ALTERNATIVE AGRICULTURAL CONCEPTS TO COPE WITH
For this talk I was given the title "alternative agricultural concepts to cope with climate impact". I must say, I would rather look at it the other way around. It is not a question of adjusting agriculture to the climatic changes that we might bring about with our present way of life. We must change our agriculture in such a way that it stops contributing to the changes.
As you probably all know, in 1987, in brazilian Amazonia alone, according to satellite surveys, 210,000 square kilometers of forest and bush fires were reported. That's almost the size of West Germany or the UK, twice Portugal or three times Austria. 1988, up to now, was much worse. Figures aren't in yet, but it is probably twice as bad. These clearings are for agricultural "development" and for cattle ranching. So, agriculture is an important contributor to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and hence to the greenhouse effect. But the destruction of the forest, especially the tropical rain forest, is not only a factor in carbon dioxide imbalance, it diminishes evapotranspiration and increases albedo, both contributing to a warmer climate.
Now, without dwelling on the other climate determining factors,such as chlorofluorocarbons, dusts, aerosols, methane from garbage dumps and feedlots, etc., or going into the social and political causes of the biological holocaust, there has never been anything like it in the history of life on Earth, and that is in the last three and a half billion years - I would like to suggest something that could be done and must be done immediately. We have all the knowledge necessary, we need no additional research. We cannot wait.
Referring specifically to the Amazon region, the World Bank and the other multilateral development agencies and the governments involved could help us to contribute significantly to a reversal of present trends in devastation. We must help the people already settled there to survive without increasing devastation. Today people settled in the Amazon region, especially in the state of Rondônia, whether they be all migrant farmers, plantation owners, cattle ranchers, can only survive by cutting down more forest every year. As you all know, the soils under the standing tropical rain forest are extrememly poor in nutrients. they are also very poor in nutrient holding capacity. When the forest is cleared the settlers get one or two meagre harvests and the soil is exhausted. Even the pastures on the ranches decline very fast. So we must teach those people to recover the natural fertility of their soils to enable them to survive without having to clear more forest. This is possible, but it can only be done with methods of regenerative agriculture, that is, with organic soil managment. The methods of agrichemistry don't work there. We know how to do it, it is much cheaper than conventional agriculture but it goes counter to the paradigm prevailing in modern agriculture and it doesn't promote business for existing technological and beaurocratic infrastructures. But. if we want to, we can do it and we must do it now.
The reason why there is so much burning in Amazonia, in the brazilian savannah, that is, the Cerrado, even in the Pantanal and in all the other remaining forms of wilderness, is that farmers, small or big, as well as the cattle ranchers, don't know how to handle soil organic matter. In fact, this is true even for farmers here in Europe. Just think of the scandal with cattle and pig slurry. I'm told that the Federal Republic of Germany alone has something like two hundred million tons a year of slurry that is considered waste, instead of being seen as capital. The Dutch seem to be in a situation even worse. The stuff is used in the most absurd way possible, contributing to nitrate leaching into the ground water and polluting surface waters, destroying soil structures. It could very well be used in ways that promote soil life, improve plant health and help farmers instead of causing them problems. Of course, I do not want to promote or even contribute to preserving the absurd feedlots that produce the "mountains of butter" and "seas of milk" in the European Community at the expense of soil fertility in the regions of the world where the imported feed comes from. But if the now existing slurry was used in biogas digesters, simple and cheap ones that could be produced in a decentralized way, making unnecessary many nuclear power stations and producing a marvellous fertilizer that contriibutes to plant health and makes the use of poisons unnecessary. The excess amounts here in the north could be shipped south to vineyards, hop plantations, orchards. Today, as I was told, some of it is taken out to sea to be dumped!
Using, implementing and reorienting existing agricultural extension agencies, it should be easy to help settlers and ranchers to handle their soils in a regenerative way. Compared to present projects, such as the Polonoroeste Project, that triggered some of the most devastating migrations into Amazonia, this should be very cheap and could be done with local means. Some of the regional governments have expressed interest and extension in Brazil is today quite inclined to abandon the prevailing paradigm. This kind of action could even be included in a "swap debt for nature" scheme. No government could argue that it interferes with national sovereignty.
The methods to be taught could be summarized as:
Minimal mechanical aggression to the soil, that is, no till or minimum till, permanent soil cover, dead or green; permaculture; crop rotation, companion plants, mostly leguminous plants of wich Brazil has many extemely interesting forms, green manure; organic fertilizers, composting, biogas sludge; insoluble mineral fertilizers, such as raw phosphate and ground rock. Much organic material can be had from organic industrial wastes.
These methods, though, should be taught all over Brazil. Prevailing agrichemical methods are one of the factors, apart from political decisions, that have contributed and continue to contribute to mass uprooting of people in other parts of Brazil, and hence to migration into the rain forest and other wilderness regions, at the expence of the true inhabitants of the forest, the Indians, caboclos and rubbertappers. It is often said and repeated that the last frontiers are now being devastated because people have to eat. It is implied that it is the inhabitants of the wilderness that are clearing the land. This is a blatant, an infamous lie! What happens in Amazonia today is a new form of imperialism, or colonialism. We may call it endocolonialism because it happens within the borders of one political unit, but it is a war. It is forces from outside, the industrialized south of Brazil, allied to international technocracy, that goes there to multiply capital, at the expenses of local people and the environment. For the Indians it is genocide.
Personally, though I am an agronomist, I have been working mostly in sanitary engeneering for the last ten years. The reason is, on the one hand, millions of hectares of good soils are being depleted of organic matter, humus being destroyed, also contributing significantly to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, while at the same time industry wastes hundreds of millions of tons of precious organic matter, that is seen as waste and causes pollution. Just think of the slaughter houses, canning plants for fruit, vegetable, fish and meat; tanneries,pulp mills, timber mills, vegetable and animal oil factories, dairies, alcohol distilleries, wine cellars and others. And then look at the garbage and sewage. I already mentioned feed lots.
By inverting the prevailing postulates in sanitary engeneering, extremely productive and interesting work could be done at very low cost and creating highly significant jobs for uncounted young people who today join the armies of the unemployed.
In handling and recycling organic wastes, as well as ashes from industry and others, and learning sound organic soil management we have also learned to efficiently cope with plant pests and diseases. We simply avoid them! The basic postulate of modern pest control is also fundamentally wrong. The pest or pathogen, whether insect, nematode, mite, fungus, bacteria or virus, is not an arbitary enemy to be erradicated or fought with fulminant or persistant poisons, it is rather a biological indicator, warning us about our own mistakes in how we grow crops. On really healthy plants, that is, on plants with well balanced metabolism, resulting from well balanced plant nutrition, pests and pathogens simply cannot proliferate. So, instead of fighting them with poisons, we must learn how to cultivate them correctly. This aspect of plant protection was intuitively known to traditional peasants but it is now left out of modern agriculture. We also learned that we can use certain plant treatments that are not poisonous, that enhance plant growth and make plants healthy. For instance, highly mature and concentrated humus complex, obtained from organic sludge, produced in effluent treatment from pulp mills, when applied in diluted form as a foliar spray on crops increases yields and diminishes pest attack. A revolution in agriculture lies before us. We have much practical success with other similar or related treatments.
What we need now is practical work, in the field. Of course, academic research, in the laboratory, can help. But it is not essential at this point. As I said at the beginning, we have all the knowledge to do what must be done. We must act, now! We have no time to lose!
Remember, you people in the so called First World are today contributing with your tax money to an important part of the devastation in the last wilderness of the planet. Pretty soon you will be paying again, with your hides, when the resulting climatic changes come.
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