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EAP Publication - 11

Environmentally Sustainable Food and Agriculture

Dr. Stuart Hill

This perspective was provided by Dr. Stuart B. Hill, Director of Ecological Agriculture Projects (EAP) and a Professor of Entomology In the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Macdonald College of McGill University. Professor Hill's background includes engineering;, ecology, entomology, agriculture and psychology. His mission, and that of EAP, is to establish an environmentally sustainable food and agriculture system world-wide. EAP was established in 1974 and is the leading information resource centre on sustainable agriculture in North America

Environmentally Sustainable Food and Agriculture

Key food and agriculture issues in Canada

As in all countries, every individual is involved in the food system by virtue of eating, and the choices each of us makes in the marketplace have wide implications regarding the structure of that system. Food production and handling is one of Canada's main economic activities and a major earner of export dollars. Furthermore, at least one in five employed Canadians works in jobs associated with the food system.

The key issue is that our current methods of farming and food handling arc not environmentally sustainable and are having widespread negative impacts on the planes. If appropriate changes are not made the survival of future generations cannot be assured.

Ecologically, the food system is a cycle of production - consumption--recycling. The problem is that production has become increasingly dependent on imported finite resources. These are either consumed directly, for example, as fuel to run a tremor, or indirectly as synthetic products, such as nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. These, in turn, have had an impact on the environment and, along with the mismanagement of rural and urban wastes, have caused widespread environmental damage (including air, soil and water pollution). Most modem crops have been selected to respond to these synthetic inputs, and have often been grown year after year as monocultures. The result has been a simplification of the landscape and an associated loss of habitat for the great diversity of species that are needed for the maintenance of ecosystems; and the loss of many valuable varieties of crops that are no longer regarded as economically important. The tendency to grow annual row crops using intensive weed control has resulted in Canada's agricultural landscape occurring as large expanses of bare, exposed soil for most of the yea~r. This has contributed to soil erosion, water pollution, damage to the ozone layer through the loss of nitrogen gases (together with the methane from livestock, and significant contributions to the greenhouse effect through the accelerated decomposition of organic master and associated production of carbon dioxide. Agricultural wastes are commonly mismanaged and sometimes even dumped into rivers (as in the Yamaska River in Quebec, where dumping of pig wastes has caused serious contamination).

At the consumption point in the cycle we can recognize widespread purchasing of overprocessed, over packaged foods, including many that have questionable nutritional value. The fact that the average food calorie in Canada travels over 2,000 km before being consumed is one measure of the degree to which most Canadians are unaware of the relationships between our buying habits and the ability of the environment to support our lifestyles indefinitely.

To correct these and other related problems will take widespread change at the personal, institutional and global levels. Between now and the year 2010 we can expect dramatic changes in the appearance of the Canadian farm landscape (from the bare soil monocultures to diverse, even multi-storey polycultures); in our political system a more participatory democracy emphasizing bioregional and local responsibility our economic systems (by talking into account the side-effects of our actions and projecting outcomes over a long time-frame); and by valuing the informal economy, including the work involved in child rearing and ecosystem maintenance, and in the characteristics of our society and culture (which will evolve towards a much higher level of awareness, responsibility and cooperative action for the good of the planet and all of its inhabitants versus struggling just to achieve personal gain).

If a transition doesn't happen

Without appropriate change, any perpetuation of the present system will eventually exhaust non-renewable resources, turn renewables into non-renewables, cause widespread pollution ; destroy habitats and thereby cause the loss of species in the process. This would place our own-species in an increasingly vulnerable position.

An unrecognized problem

It is my contention that although our own species appears to be highly evolved in terms of our technological competence, we are nevertheless still largely undeveloped in terms of our psychological potential. This is apparent from the widespread occurrence of conflict in the world, oppression, irresponsible action, feelings of fear, guilt, isolation, injustice, loneliness, and unfulfillment. The key limiting factors to appropriate change are: (a) access to needed accurate information (and removal of misinformation), developments of appropriate skills (such as how to farm ecologically); (b) the development of environmentally compatible visions of future food systems (hence the importance of the program of which this contribution is a part); (c) institutional supports for realizing these visions (through appropriate educational programs, research, laws, services, etc.); and, most important of all, (d) the involvement of every member of the population in a psychological healing process, the result of which will be an expanded awareness of reality, an empowerment to act on that awareness, and a shift in values to respect these changes. Achieving this will involve the provision of supports and rewards for appropriate change and penalties to prevent inappropriate behaviours.

A vision of sustainable agriculture

The food system that I am advocating bas its roots in both a particular philosophical approach to life and in a systemic (holistic) way of doing things. It is based on a set of values that reflect a state of awareness and empowerment. Efforts to en sure short-term viability are tested against long-term sustainability, and attention to the uniqueness of every operation is considered in relation to ecological and humanistic imperatives, with an awareness of global implications. It involves benign designs and management procedures that work with natural processes to conserve all resources, maximize waste and environmental impact, prevent problems and promote agroecosystem resilience, self-regulation, evolution, and sustained production for the nourishment and fulfillment of all. In practice such systems have tended to avoid dependence on synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives. Instead, they rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, and mineral-bearing rocks to maintain soil fertility and productivity, and on natural, cultural and biological controls to manage insects, weeds and other pests. The emphasis is on prevention of problems and the use of curative interventions, such as pesticides, as last resorts. The potential of this approach, however, goes far beyond its present expression, which has largely been limited to the substitution of environmentally benign products and practices. As this new vision of what is ecologically responsible becomes established, significant development can be expected in the science and art of agroecosystem design and management.

Differences between sustainable and current practices

The relationships between conventional agriculture and the natural functioning of the ecosystem are perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of pest outbreaks. The characteristics of conventional agriculture (especially the occurrence of bare-soil monocultures) are almost exactly what most pests would demand in order to have ideal conditions for their survival and multiplication It is also ideal for maximizing soil erosion, contamination of food and water with toxins, reduction of the number of farms and of farmers, etc.

Environmentally sustainable agriculture, in many respects, has characteristics that "e essentially the opposite of those of conventional agriculture. It emphasizes growing complementary crops together in appropriate sequences, keeping the soil covered with growing crops and mulches, including crops and practices that maintain the productivity of the farm and using detailed knowledge of ecological relationships to prevent having to purchase inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers to solve problems. This particularly involves the careful management of operations in time (when to do things,) and space (where to do things). A high value is placed on building up and conserving the natural capital within the agroecosystem, particularly the soil ecosystem and the natural controls of pests and diseases. Furthermore, because the agroecosystem includes the area surrounding the farm fields, these areas are also subject to design and management interventions.

For example, in horticultural operations, a pest control program might involve': the use of resistant cultivars; the management of the soil to maximize biological activity; establishment of conditions to attract natural pest control agents, such as the use of certain flowering plants to attract parasitic and predatory wasps; insect traps for monitoring and even controlling pests; management of the ground cover and field~ borders to promote the predators and parasites of pests; the release of specific purchased biological control agents; and the use of low~toxicity biodegradable, often botanical, pesticides as a last resort.

Sometimes a small change in the timing of one operation, such as the date of planting, or in the type of cultural practice employed, can effectively eliminate a problem and save the annual expenditure of hundreds of dollars for curative solutions.

EAP's role in facilitating change

By collecting, organizing and making available essential information through our library, publications and public lectures and~workshops, we are helping to empower the population to act in appropriate ways. We conduct studies for governments to identify the necessary changes in policies and programs. We make submissions to hearings and appear frequently in the media making our position heard. Up to now we have had to raise the funding to do this from private sources . Eventually, such groups as ours must be supported partly by government funding because of the vital role they play in the transition process towards a sustainable society.

Barriers to change

Although progress is being made, as reflected by individual changes in buying habits and participation in recycling programs, and by governments stating their commitment to sustainable development, much more has to be done. We are still at the stage that reflects a belief that sustainability can be achieved by fine-tuning our present system without having to really re-think and re-design our values and programs of action. There is widespread denial among professionals, and there is fear among those who enjoy certain social advantages that they will lose these if they give in to this green movement. These feelings, and other psychological barriers, have their roots in our upbringing, much of which has separated us from ecological realities and substituted a distorted system of values. For example, most of us have been socialized at an early age to expect an olympian standard, so we go to the grocery store looking for cosmetically perfect fruits and then peel away the thing we selected them for, not realizing the illogicality of our actions. In the process of learning to adapt to such pressures we have become hypnotized. As Laing (1971) has said, In our development it is as if each of us were hypnotized twice: firstly into accepting pseudoreality as reality, and secondly, into believing that we were not hypnotized..

Overcoming the barriers

What is fundamentally required is a change in our attitudes and values; an acknowledgement that the Earth is our home and that we are a part of nature; that environmental relationships are benign; and that there are no enemies, only indicators of problems in the design and management of systems that need to be responded to, to rather eliminated. For these new attitudes to be adopted we require a high level of awareness, acting in the present rather than the past, a clear vision of a benign world of which we are a part, appropriate information and skills, and institutional supports.

Sustainability, in general requires the preservation and development of both natural and cultural capital. We must develop decision-making tools that will allow us to value these two types of capital and not degrade them. Political action is required to provide appropriate supports (education, extension services, models, research and legislation), rewards (tax incentives, subsidies, low interest loans), and penalties (monitoring programs and legislation). Priorities for a smooth transition to sustainable agriculture in Canada include:

1. special training programs for farmers in transition;

2. facilitation of &U participation in government programs by sustainable farmers;

3. funding for farmer-researcher, participatory, transdisciplinary, long-term

4. establishment of government-approved certified organic. standards;

5. consumer access to all information concerning methods of food production, processing and handling;

6. provision of support to new and existing environmentally sustainable agriculture resource centres, such as EAP;

7. support for the establishment of appropriate degree and training

To achieve a better understanding of the functioning, design and management of agroecosystems, it will be necessary to expand the research being done in this area. The following topics should be emphasized: long-term, transdisciplinary team whole-farm farmer participatory studies; emphasis on design and strategies to prevent problems, and on ways to work with natural products, processes and cycles to achieve optimal ecosystem functioning. Specific research might range from investigations into alternative crops, particularly those that could be part of multiple cropping systems, environmental design to prevent pest outbreaks, particularly through the improvement of cultural methods of pest control, improved management systems to achieve optimal beneficial activity in the soil, including promotion of mycorrhizal activity, development of appropriate farm buildings and machinery, policy development, and improved methods of full cost and benefit accounting to permit a more just system of decision-making. A11 progress towards which sustainable systems is limited, however, by the psychological factors~ that determine human behaviour. Until these are addressed, progress will be slow and reversible. -

Ultimately we are talking about the redefinition of the relationship that our endeavours have with the environment, and the responsibility of everyone to recognize the impact that present practices are having on the environment, and therefore on the well-being of present and future generations. The final solution is not a curative problem-solving technique (such as many, but not all, of the proposed biotechnology solutions}. Instead, it involves an approach that will design our problems out of the system and manage the system in ecologically responsible ways.

How can individuals facilitate changes

Often it is thought that governments bring about change, and that the individual is powerless. It helps to remember that governments are matte up of individuals and that all positive government action can ultimately be traced to individual action. It is that kind of

awareness, vision, empowerment and competence discussed above that will be likely to generate the necessary action that we must all aspire to in order to bring about the changes that are needed. Actions can range from changes in food buying habits, such as eliminating over-processed and junk foods, to taking political action through writing members of parliament, communicating in the media, organizing events to draw attention to particular issues, or working directly in the food and agriculture system to implement the environmentally benign vision. In choosing your career there are unlimited possibilities for contributing to this transition to a sustainable food system. My own list of persona! actions is as follows.

As a result of acting in this way I have become hopeful and confident that the world that we all know, deep clown, is possible and desirable, is also achievable.

Copyright 1991


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