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By Fabián Banga
"What saved the country from famine was the emergence of urban agriculture, the millions of spontaneous gardens that fed Argentines. This was much superior to the transgenic solidarity soy that the government tried to give to the population and that later it prohibited for the children ".
For those who are interested in agroecological agriculture, the name of Miguel Altieri cannot go unnoticed. A researcher on the agroecological issue for decades and a fervent activist against the production of transgenic substances, Professor Altieri has participated in innumerable conferences, academic debates, and graduate work groups directly related to organic agriculture. Dr. Altieri has a large academic production, more than 200 articles and 11 books are part of his extensive bibliography. He has taught classes and seminars in practically all Latin American countries and in numerous academic establishments in North America and Europe. Born in Chile and currently a resident of San Francisco Bay, he pursues his academic career in a small office at the University of California at Berkeley, where he continues his fervent research with his wife who is also an agroecologist, other visiting researchers and a legion of students studying with him.
Its annual class, "agroecology" is well known for its huge turnout; and its debates, due to its heated and intransigent anti-neoliberal position. A fervent informer of corporate policies of motoculture, Altieri belongs to a select group of intellectuals who, in full economic confidence of the nineties, predicted the collapse of the neoliberal project; this attitude that has generated countless allies and enemies. Thanks to an e-mail exchange between Berkeley and Italy, where he is currently a visiting researcher for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we have been able to generate this "virtual" interview that we offer below.
Professor Altieri, to begin and clarify a basic point, what is agroecology?
Miguel Altieri: Agroecology is a science that studies the principles on which the design of sustainable agriculture should be based; that is to say, an agriculture that is environmentally sound, that is diversified and that breaks the monoculture so that it does not depend on external agro-toxic inputs that are expensive and ecologically dangerous. But the construction of this new agriculture also seeks economic viability and social justice. For this reason, agroecology must be complemented with agrarian policies that seek food security, the conservation of natural resources and the elimination of rural poverty; what we call sustainable agriculture.
The ecological and social benefits are very positive, but some argue that it is not possible to implement agroecological techniques on a large scale. Is this true? Are there examples that contradict this argument?
M.A .: The principles of agroecology are applicable at all scales. What happens is that the technological forms vary according to the scale and means available to farmers. Agroecology has gained much acceptance among small farmers and peasants since the diversification of crops, animal integration, the recycling of biomass and nutrients, is very much in logic with small agriculture. However, there are large-scale systems that are managed agroecologically. In California vineyards and fruit orchards, cover crops are used under trees, which conserve soil and water, increase organic matter content, and harbor beneficial insects that control pests without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. There is a lot of large-scale agriculture that is managed organically, but sometimes this management maintains the monoculture and only substitutes the inputs. So farmers are still dependent on external inputs. Agroecology proposes to advance in organic conversion beyond the substitution of inputs, breaking the monoculture, so that the biodiversity that exists in agroecological systems is the one in charge of subsidizing soil fertility, biological control and production.
Going to the topic of biotechnology, what do you think are the most significant risks of the production of biotechnologically manipulated seeds, commonly called: transgenic?
M.A .: GM crops, which today reach more than 58 million hectares in the world, condemn farmers to monoculture, genetic homogeneity and, therefore, the ecological vulnerability of their systems. In addition, these crops produce environmental impacts with serious consequences, such as the genetic contamination of local varieties, the creation of super weeds by transferring the glyphosate resistant gene to weeds related to the crop. Another common problem is the appearance of Bt-resistant lepidopteran pests; as well as the impacts on soil biota and elimination of beneficial insects. Little is known about these impacts as there is almost no research on the subject. First, because it is not funded, and second, because the few who do research on the subject are subjected to a real academic persecution by a large mass of scientists funded by multinationals.
"an agriculture that is environmentally sound, that is diversified and that breaks the monoculture so that it does not depend on external agro-toxic inputs that are expensive and ecologically dangerous"
In other words, according to what you propose to us, has the influence of economic power even influenced the objectivity of academic work in this field?
MA: There are already three cases, one in Great Britain and two in the United States, where university researchers who independently found that transgenic crops exhibit environmental impacts and who published their results in prestigious scientific journals were attacked and silenced by an army. of scientists from multinationals or paid by them. In one case, the scientist was fired from his institution, in the second case, he hardly received his promotion, and in the third, they forced the journal to publicly retract for having published the article, which meant a great loss of prestige for the researcher .
Under this unfavorable scenario, very few young scientists would be willing to risk their careers. This repressive panorama makes critical voices silenced. The tragedy is that we only know what we are looking for. If broader research is not motivated, in the future we will know little about the impacts of biotechnology. Another problem that increases this adverse reality is that universities are being penetrated by multinational capitals. This skews research in favor of biotechnology at the expense of other fields of knowledge, such as agroecology, limiting society's options for the future.
Understanding that Argentina is one of the countries with the greatest implementation of biotechnology in the world, what do you think will be the concrete consequences of this policy?
M.A .: Argentina is the second largest producer of RR soy in the world. The impact is already known. Dr. Walter Pengue, from the University of Buenos Aires, has reported that although the RR soybean area has increased substantially, this has been at the cost of the loss of 60 thousand agricultural establishments. By facilitating weed management, RR soy is a perfect ground-concentrating strategy as it allows a few to grow large at the expense of others. Let's not forget that RR soy is the entry point for minimum tillage which requires the use of glyphosate produced by Monsanto, the large transnational corporation, and seeders whose cost is only justified after a certain farm size. In addition, Pengue reports that the advance of RR soy was made at the expense of more than 400 thousand hectares of food crops, undermining the country's food security. During the recent crisis, the country was forced to import food as there was none nationally. But in the absence of foreign exchange, little could be imported. What saved the country from famine was the appearance of urban agriculture, the millions of spontaneous gardens that fed Argentines. This was something far superior to the transgenic solidarity soy that the government tried to give to the population and then banned for children.
Those of us who know you closely know that you, along with many other intellectuals, predicted the collapse of neoliberalism. From this context, do you think that neoliberal policies, for example in the field of agriculture, have failed? What consequences do you see, for example, in the disappearance of small farmers in the United States?
M.A .: The neoliberal model has failed vis-à-vis the peasants, vis-à-vis consumers and vis-à-vis the environment. It only survives in the north where governments subsidize their farmers. But it must be clarified that it only subsidizes large producers. In the United States, 10% of farmers, the largest, capture more than 60% of all subsidies; which explains why more than 200 farmers per day are expelled from their vital activity.
In other words, according to his example, neoliberalism is failing even in its own cradle of origin ...
M.A .: Absolutely. That is why it is time for our governments to learn from these problems present in the great powers and to favor small and medium-scale peasant agriculture. These systems are more productive, conserve the environment and play a key role in food sovereignty. For this, emphasis should be placed on local and national markets.
And in this context, how do you see the future of agroecology? Is the production of organic products a good business?
M.A .: Agroecology today has become the key strategy of Latin American peasant production. There are more than 30 million hectares in the world managed with agroecological systems and the results are spectacular. For example, in marginal areas with bad soils and climates, and where rural poverty is most concentrated, it has been possible to increase production of food crops by more than 100%. This production does not necessarily have to be certified as organic since sometimes the costs of certification are very high. In the south of Brazil, there are interesting experiences where city halls organize fairs in which agroecological products are certified in solidarity with farmers and consumers. These products are sold in cities sometimes cheaper than conventional products. In other cities, governments are developing institutional markets where, for example, small farmers in the area are organized to supply all schools, hospitals and prisons with healthy and local food. This is how an economy and local food sovereignty are built.
But very profitable businesses are also being created on a large scale, aren't they? For example, the importation of organic products from the south to the United States, and sold in North American supermarkets that specialize in the sale of healthy and organic products What do you think, professor, of this phenomenon? Are there positive and profitable possibilities in this consumer space in the first world?
M.A .: Organic agriculture has been captured by large economic interests. For example, in California, two large agricultural companies control 50% of all income from the organic industry, displacing small organic farmers. In many places commercial organic farming is repeating the same negative impacts of commercial farming. In Latin America more than 90% of organic agriculture (coffee, bananas, wines, fruits, etc.) are for export and do not contribute at all to the food security of our peoples. There is a need to rescue organic agriculture from this industrial production model that in many places replicates the impact of industrial agriculture, favoring local production for local consumption.
How do you think Argentina could help in an agroecological revolution in Latin America? What would be the concrete benefits in the short and long term?
M.A .: Argentina must learn from its neoliberal failure and understand that it has the historical possibility of changing course in its agriculture. It is important that the new government open a public discussion about the vision that the country has about its agriculture. Do you want to continue with an industrialized agriculture, controlled by multinationals? Do you want to continue with an agriculture that is based on monocultures, transgenic crops and herbicides? Do you want to continue with an agriculture that is dependent and oriented to agroexport? Or do the people want a more family-friendly, biodiverse agriculture that produces healthy and cheap food for local markets? Wouldn't a small and medium-scale agriculture be better, sovereignly independent of multinationals and expensive and environmentally dangerous chemical / transgenic inputs? The elimination of GMOs will ensure special markets in Europe and avoid the environmental collapse that will be associated with this homogenizing and large-scale agriculture. Pengue, for example, reports that soils under RR soy have been totally depleted of nutrients since the wheat-RR soy rotation is very nutrient extractive. This has produced a huge ecological debt that future generations will have to pay. I believe that Argentina can lead a key movement in Latin America if some fundamental changes take place. First, correct policies have to be created that support agroecological education at universities and agroecological research at INTA. Second, it is necessary to create alliances between small and medium farmers with the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Finally, local solidarity-institutional markets have to be created. Argentina must look more to its neighbors in Brazil and learn what is happening there and create strategic alliances with the Rio de Janeiro giant, since there the political will is favoring agroecology as a public policy, key to the development of a socially just family farming and environmentally sustainable.
* Interview with Professor Miguel Altieri, University of California, Berkeley. (06/26/03)