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Eco-Agriculture Can Feed the World And Help Save the Environment - Jakarta Globe
Last modified: 2011-05-20 02:03:35

The recent price increases of agricultural commodities such as chili peppers and rice are alarm bells reminding us again that there are still many fundamental problems in our agriculture sector.

In January 2011, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Food Price Index, a measure of the monthly price change of five basic food commodity groups, rose by 3.4 percent from December 2010, touching its highest level since the index began in 1990.

Food price volatility does not significantly affect countries that do not depend on imported food; however, it will hit food-importing countries, commonly inhabited by large populations of poor people, including Indonesia.

Four major driving causes of food price volatility are weather, high demand (especially from China and India), low output and biofuel. Other factors include unscrupulous agricultural practices that ignore the ecosystem equilibrium and will potentially threaten a sustainable food supply. The apparent effect of climate change on the rising prices of agricultural commodities also indicates the need for a fundamental paradigm shift in our agricultural practices.

Efforts to increase agricultural productivity date back to the so-called Green Revolution of the late 1960s. This movement was characterized by the use of various new agricultural technologies, ie the application of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizer and pesticides, and the development of supporting agricultural infrastructure.

There are lots of examples that underline the success of the Green Revolution. For example, India in 1961 was on the verge of mass starvation. But the country introduced a pilot project involving seed application according to Green Revolution prescriptions in Punjab that ultimately saved it from the threat of famine.

In Indonesia, Green Revolution technology was introduced through government programs in the New Order era, namely BIMAS (mass guidance) and INMAS (mass intensification) in the early 1970s. These massive movements, involving agricultural extension and uniformity of food production patterns, were run by a centralized government regime. Indonesia was eventually able to achieve food self-sufficiency in 1984. However, its ability to be self-sufficient in rice production was short-lived, as the ill-advised use of technology and chemical-based agriculture led to environmental damage. Death of soil biota and the loss of soil fertility meant farmers increasingly turned to chemical fertilizers, causing "land hunger," where the land gradually becomes more dependent on the intake of increasing amounts of chemicals.

Climate change is also having a growing impact on agriculture and requires new practices and approaches to guarantee the sustainability of farming, which still is the main source of livelihood for most Indonesians.

Agriculture is an activity directly related to the use of natural resources. We now often see and hear of crop failures due to climatic influences. This is compounded by farming practices that pay little heed to the rules of ecosystem balance and environmental conservation, which will in turn have an impact on agriculture itself.

In mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts while continuing efforts to conserve the environment, it is worthwhile studying the concept of eco-agriculture, whose principles were declared in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2004 at the International Eco-Agriculture Conference and Practitioners Fair.

The aim of eco-agriculture is to manage the resources of rural communities to improve their welfare, preserve biodiversity and ecosystem services, and develop more productive and sustainable farming systems.

The core of this ecological-based farming is ensuring that business or agricultural activity is consistent with the natural functions of ecosystems, where for instance, the cycle of soil nutrients and biodiversity structure are maintained so as to create a system of agriculture that is resistant to pests and has self-maintained natural soil nutrients. Thus, farmers will no longer depend on costly chemicals and artificial pest control.

In addition, by reviving local or indigenous seed varieties, farmers' dependence on hybrid seeds commercially produced by multinational companies can be reduced or even eliminated. This will give farmers the freedom to plant seeds in accordance with local natural conditions at a reasonable cost. Consequently, agricultural production costs can be minimized and agricultural commodities sold at a premium price as organic products, which in turn would improve farmers' incomes. Also, agricultural commodities that are free from chemicals and genetically modified organisms are safes and healthier for human consumption.

In short, eco-agriculture tries to combine conservation with development. Farmers and rural communities are key actors in conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.

Alas, it seems that the government is still stuck on pursuing a target of increased food production without giving serious attention to the balance of the ecosystem supporting the agricultural sector. There is minimal state support and a lack of political will for the development of environmentally friendly farming practices. For instance, reductions in subsidies for chemical fertilizers do not necessarily help the development of organic fertilizer. In the 2010 revised state budget, the government allocated Rp 18.4 trillion ($2 billion) for fertilizer subsidies ,while in the 2011 draft state budget this was reduced to Rp 16.4 trillion. Subsidies for organic fertilizers are tiny in comparison to those for chemical fertilizers. Moreover, efforts to rejuvenate local or traditional rice seed varieties have not been recognized in the state budget.

A number of countries have implemented eco-agriculture practices. For instance, in Brazil, the application of eco-agriculture farming systems has occurred on a regional scale through the use of cover crops to improve soil fertility and to act as a binder for soil moisture content. These practices have helped 400,000 farmers increase corn and soybean production by more than 60 percent.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, despite the lack of government support for eco-agriculture, the concept is being developed in several areas such as Bali and Garut, West Java, with nongovernmental organizations championing the cause. In Bali, farmers have been able to increase coffee and chocolate production, while in Garut, farmers have seen higher rice production than through conventional rice farming systems.

In Subang, West Java, and Bogor, farmers have increased production 40 percent by using organic fertilizers in paddy farming systems similar to conventional rice farming.

Making eco-agriculture work requires a favorable institutional environment, suitable financing and good dissemination of information. To boost its development, we need to create biodiversity reserves that benefit local farming communities, develop habitat networks in non-farmed areas, reduce land conversion to agriculture by increasing farm productivity, minimize agricultural pollution, modify management of soil, water and vegetation resources, and modify farm systems to mimic natural ecosystems. These steps can be started through initiatives at the grassroots level, with the coordinated and collaborated efforts of various stakeholders, but should include government support in promoting eco-agriculture practices and creating a sustainable agricultural system in Indonesia.

Jakarta Globe - Teddy Lesmana - 12Februari 2011

Keywords: Eco-Agriculture Can Feed the World And Help Save the Environment, Jakarta Globe, eco practices, agriculture
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