by Dr Stephanie Williamson, Staff Scientist, PAN UK (9th August 2018)

Agroecological approaches to farming are receiving increasing attention, both at international policy level and in some countries’ national programmes. PAN UK’s Agroecology web section gives readers a brief description of agroecology. It also provides case studies in coffee, pineapples and other products, as well as links to useful resources for agroecological practices. It explains some positive steps forward in the contexts of UK, continental Europe and developing countries.

Agroecological case studies in coffee

We are pleased to add six case studies from the Central American region looking at aspects of agroecological practices in coffee production. The cases range from smallholder farms and grower co-operatives to larger estates. They give an idea of successful practices, showing how farmers are managing pests, diseases, weeds, without recourse to pesticides in most cases or only in much reduced amounts. Integrated Pest Management (IPM), based on sound ecological science, is just one component of agroecology. These case study farmers, and the technicians working with them, pay equal attention to: conserving their vital resources of soil and water; enhancing biodiversity, especially ground cover vegetation and trees; and encouraging the myriads of creatures which provide essential ecosystem services of pollination, pest control and soil nutrient recycling. And all while producing high quality coffee and gaining good yields and profits, especially by selling to supply chains and customers seeking safer, more sustainable coffee.

The case studies were collected at a workshop on Phasing out Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs) in Coffee, organised in 2017 by our partners at the Regional Institute for Research on Toxic Substances (IRET) in Costa Rica. One key lesson from the workshop discussion was the importance of encouraging beneficial ecological interactions between organisms, in order to reduce pest, disease or weed pressure. This principle lies at the heart of agroecology. Many presenters described their growing appreciation of the role of a healthy living soil, with lots of beneficial microbes, earthworms and pest-devouring natural enemies, in growing a healthier crop and reducing reliance on pesticides.

An update on agroecology case studies in coffee and pineapple

Phasing out HHPs in pineapple

A similar emphasis on the agronomic and economic value of boosting soil health and of maximising recycling of farm waste (another key agroecological principle) was also made at the parallel project workshop on Phasing out HHPs in Pineapple. Managers of forward-thinking large farms worked with scientists to rethink conventional practices and long-held perceptions about the levels of agrochemical inputs needed for profitable production. Last October, one Costa Rican pineapple estate dedicated to organic pineapple production, began operations to convert its crop waste into an environment-friendly fertiliser. This was part of a pilot project to find solutions to the scale of crop waste residue generated in the country by the pineapple sector.

Developing more of these agroecologically sound crop waste recycling initiatives will help pineapple farmers reduce their use of synthetic fertiliser. It will also tackle the serious problem that decaying pineapple foliage becomes a favoured breeding site for the stablefly, a pest causing ill health to livestock. Recycling pineapple foliage in this way should enable conventional growers to stop the hazardous and controversial use of the HHP herbicide paraquat to desiccate pineapple foliage after harvest so that the rotting leaves no longer attract stableflies. Read more here.

Our role in sustainability

The agroecological movement highlights how we all have a role to play in making our food and farming systems more sustainable. We can do this by actively involving consumers and food companies in making better and ecologically informed choices. This includes which food we buy, where we buy it from and how the food is grown, instead of just considering the ‘bottom’ economic line. I would urge British supermarkets which import Costa Rican pineapples to provide practical support for more pineapple farmers to try out agroecological alternatives – but as concerned consumers and citizens we should also be prepared to pay a few pence more for a more sustainable pineapple!