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Case #30

Agroecology: Kicking the Pesticide Habit


Paul Buxman, a California small farmer who grows peaches, hasn't used pesticides since an outbreak of cancers among local farm families occurred in 1982. Even without the chemicals, he farms successfully today. Many cases like Buxman's disprove the agribusiness myths that pesticides are indispensable, or that large farms are more productive than small farms.

Large, industrial-style farms impose a scorched-earth mentality on resource management - no trees, no wildlife, endless monocultures - but small farmers are usually very effective stewards of natural resources and soil. In the Third World, peasant farmers show a tremendous ability to prevent and even reverse land degradation. Compared with the ecological wasteland of modern export plantations, the small farm landscape contains a myriad of biodiversity. This often means lower levels of pest attack and less need for pesticides. Because small farms are mostly family-run, family members know the land intimately and have a genuine commitment to maintaining both soil fertility and long-term sustainability, something generally not found on large farms owned by absentee investors.

The practice of small scale integrated farming without pesticides is called `agroecology'. It has the potential to end rural poverty, feed everyone and protect the environment and the productivity of the land for future generations.

Before 1989, Cuba's food economy was based on enormous farms using vast quantities of imported chemicals and machinery to produce export crops, while over half of the island's food was imported. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the US trade embargo, pesticides, chemical fertilizers and tractor parts could no longer be imported and Cuba was plunged into a serious food crisis.

In response, Cuba turned inward to create a more self-reliant agriculture based on smaller farms and agroecological technology. Small farmers and co-operatives increased production while large-scale state farms stagnated and faced plunging yields, and the Government began to divide up the state farms into small plots. By 1997 Cubans were eating almost as well as they had before 1989, and proved the viability of the small-farm model based on agroecological technology instead of pesticides.

The data shows that small farms consistently produce far more per hectare than large farms. One reason is that large farms tend to be monocultures. While they may produce a lot of one crop, they generate nothing else of use to the farmer. The bare ground between crop rows invites weed infestation, requiring more labor for weeding or money for herbicide.

Integrated farming systems produce far more per unit area than do monocultures. The yield of one crop may be lower on a small farm than on a large monoculture, But the total production per unit area, often composed of more than a dozen crops and various animal products, can be far, far higher, both in industrial countries and in the developing world. In the US, small farms have more than 10 times greater dollar output per acre than large farms.

There is a social benefit as well: in towns surrounded by family farms the income circulates among local businesses, generating jobs and community prosperity. Where family farms predominate there are more local businesses, paved streets and sidewalks, schools, parks, churches and clubs as well as better services, higher employment and greater civic participation.


Location: global
Action: Direct
Setting: Agricultural
Extent of Action: International
Issues: Agriculture
Year(s): 1980
Outcome successful
Source: New Internationalist 323/5, 5/2000, p.20 ff.


Prepared By: alb 4/01
Rating: 1
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