“An Unhappy Marriage With An Addiction Problem”
My favourite analogy gets a crucial update
After this issue, I’m taking a summer break to switch off from work and go hug family members. I’ll be back with more in September. Hope everyone gets some much-deserved time off.
Last week, I wrote about the incredible ladies at Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) and the awesome farmers they are supporting. This week, I bring you a Q&A with Rachel Bezner Kerr, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Global Development at Cornell University.
Rachel is one half of the determined duo who set up SFHC more than two decades ago. I met her at the ANH Academy 2023 in Malawi and after hearing her describe the relationship between climate and agriculture as “an unhappy marriage with an addiction problem” during a plenary session, I knew I had to interview her.
This discussion has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Q: You built on my “unhappy marriage” analogy at ANH and said this relationship between agriculture and climate change is “not just an unhappy marriage, but an unhappy marriage with an addiction problem”. Can you elaborate on this?
A: We know climate change is affecting agriculture and food systems very severely. We also know agriculture and food systems are contributing something like a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally… and it is fueled by this addiction to fossil fuels.
The current food system is highly dependent on fossil fuels, whether it's synthetic fertiliser, the application of that fertiliser, pesticide use, the production of hybrid seeds, the transportation across thousands of kilometres across oceans, or the plastic packaging. The whole system is underpinned by fossil fuels.
To get off it is going to require a very significant transformation, but it's absolutely necessary. If we're going to survive - and we're seeing these extreme temperatures over the last few weeks around the globe - we need to change the way we grow, produce, and distribute food.
Agroecology provides that alternative, which includes getting off of fossil fuels and having a system that relies on renewable resources that are locally available.
Q: Do you think one of the things we might be going wrong with how we’re trying to transform food systems is this failure to acknowledge or confront this linkage with fossil fuels?
A: Absolutely and the most glaring silence is around synthetic fertiliser. There's a real reluctance to look at synthetic fertiliser and pesticides and their contribution, and the need to transform our system so as not to rely on them.
Q: Let’s get to agroecology. I’ve always struggled to define it in a snappy way but you managed to during the plenary session. You said it’s “people- and nature-friendly farming”. Can you please talk more about that?
A: It's a food system that's good for people and good for nature. Think about it as farming that helps nature, helps animals, helps water systems and trees, but also helps people.
Many of those different agricultural strategies (such as regenerative agriculture and climate-smart agriculture) have some overlap in practices with agroecology, whether it's mulching or adding organic material to the soil. But I think the core difference is that agroecology addresses power inequities in the food system. It has social principles, not just the environmental aspects of farming.
So questions of equity in the food system, whether it's between men and women, what the farmer is getting for their crop, whether people have a say in what kind of food that they have access to, and the principles around governance of food system participation. These are central to an agroecological approach.
A rallying cry not to look back but to go forward with farming, by Malawian farmers who are part of a project by the local farmer-led non-profit Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC). Video by me. Many thanks to Charles Kabena for the translation.
Q: One of the things that I always come across whenever I talk to people is that, “Oh, there's just not enough evidence or research on benefits of agroecology. There isn't enough scientific evidence.” Is that a fair criticism or do you get frustrated because there is research, just not in the way that research is defined in the West?
A: I have two ways of thinking about that. On the one hand, I have heard that expressed many times by Malawian government officials and that I do find frustrating because we have been generating a lot of evidence that is tailored to the Malawian context. Sometimes, the evidence is not enough because it doesn't tackle the power dynamics in the food system that keep countries and places locked into the industrial model.
At the same time, it's true that agroecology has gotten very little research money. There have been studies in the last few years that have suggested that something like 2% of research has been allocated to agroecology. So I do think there's a lot more we can learn about agroecology in terms of scientific research.
Despite getting so few dollars, there is substantial evidence that this approach can lead to improvements in food security, livelihoods, and health, and have beneficial impacts in the environment.
So do I get frustrated? Yes, but I think it just signals the overall picture that the vast amount of money is going towards industrial agriculture. That includes promoting it and pushing narratives that discount agroecology as a viable system. (Agroecology) has been getting more criticism in the last decade and I think that signals that those who promote industrial agriculture see it as a real threat.
I think that actually speaks somewhat to its increased success on the global stage. A decade ago, people weren’t interviewing me about agroecology. It wasn't getting any airtime in the media. That's really changed. It’s changed in the UN system and in government funding calls in that the term is actually showing up. I think the increasing virulence against it is because it's seen as a threat.
Q: Is it also a bit of vicious cycle - if you don't get the funding, you don't get to do the research and people say, “There's not enough research to warrant funding”?
A: There is but I feel that cycle is being broken on the international front. With the UN High Level Panel of Experts report on agroecology, I was one of the co-authors and there was a substantial amount of evidence documenting agroecology’s potential to address food security and nutrition.
Following that report, we published our review of the evidence in a highly respected scientific journal, Global Food Security. In the recent IPCC report, it was also highlighted that there is substantial evidence that agroecological approaches are a viable form of climate change adaptation.
Q: Speaking of IPCC, you were the coordinating lead author for the chapter on climate change and fruit systems. Can you just take us very briefly through some of the findings?
A: Yeah, I had the honour to serve as one of three coordinating lead authors and I worked with a team of 15 authors. It was a volunteer role with a really diverse group of scientists from around the world. It took us three and a half years. We assessed all the high quality literature on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptation within food systems and it included forestry and fisheries.
It's a peer reviewed system where you write drafts, post it up for public consultation and respond in writing to all of the comments we received. So it's a very rigorous process. It was about the consumption side of food production and the impacts.
We found that no part of the globe is untouched in terms of climate change impacts on food systems, and it will only get worse unless we make substantial cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and keep below 1.5 degrees Celsius. I don't want to use emotional language but there is very, very compelling evidence.
Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Arctic, and small islands, are at greater risk but there are also groups like smallholder farmers, women and children, low income households, indigenous people, farm workers, are at greater risk. Even in the United States, where you have lower risk overall, those groups will be harder hit.
Then we did an extensive review of a whole host of adaptation options, including agroecology, for their feasibility and effectiveness. The good news is there are many different options out there that can reduce risks with many other co-benefits. So they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support health, food security, livelihoods, and the underlying biodiversity and ecosystem services.
That's where the agroecology piece came in. If governments take seriously this clarion call that climate change impacts are very, very severe and need to be prepared now, there are many different options they can draw on to bolster their food systems. In the report, we emphasise the need for those options to be co-designed with the most marginalised and vulnerable groups.
Q: You also said you got into agroecology because the problems you were looking at when you were doing your research in Malawi were multifaceted. Can you talk more about this?
A: Esther (Lupafya, co-founder of SFHC) introduced me to very food insecure women farmers around Ekwendeni hospital (in northern Malawi), and I began this research on manure use in vegetable gardens. I quickly realised that manure really wasn't accessible for a lot of food insecure households because they didn't have animals.
Esther also told me they had very high rates of malnourished kids being admitted to the hospital. This was in 1997, right after the subsidy programme had been removed from fertilisers, which were very expensive, and farmers were really struggling.
We interviewed these families and learned farmers couldn't afford to buy synthetic fertiliser, which they were primarily relying on. They didn't really know or remember the traditional ways of improving soil fertility. They were also very reliant on maize as their main food crop. But we also learned that when they did produce a harvest, sometimes the husband would sell the crop and use the money for alcohol, and if the wife complained, she risked being beaten.
Esther and I began brainstorming what strategies might work to address these problems and the two of us designed the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project. I found research done in Malawi on “organic matter technologies”. That was the language they used at the time.
I didn't call it agroecology. It was basically legume intercrops that could be rotated with maize and serve as an alternative to synthetic fertiliser. But we also wanted to include a portion that looked at issues of nutrition, child feeding, going beyond just maize, and gender relations.
That was my first interaction with thinking about a holistic approach to food systems because we are hearing these stories that weren't just about soils or a lack of crop diversity. They were multifaceted.
Q: When you were talking about the problems being multifaceted, I was thinking perhaps one of the problems with the way we are dealing with hunger and malnutrition is the focus on a single aspect, like increasing yields, improving the soil, or providing Vitamin A or Vitamin D.
A: Yes. As a global community, and scientifically, there is a tendency to focus in on one problem to exclude other aspects, but that's a very troubling approach to problem solving, because the world doesn't work that way. So you risk creating more problems if you solely focus on one solution.
Q: What would you say are some of the biggest learning points from all the years of research?
A: If farmers are going to take up these approaches, it’s crucial that they experiment with them on their own terms. It's not a cookie cutter approach where you say, “Here's the seed, here's this, go do it in your field,” but really, “Here's a range of ideas for you to try. Here are some basic principles. What would you like to experiment with?” That's been the most effective for us.
So one thing is this farmer experimentation at the centre. The other is being very attentive to power inequities at multiple levels. So it's not just about what's happening in the field, but what's happening in the home and what's happening in the community. If you want to make a difference in terms of food security and nutrition.
There are lots of empirical findings on the details of what works. For example, we found crop diversification is a crucial thing in terms of improving food security and dietary diversity. Alongside that, addressing gender dynamics in the home is really important to see benefits in nutrition for household members.
Q: Last question, what would be the starting point or for those who care and want to change?
A: Well, I think it's really important to hold on to hope. Then, looking at your own diets is a good starting point. Although that can be challenging, think about reducing our meat and dairy consumption if we're higher income. Eat more fruits and vegetables, which is good for us anyways.
Then buy more locally and in season. Try to find out more about the producers that we're buying from: are they trying to use more sustainable systems and are we buying from people who are looking after those working on their firms?
Then look at the organisations and social movements that are working to transform the system. The good news is there are organisations like that all over the world. It doesn't matter if you're in Hong Kong, London, New York or Malawi, there are organisations locally trying to support more equitable, ecological agriculture. Support them financially, their access to land, and join forces with them.
Fundraiser for Kite Tales
The Kite Tales, a non-profit storytelling project that I co-founded years ago with Kelly, is fundraising for a second year to support storytellers in Myanmar. You can find the stories we have already published here.
Firetree Philanthropy, a donor who is funding us for a second year, also did a short video interview with us if you want to know more about the project.
Three Good Things to Listen
I’m going out - temporarily - in a blaze of self promotion because… why not? Below are three recent podcasts that featured yours truly.
Farm Gate podcast where I discussed the investigation into Copa-Cogeca and Jimmy Woodrow from Pasture for Life provided a really interesting comparison with the National Farmers’ Union in the UK.
Land and Climate Review podcast where I again spoke at length about the Copa-Cogeca investigation as well as linkages between food systems and climate change.
Aspen UK podcast based on the webinar a couple of weeks ago where I queried veteran investor Jim Mellon on alternative proteins and whether they will truly save us.