Wetenschap - 1 februari 2001

Ecological agriculture gives farmers their identity back

Ecological agriculture gives farmers their identity back

Ecological agriculture is the way forward in agriculture. This is the firm belief of the Brazilian couple Dr Pedro Boff and Dr Mari In?s Carissimi Boff, who both conducted PhD research at Plant Research International on biological control of plant diseases and insects. They graduated on 31 January, he in the field of Biological Farming Systems and she in Entomology.

"Conventional farmers in Brazil and in European countries use lots of chemical pesticides to eradicate insect pests that damage crops. These pesticides are dangerous for the environment and human health. Luckily more and more farmers are realizing that they should fight pests in a biological way," says Mari. The agronomist is optimistic about the future of ecological farming in her home country. Working at the State University of Santa Catarina in Brazil before she came to Wageningen, she has remained in close contact with ecological farmers who are producing crops without the use of pesticides. "It takes time to get farmers thinking in an ecological way, but when they see their relatives dying as a result of toxic pesticides, they will come over," believes Mari.

Concern

Her husband Pedro, who is looking forward to going back to his former work in organic agriculture at the Institute of Agricultural Research and Rural Extension in Santa Catarina State, is less optimistic: "In most European Countries and frequently in Brazil I see that ecological agriculture is mainly guided by a fairly elite market and does not concern society as a whole. Who is going to feed the poor, the hungry people? Ecological agriculture must fit in with the demands of society. Obviously ecological practices, which can help prevent problems like diseases and pests or improve the health of the soil and preserve biodiversity, could reduce the amount of pesticides in the environment, but this is not enough to promote equitable and sustainable development. And ecological agriculture can be just as profitable as conventional agriculture. In my own region in the south of Brazil, family-run farms that switched to ecological agriculture can sell more crops and cattle in the local markets than before."

Attractive

When they return to their home region, Mari and Pedro want to promote ecological agriculture. Mari: "I am already in touch with organic farmers. I am sure I can help. Also a lot of students are interested in working on this topic. Many small- and medium-scale farmers in Brazil are willing to change over completely to ecological agriculture, says Mari. On the other hand, most of the big landholders regard agriculture from a purely economic perspective and do not care about the environment or the people working on their land. They will keep on using pesticides and pollute the soil and ground water, Mari fears.

A way however to make organic farming more profitable and attractive, is to sell the products directly to the consumers, says Mari, and most importantly: "The ecological farmers I know feel they have regained their identity. They are satisfied knowing their products are safe for the consumers."

Hugo Bouter

Pedro Boff: Epidemiology and biological control of grey mould in annual strawberry crops. Supervisors: Professor Arina van Bruggen, chair Biological Farming Systems Group, Dr J. K?hl, Plant Research International.

Mari In?s Carissimi Boff: The entomopathogenic nematode Heterorhabditis megidis: host searching behaviour, infectivity and reproduction. Supervisors: Professor Joop van Lenteren, chair Entomology, Dr P.H. Smits, Plant Research International.

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