclusion, particularly for
women, minorities and indigenous people?
4. Do they protect access and rights to land, water and
other natural resources?
5. Do they favour the redistribution (rather than the
concentration) of productive resources?
6. Do they substantially increase food production and
contribute to household food security and improved
nutrition?
7. Do they enhance families’ water access and
availability?
8. Do they regenerate and conserve soil, and increase
(maintain) soil fertility?
9. Do they reduce soil loss/degradation and enhance
soil regeneration and conservation?
10. Do practices maintain or enhance organic matter
and the biological life and biodiversity of the soil?
11. Do they prevent pest and disease outbreaks?
12. Do they conserve and encourage agrobiodiversity?
13. Do they reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
14. Do they increase income opportunities and
employment?
15. Do they reduce variation in agricultural production
under climatic stress conditions?
16. Do they enhance farm diversification and resilience?
17. Do they reduce investment costs and farmers
dependence on external inputs?
18. Do they increase the degree and effectiveness of
farmer organizations?
19. Do they increase human capital formation?
20. Do they contribute to local/regional food
sovereignty?
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systems. The comparison is made either cross-
sectionally (e.g. comparing an alternative and a
reference system at the same time) or longitudin-
ally (e.g. by analysing the evolution of a system
over time).
Using MESMIS, Lopez-Ridaura et al. (2002)
defined indicators such as independence from external
inputs, grain yield, system adoptability, food self-
sufficiency, diversity of species, etc. As shown in
Figure 3, an AMOEBA-type diagram is used to
show, in qualitative terms, how far the objective has
been reached for each indicator by giving the percen-
tage of the actual value with respect to the ideal value
(reference value). This enables a simple yet compre-
hensive comparison of the advantages and limitations
of the two systems being evaluated and compared,
suggesting weak points that may need improvement.
Indicators can also be grouped according to their
relevance to the state of the social, economic and
natural capital of each farming system being evalu-
ated. The asymmetry of the AMOEBA indicates the
extent to which each farming system lacks sustain-
ability or in which aspects each capital is weak. An
analysis of the weak points can lead to suggestions
of the kinds of interventions necessary to improve
the performance of the system. By comparing
AMOEBAS from several farming systems, lessons
from one location may be transferred to another.
Also reconstructing the AMOEBAS in each farm,
every year after agroecological interventions, can
indicate whether progress is being made towards or
away from sustainability.
Defining thresholds of performance
for a Green Agriculture
Most agricultural scientists and developers agree on
the need to design an agriculture that respects the
Figure 3
|
An AMOEBA diagram with indicators comparing two agrosilvopastoral systems (agroecological versus
conventional) in Mexico. Indicators are in original units and as percentages of locally derived optimums
Source: Lopez-Ridaura et al. (2002).
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limits of the local/regional natural resources, includ-
ing the capacity to provide ecological services
(Pretty et al., 2011). For this reason, it is important
to identify such limits before reaching the tipping
points (thresholds) that lead to potential long-term
or irreversible consequences. In each region, a desir-
able range of values for a set of selected indicators
should be defined and maintained within such
ranges for normal functioning of local agroecosys-
tems. Within this critical range, the agroecosystem
should perform its multiple functions. Given the
complexities of arriving at critical parameter
values and the fact that indicators interact with
each other (the value of one is affected by one or
more selected parameters), perhaps the best that
can be done is to develop a set of guidelines that
can help set limits for defined crop/environment
situations.
As discussed above, although numerous indicators
of sustainability exist, very few of them suggest and
monitor threshold phenomena. Thresholds can be
defined as non-linear transitions in the functioning
of human-managed systems, such as crop disease epi-
demics occurring in large areas caused by anthropo-
genic interventions (i.e. planting large-scale
monocultures of a narrow genetic base; Carpenter
et al., 2001). Some agroecosystem processes are not
associated with known thresholds at the field or land-
scape level, but may, through continuous decline of
key ecological functions (such as loss of beneficial
biodiversity), cause functional collapses, generating
feedbacks that trigger or increase the likelihood of
reaching thresholds in other processes such as loss
of pest regulation or biologically mediated soil
fertility.
Borrowing from the concept of planetary bound-
aries developed by Rockstro¨m et al. (2009), it may
be possible to establish values of several control vari-
ables set at a ‘safe’ distance from a dangerous level.
Determining a safe distance involves normative jud-
gements of how scientists and farmers choose to
deal with risk and uncertainty in agriculture. Certain
boundaries have already been transgressed in agricul-
ture (i.e. pesticide resistance by more than 500 arthro-
pod species, rapid decline of crop pollinators, etc.). A
problem is that boundaries are interdependent,
because transgressing one may either shift the pos-
ition of other boundaries or cause them to be
transgressed. The social and ecological impacts of
transgressing boundaries will be a function of the resi-
lience of the affected rural and urban societies. Walker
and Metes (2004) describe an evolving database that
focuses on ecological and linked social systems, in
particular those that exhibit thresholds in relation to
the use of ecosystems in natural resource manage-
ment. In characterizing the examples, emphasis is
placed on describing the threshold: the variables
along which the threshold occurs, the variables that
change as a consequence of the shift and the factors
that have driven the change.
One of the few methodologies available that
specify threshold levels for selected indicators is
that described by Gomez et al. (1996). Using
threshold levels (minimum value of an indicator
above which a trend towards sustainability starts),
the authors used yields, profit and stability (frequency
of disaster) as farmer satisfaction indicators, while
soil depth, water holding capacity, nutrient balance,
organic matter content, ground cover and biological
diversity were used as indicators of resource conser-
vation. According to these researchers, an indicator
is said to be at a sustainable level if it exceeds a desig-
nated trigger or threshold level; thresholds are tenta-
tively set, based on the average local conditions.
Table 3 provides values derived from an evaluation
of 10 farms in Cebu, Philippines. The individual
farm values for an indicator are compared with the
threshold, where meeting an indicators threshold
receives a score of one. Only farms that exhibit
average rating of more than 1.0 for farmer satisfaction
and resource conservation are considered to be sus-
tainable. Thus, in Farm 5, frequency of crop failure
is below the threshold but yield and income are high
enough to compensate for this deficiency; however,
this ability to compensate is allowable only among
indicators of the same index (i.e. within farmer satis-
faction) but not across. Thus, excess in yield or
income cannot compensate for deficiencies in soil
depth and organic matter.
A litmus test for a Green Agriculture
As explained above, the idea is to identify a set of
thresholds that any agricultural production strategy
must meet beyond which unsustainable trends
Green Agriculture 9
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caused by the farming systems and associated tech-
nologies would lead to tipping-point phenomena.
For example, it may be argued that transgenic crops
can enhance productivity and reduce agrochemical
loads. But can it do so by emitting less greenhouse
gases (GHGs), without eroding soils or reducing
genetic diversity, etc. under allowed threshold
values? Others may argue that while organic
farming may conserve biodiversity and natural
resources and tends to be carbon neutral, it may not
yield enough to produce an abundant food supply.
Estimates of the economic, social and ecological con-
sequences of transgressing a threshold would suggest
that the agricultural strategy should not be deployed
and would force the farmers, organization or enter-
prise promoting the strategy to refine the production
system or technology so that when deployed its
impacts remain within the acceptable threshold
bounds. A threshold-based assessment approach can
(a) provide early warnings of impending damages or
losses in the healthfulness of the socio-ecological
system before a threshold is surpassed, (b) monitor
actual system changes once the technology is
deployed and (c) suggest alternatives on how the
launched technologies can remain within the estab-
lished thresholds.
As depicted in Figure 4, in order for an agricultural
strategy to fit within the Green Agriculture criteria, it
must contain the basic requirements of a viable and
durable agricultural system capable of confronting
the challenges of the 21st century while carrying out
its productive goals within certain limits in terms of
environmental impact, land degradation levels, input
and energy use, GHG emissions, etc. Defined
threshold indicators are site or region specific; thus
their values will change according to prevailing
environmental and socio-economic conditions. In
the same region, threshold value ranges may be the
same for an intensive large-scale system and a low-
input small-scale system as yields will be measured
per unit of GHG emitted, per unit of energy or water
used, per unit of N leached, etc. Systems that
surpass the threshold levels will not be considered
sustainable and therefore will require modifications.
Much of the uncertainty in quantifying thresholds is
due to a lack of scientific knowledge about the nature
of the biophysical thresholds themselves, the intrinsic
uncertainty of how complex systems behave, the ways
in which other biophysical processes such as feedback
mechanisms interact with the primary control variable
and uncertainty regarding the allowed time of over-
shoot of a critical control variable in the system
Table 3 | Threshold sustainability indicators for 10 farms in Cebu, Philippines
Farm no. Satisfaction farmer Resource conservation Sustainability index
Yield Profit Crop failure Index Depth OM Ground cover Index
1 1.18 1.40 1.33 1.30 1.69 1.65 1.66 1.66 1.48
2 0.89 0.90 1.00 0.93 1.15 0.49 0.93 0.85 NS
3 0.89 1.08 1.00 0.99 1.25 0.68 1.13 1.02 NS
4 1.26 1.37 0.66 1.10 0.54 0.57 0.93 0.68 NS
5 1.09 1.13 0.80 1.01 1.24 1.18 1.07 1.16 1.08
6 1.01 1.26 0.80 1.02 1.01 0.75 0.93 0.89 NS
7 0.55 0.21 1.00 0.59 0.68 1.51 0.47 0.88 NS
8 0.32 0.16 1.33 0.60 0.39 0.77 0.00 0.38 NS
9 0.61 0.64 1.00 0.75 1.44 1.64 0.00 1.02 NS
10 0.51 0.16 1.33 0.67 0.61 0.77 0.07 0.48 NS
An average rating of more than 1.0 for farmer satisfaction and resource conservation is required for a farm to be sustainab le (Gomez et al., 1996).
P. Koohafkan, M. A. Altieri and E. H. Gimenez10
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before a threshold is crossed (Rockstro¨m et al., 2009).
This generates a zone of uncertainty around each pro-
posed threshold. Undoubtedly, proposed thresholds
may at first be rough estimates only, surrounded by
large uncertainties and knowledge gaps. Filling in
these gaps will require major advancements in agroe-
cology and resilience science applied at the local level
to capture the specificities of each region.
Thresholds can also be established by examining
whether the proposed technologies or agricultural
Figure 4
|
The basic requirements of a viable and durable agricultural system capable of confronting the challenges of the
21st century while carrying out its productive goals within certain thresholds established locally or regionally
Figure 5
|
Hypothetical threshold values established for an agricultural community for each type of sovereignty
Green Agriculture 11
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systems reach the basic requirements of food, energy
and technological sovereignty. Food sovereignty is
the right of everyone to have access to safe, nutritious
and culturally appropriate food in sufficient quantity
and quality to sustain a healthy life with full human
dignity. Similarly, energy sovereignty is the right for
all people to have access to sufficient energy within
ecological limits from appropriate sustainable
sources for a dignified life. Technological sovereignty
refers to the capacity to achieve the other two forms of
sovereignty by nurturing the environmental services
derived from existing agrobiodiversity and using
locally available resources. A household, community
or region could be called sovereign if it meets the
threshold levels established in a participatory
manner for each type of sovereignty, as illustrated
by a hypothetical example depicted in Figure 5. Arriv-
ing at agreed values among all stakeholders may
prove difficult, and values will vary from one commu-
nity to another. Nevertheless, the method provides a
framework for rural communities to determine the
minimum acceptable values for food production, bio-
diversity conservation, energy efficiency, etc., allow-
ing them to assess whether or not they are
advancing towards a basic state of food, energy and
technological sovereignty.
There is an urgent need to assess how well society is
doing at increasing agricultural production while sim-
ultaneously conserving biodiversity and associated
ecosystem services in an era of climate change,
energy costs and financial instability. There are a
number of analytical tools proposed for estimating
agricultural, environmental, economic and social indi-
cators as well as thresholds. The challenge is to arrive
at a consensus on the set of metrics and the insti-
tutional mechanisms to be used in the auditing of
various production systems and/or technologies being
proposed or deployed by major international and
national organizations (private or public). Whatever
the agreed upon mechanisms, only those styles of agri-
culture that meet the established threshold criteria and
that advance communities towards food, energy and
technological sovereignty would then be considered
as a Green Agriculture system. Such systems then
should be scaled up given their capacity for producing
enough food while providing ecosystem services
within the climatic, energetic, ecological and economic
limitations of the next two decades or so.
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This study examines the concept of sustainable agriculture. Sustainability is the avoidance of depletion of natural resources in order to maintain the balance of the ecosystem. The depletion of the environment by agricultural production and the neglect of most growth-yielding agricultural industries necessitated the study. Sustainable agriculture has been with us since the inception of agriculture; but recently, due to population growth and the United Nations –Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty; many forest lands have gone into cultivation, and family farms consolidated to emerge into commercial farms. The use of heavy machinery, chemicals, and intensive cultivation have drastically impacted the ecosystem. The information used for the study was from secondary sources. The study findings are organized into the following sections: an examination of the theory and principles of sustainability concerning agricultural productivity, the need to be agricultural sustainable, and a way forward. Evidence from literature emphasizes how agriculture provides food and raw materials for further production and yet many people are hungry due to food waste. Intensive agricultural production contributes significantly to deforestation and ecosystem imbalance. The study found out that the five key principles of agricultural sustainability would be a driver for sustainable agriculture. Agricultural sustainability is highly uncertain. The entire globe should formulate a policy for efficient use of natural resources for now and in the future.
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This review describes the establishment in 1997 of an agricultural sustainability initiative by the foods, home and personal care company, Unilever. It analyses the development and testing of a system of indicators used over several years on the company's model research farm at Colworth in the UK. The approach taken was first to develop a sustainability audit, based around a common set of indicators, and then to support pilot projects for a select number of crops, with the aim of adapting parameters for each crop, establishing baselines, developing recommendations to increase agricultural sustainability, and holding field trials to test these new practices and technologies.The purpose of the initiative was the development of a system of agricultural assessment that would be practical and effective over short time scales so that changes in company policies and practice could be made. The indicator structure developed uses 10 clusters of indicators (later revised to 11). These had to be easily measurable, and so not costly; relatively non-contestable, and so convincing to internal and external stakeholders; responsive to management action; and lead to value creation for farmers, rural communities and businesses. It was found by Unilever that the main advantage of the audit was not in the emergence of a sustainability index (which was rejected), but in the development of increased knowledge and understanding of agricultural and environmental interactions that emerged during the discussion and assessment of the indicators. The process of its use was more important than any scores that emerged.This paper summarizes the changes in selected indicators for each of five novel management practices tested on the pilot farm (spring versus winter cropping; reduced nitrogen fertilizers; reduced pesticide applications; mixed rotation and cover crops; and field margin management). A brief analysis of the agronomic conclusions is given for each. The overall conclusion for farm practices from this research is that an optimal rotation has both spring and winter crops, as this spreads labour costs on farm and environmental costs. The results of the Colworth project suggest that key components of successful sustainable farming projects include management to create a more diverse landscape, and close attention to the timing and frequency of agrochemical applications.
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The foods, home and personal care company, Unilever, is a large user of raw materials from agriculture, and a major buyer of goods on world markets. The continued supply of these materials is seen as an important component in the business's long-term success. The company has a long history of seeking to farm responsibly on company farms and for directly contracted raw materials, but it became clear that an approach based solely on suppliers' good agricultural practice would not safeguard supplies where increasing social and environmental pressures on agriculture were growing, or where increasing consumer concerns about the food chain could undermine markets and brands. Both threats suggested the need for a more radical approach. This resulted in the development of a mission statement, the agreement of four principles for sustainable agriculture, the identification of ten sustainable agriculture indicators (later 11), and the selection of five key crops the sustainable supply of which was significant to the company.This paper summarizes progress towards the sustainable supply of these crops by reporting on selected sustainability indicators for the crops (peas, spinach, tomatoes, tea and oil palm) in 11 countries. Some of the businesses using these products have been subsequently sold, but these are reported here because the aim is to explore how responsive are different indicators of sustainability to management action in different crops in widely differing locations. This paper focuses on a selection of findings for each of the 10 indicators, in order to illustrate the extent of changes that have been observed over time. These also indicate some of the difficulties faced in making improvements on the ground. The gathering of data on sustainability indicators is closely tied to the development of alternative practices that should quickly deliver improvements in a variety of outcomes. An assessment is also made of the key changes that have occurred for each of the main five crops as a result of adopting the sustainability indicator system and associated new management practices.Multi-year assessments were conceived as the way to understand and demonstrate progress towards more sustainable agriculture. The important developments were of systems that combined ensuring that agricultural suppliers performed to an acceptable set of criteria, and then had the capacity and willingness to identify the most critical areas where further progress was required. The challenge for the company is now to encourage others to adopt their approach to making supply chains more sustainable, both for their customers and the consumers of their branded goods.
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Landscapes are frequently seen as fragments of natural habitat surrounded by a 'sea' of agriculture. But recent ecological theory shows that the nature of these fragments is not nearly as important for conservation as is the nature of the matrix of agriculture that surrounds them. Local extinctions from conservation fragments are inevitable and must be balanced by migrations if massive extinction is to be avoided. High migration rates only occur in what the authors refer to as 'high quality' matrices, which are created by alternative agroecological techniques, as opposed to the industrial monocultural model of agriculture. The authors argue that the only way to promote such high quality matrices is to work with rural social movements. Their ideas are at odds with the major trends of some of the large conservation organizations that emphasize targeted land purchases of protected areas. They argue that recent advances in ecological research make such a general approach anachronistic and call, rather, for solidarity with the small farmers around the world who are currently struggling to attain food sovereignty. Nature's Matrix proposes a radically new approach to the conservation of biodiversity based on recent advances in the science of ecology plus political realities, particularly in the world's tropical regions. © Dr Ivette Perfecto, Dr John Vandermeer and Dr Angus Wright, 2009. All rights reserved.
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This volume attempts to influence the debate in the biodiversity conservation community against agricultural intensification using “land sparing” and toward “wildlife-friendly” farming that relies on traditional agroecological methods. The authors' central argument is that biodiversity conservation and small-scale traditional agriculture complement one another, and that “fortress conservation” (protected area) strategies are largely misguided. They argue that the quality of the “matrix” that surrounds fragments of natural habitat is critical for biodiversity conservation at the landscape scale and that traditional small-scale agriculture provides a high quality matrix that supports biodiversity. They envision a conservation movement distinct from “islands” of protected areas surrounded by large industrial farms. Instead, they propose a new paradigm where a mosaic of agroecological small farms and “natural” fragments provide a biodiversity-friendly landscape while simultaneously improving rural livelihoods. The book's primary strength is its interdisciplinary and multiscalar approach to the conservation. By drawing connections between traditionally unrelated fields, the authors build a case for the need for conservation and agricultural issues to be addressed in a comprehensive framework that melds ecological issues with food sovereignty concerns of rural social movements. Their detailed and compelling case studies describe specific “traditional” peasant agroecosystems as feasible alternatives to industrialized agriculture and provide benefits to both people and biodiversity. This book suffers, however, from some of its own strengths. Although its interdisciplinary approach builds a broad, inclusive framework, nuance and depth of argument often become casualties of the analysis. Some readers will be exposed to new ideas in the conservation section, but ecologists would acknowledge merit to their argument, yet demand more thorough analyses. Similarly, social scientists would find the sections addressing historical developments of agriculture and policy to be a workable overview of agrarian dynamics, but would want deeper discussion. Furthermore, attention to how this paradigm might operate in different contexts, particularly outside the tropical Americas, would help illuminate the regional contexts inherent in this model. Regardless, Nature's Matrix describes a novel, wide-reaching alternative to the conservation status quo that combines biodiversity conservation, rural social movements, and agriculture, and highlights potential avenues for future fruitful research.