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One Word: Agroecology

The Tweet from global chemical giant Bayer links to a peppy quiz testing your honeybee knowledge. The announcement from Monsanto declares its commitment to a “milkweed” sanctuary near St. Louis for monarch butterflies on their long migration from Mexico to Canada. The companies’ websites are bursting with images of shiny, happy people apparently thrilled with the promises of the chemical age of agriculture.

It’s spin, of course, designed to obscure the fact that these companies manufacture the very pesticides that have devastated our beloved pollinators and the herbicides that have killed off the food source of millions of monarchs. They are the manufacturers of the toxic pesticides used for decades on farmland worldwide, but only a tiny fraction of which has actually reached their intended targets. The rest has contaminated soil, water, air, flora, fauna, and people across the planet.

According to a new report by Pesticide Action Network, these chemicals “leach into groundwater, wash into streams, rivers, and the marine environment, drift or, after evaporating, are carried by the air hundreds, even thousands of kilometers to be re-deposited in the Arctic, Antarctic, and on the peaks of mountains such as the Himalayas.”

When presented with such findings, chemical conglomerates often sound like they’re parroting Margaret Thatcher: There is no alternative to the chemically reliant industrial agriculture model, they say. But there is another way. It’s called agroecology, and, according to the folks at Pesticide Action Network, there are reams of evidence showing that it’s the key to feeding the future.

Agroecology is the principle and practice of working with nature in a farming system that promotes fertility while also managing weeds and other pests like insects, crop disease, rodents, fungus, and more. Unfortunately, the term is still largely unspoken here in the US. A search of The New York Times archives turned up “agroecology” only 14 times since 1980 – basically relegated to the vows and obituary sections or opinion columns. Only one news article in the past 25 years referred to agroecology in a substantive way.

Yet agroecology is taking off worldwide and is one of the best hopes for phasing out the most highly hazardous agricultural pesticides. For example, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, communities that had witnessed the toll of toxic pesticides – including acute poisonings and long-term health effects, from cancers to neurological and hormonal problems – turned to agroecology as a solution. In 2004, community groups in the state started a pilot study, teaching 300,000 farmers what was dubbed “non-pesticide management.” Farmers were taught innovative alternatives to toxic pesticides to deal with their worst pest problems, like how to tackle the pod borer, a pest that attacks crops like lentils, okra, sorghum, and peas, with nature – not chemicals. To combat these pests in the past, farmers had deployed insecticides like acephate, endosulfan, and triazophos – all acutely toxic. Under the new program, farmers learned how to use natural controls like manually removing infected leaves, spraying with an extract of neem seed, or introducing Helicoverpa armigera nuclear polyhedrosis – a naturally occurring virus that attacks the pod borer. The result? The pod borer stayed away. Yields stayed steady. And farmers, who were able to spend less on chemicals, earned higher incomes. Today, the program has expanded to an estimated one million farmers across one million hectares in the state.

The success of agroecological practices is not unique to Andhra Pradesh. In one study cited in the PAN report, researchers evaluated agroecological approaches across Africa and found that the average yield for farmers adopting these practices rose 116 percent – and in every case farmer income rose, too.

While reports like this build a powerful case for getting hazardous chemicals out of the marketplace, the chemical industry is lobbying heavily against any regulation that would restrict their sales. Just six companies (BASF, Syngenta, Monsanto, Dupont, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences) control 76 percent of the global pesticide market and wield enormous power to fight against regulation of their chemical arsenal. They do so, in part, by spending millions on fancy PRfirms and marketing dressed up as philanthropy to shape the conversation – and the policy landscape – for their most profitable and toxic products.

Pesticide Action Network’s new report is further proof that farmers worldwide are getting off the chemical treadmill. It’s encouraging news – evidence there is a better way to grow food – and powerful stuff, helping more of us decode stuff – like a silly quiz about honeybees, or a community donation – as spin, not substance.

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