Today’s “Food for 9 Billion” feature by Jori Lewis on American Public Media’s Marketplace takes a ground-level look at one of the biggest questions our species faces: How can we meet our future food needs without destroying the natural systems on which humans and all other life forms depend?

The question is especially urgent in Africa, where worn-out soils mean that farming as usual is not an option. What’s the best way forward? There’s no simple answer, of course. But a consensus might be emerging about the general approach.

It is not, as some insist, a wholesale shift to industrial farming. Rather, scientists and policymakers are increasingly turning to the concept of “agroecology.” Agroecology holds that farming based on ecological principles (complexity, diversity, symbiosis, nutrient cycling, etc.) is more sustainable than farming based on single crops and chemical inputs. It also can be much more productive.

For decades, this kind of thinking was dismissed as anti-modern or romantic. But it has recently moved into the mainstream. 

In 2008, 900 experts from 110 countries, brought together by the World Bank and U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, produced a landmark study called “Agriculture at a Crossroads” [PDF]. The authors, hardly radicals, emphasized the “multifunctionality” of agriculture – that is, the notion that farms provide a wide range of ecological and social services beyond just producing food, fiber and fuel. The report suggests that large-scale industrial agriculture is not the answer for much of the world. (The governments of the U.S., Canada and Australia refused to sign the executive summary [PDF].)

In 2010, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report [PDF] concluding that “agroecology … can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.”

Last year, Jacques Diouf, then director-general of the FAO, declared that “the present paradigm of intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.” What the world needs, he wrote, is “a major shift from the homogeneous model of crop production to knowledge-intensive, often location-specific, farming systems.”

As Lewis’ piece today points out, that shift is not always easy to make, even for small-scale farmers. Finding the right mix of crops, animals, trees, etc., takes time, thought and effort. And sometimes, the biggest things standing between success and failure are the tiniest microbes, minerals, weeds and bugs.

We expect to write more about agroecology in the future. Meanwhile, a good resource for non-experts is the website of the FAO’s Save and Grow program. You can find a flier [PDF], fact sheets, a short video and other information.

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Jonathan Miller is executive director of Homelands Productions, a journalism cooperative specializing in public radio features and documentaries. As a freelance journalist, he has reported from Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the U.S. for NPR, BBC, CBC, American Public Media's Marketplace, Monitor Radio, VOA, Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle. He also has written for The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Parents, American Way, The Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. For 13 years, he lived and worked in the Philippines and Peru. 

Jon is currently serving as executive producer of "Food for 9 Billion," a collaborative project of Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media's Marketplace, PRI's The World, and PBS NewsHour. He was executive producer of Homelands' award-winning "WORKING" project profiling workers in the global economy (2007-09) and the "Worlds of Difference" series about the responses of traditional societies to rapid cultural change (2002-05).