Eco-farming 'to undo harm'
The rising demand for mass-produced food has led to biodiversity loss.
As the agricultural sector is responsible for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, environmental experts say the best solution to reverse the crisis is by reforming the farming system to encourage more eco-farming.
By adapting the practice of ecological agriculture, a new concept that focuses on maintaining healthy ecosystems and working with nature harmoniously, humanity's chances of stabilising global warming to ensure sustainability of the global food system will improve, they say.
Poisoning the planet
Industrialised farming techniques have allowed humanity to mass produce food to sustain billions of people and made the modern way of life possible. However, Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Biodiversity, Sustainable Agriculture, and Food Sovereignty Action Thailand (the BioThai Foundation), said we still need to rethink the way we produce food, as the environmental cost of high-yield intensive farming is high.
"Academics agree that this intensive production of crops and animals is having adverse impacts on the environment and the world's climate," Mr Witoon said.
"Industrial farming relies on intensive exploitation of land and natural resources, as well as the use of heavy synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides."
Wherever industrial monoculture farming is introduced, local environments will deteriorate, because forests are cleared to open the way for plantations, while soil fertility and ecosystems gradually degrade due to a build-up of agrochemical contamination in soil and water.
According to a study by Joseph Poore and Thomas Nemecek, pollution from the farming industry was a major culprit in the eutrophication of oceans and freshwater globally.
Activities throughout the food production chain released over 13.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide or about 26% of overall GHG emissions to the atmosphere every year, making the agriculture sector another major driver of global warming.
Food crop cultivation and livestock farming require significant amounts of land and natural resource use, as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that about 50% of all habitable land and 70% of global freshwater are used for agriculture.
As the world's population grows, the demand for land and resources for mass-produced food is rising as well, which has led to massive deforestation and biodiversity loss throughout the world.
It was estimated the impacts of intensive farming expansion have threatened more than 24,000 species with extinction, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.
"This polluted and resource-intensive food production system is making us more vulnerable to food insecurity, as not only is this farming method harmful to nature, but smallholder farmers are also unjustly taken advantage of from working in contract farming," Mr Witoon said.
"This is why industrial farming is no longer a viable way of producing food. So, the only one way out from this vicious cycle is to break free from industrial agriculture."
Nature is the solution
Since modernised intensive farming evidently has serious flaws that can endanger climate and food security, Saranarat Kanjanavanit, former secretary-general of the Green World Foundation, suggested the alternative concept of ecological farming can provide a way out.
"I propose we have to step away from industrial farming that seeks to use technology such as synthetic agrochemicals or genetically modified crops to beat nature, and turn toward eco-agriculture, which aims to work cooperatively with ecosystems around us," Ms Saranarat said.
"We need to reembrace regenerative and traditional ways of farming that understand and respect nature and ecosystems as the way forward to build a safer and more sustainable food system."
With her expertise in the field of ecology and environmental conservation, Ms Saranarat has been spending time since retirement starting her own "Nunienoi" eco-farm on her land in Chiang Dao district of Chiang Mai province, which she hopes it will serve as a learning centre on ecological farming.
Ms Saranarat argued that with direct experience from her farm, she can show that a new, ecologically friendly approach toward agriculture is working in Thailand.
"We have learned with sorrow that the benefits from industrial farming to achieve maximum agricultural productivity with intensive chemical use and extreme land exploitation are eclipsed by its drastic consequences that end up causing worrying impacts," she said.
The first major task in developing the Nunienoi Eco-Farm was to restore the ecological health and biodiversity of the surrounding areas, which had been damaged by several years of intensive farming.
After much trial and error, Ms Saranarat has restored land fertility by using rotation farming techniques: she plants rice during the wet season, and switches to soybeans in the dry season, which replenishes nitrogen into the soil.
She also cultivates varieties of produce that rotate during the year.
Some of her farmland is also rearranged to serve as natural wetlands; she also rewilds other areas with native species of flora and fauna to improve ecological health and biodiversity.
"As ecological conditions improve, I also find farm yields and crop quality are also improving, so I have no doubt that with the right policies and support from the government, a successful transformation of our agriculture sector towards eco-farming is possible," she said.
This article is part of the Earth Journalism Network's special collaborative project on One Health and meat in the Asia Pacific entitled 'More Than Meats the Eye'.