Jules Pretty on growing more food with less impact

“We want a kind of agriculture that’s productive,” he said, “but we can’t afford to damage the environmental resources that agriculture largely relies upon.”

Jules Pretty: We want a kind of agriculture that’s productive. We need it, there are a billion people hungry in the world today. But, at the same time, we’re running out of planet, and we can’t afford to be damaging the environmental resources that agriculture largely relies upon.

Jules Pretty is an agricultural expert at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. He’s an author of a late 2009 Royal Society report on the science of global agriculture.

Jules Pretty: What we’re saying is, look at the system first of all, and see how you can manipulate it. If you can get spiders and beetles to eat all your pests, then great. Do that first. If you can’t, then you might have to use a pesticide.

He illustrated the point, with an example from East Africa.

Jules Pretty: Scientists working on the chemical signals that plants give off realized that if you had the right kind of grasses next to your maize fields, those grasses repelled the pests that would normally come to eat your maize. So if you have a mixed system, and design it very carefully, you don’t need to use any pesticides to kill the pests. That’s a way of getting productive agricultural systems without having to cause harm to the environment, but you really need top science because you need to understand the relationships.

Pretty believes this approach, if used globally, would cut down on farming’s environmental impacts and increase food production. He added that global food production will have to increase by 50 – 100% in the next 30 to 40 years, in order to feed Earth’s growing population.

Dr. Pretty calls this new approach to farming “agroecology.”

Jules Pretty: Ecology is all about interactions between aspects of natural systems. So agroecology is all about linkages between different parts of the farm. It’s the relationships of predation, relationships between insects and plants, plants and their environment. We’re saying, if you look at all of those things together, there are ways that we can manipulate and change those to lead to better outcomes for farmers.

He said that agroecology is not the same as organic farming, because organic farming is bound by certain legal restrictions. It also requires expensive certification.

Jules Pretty: Organic farming follows certain rules that have been established. Agroecology says if you are going to use fertilizers, use them carefully. Let’s augment natural processes of biological control, and not destroy and undermine them.

Pretty said that investments in agriculture have been dwindling over the past 20 years, and increased investments will be necessary in order to achieve food security for a population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

Lindsay Patterson