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Time To Go Agro?
A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them
By this, I mean agroecology, a term I’ve written about before here.
What is it?
There are long and short definitions but I refer to agroecology as “applying ecological principles to agriculture by shunning synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and by placing greater weight on social values and local knowledge” for people who are outside the often jargon-filled realm of food/climate/agriculture.
There isn’t a single fixed meaning of agroecology but this July 2019 report from the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition does a great job of breaking down what constitutes agroecology.
There are also overlapping practices between agroecology and regenerative agriculture, conservation agriculture, and holistic farming. I wrote about it in a previous issue.
All these practices value diversification, soil health, intercropping, biodiversity, etc, but the key thing with agroecology is its emphasis on “socially just, economically fair, and ecologically resilient” models.
“Regenerative agriculture is not interchangeable with agroecology, especially in today’s iterations, in particular in the United States, where positive changes to soil management are being implemented but deeper structural problems in food systems related to equity, rights, and justice are left unaddressed,” according to the report this issue is gonna focus on.
Is there a controversy?
You bet! Now that pretty much all the important folks have agreed our food systems are broken, the race is on to determine how we’re going to fix them.
As I’ve written before in The New Humanitarian:
“Tensions centre on rival visions of the future – between those who believe food production needs to be intensified to feed a growing population but to do it sustainably through technological innovation, and those who prefer smaller-scale, eco-friendly practices together with a broader overhaul of the political and economic influences on the food chain.”
If you can’t guess it yet, proponents of agroecology such as farmers’ organisation La Via Campesina and Slow Food movement, fit into the latter group. France, and to a certain extent Europe, are supporters.
The opponents? Industrialised nations such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the United States whose vision of agricultural development generally falls into the former group. They see agroecology as anti-science, a promotion of subsistence agriculture and anathema to what modern farming should be. This speech by a former US ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome should give you an idea.
This Feb 2021 paper in Frontiers in Science provides some fascinating insight into these battles in the UN space, particularly over the HLPE report I just cited above.
Why are we talking about this now?
Because there’s a new report this week from The Global Alliance for the Future of Food, an alliance of 31 philanthropic foundations that includes Heinrich Böll Stiftung, IKEA Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Oak Foundation.
In the foreword, executive director Ruth Richardson said:
“The vast potential for agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways to contribute to transformational change remains highly contested despite the vast body of evidence exposing the cracks in and failures of the industrialized food system.”
“Many critical stakeholders — donors, scientists, and policymakers in particular — still choose to distance themselves from agroecology, voicing skepticism about its viability, profitability, and scalability; its ability to feed the world; as well as its perceived “ideological” nature.*”
The Alliance said it has been advocating for their adoption for almost a decade now and have been repeatedly asked to defend these approaches with questions such as - “Show us the evidence.” “We need more data.” “We need science-based decision-making.”
What does the report say?
It identified five dominant myths or narratives that look down on these practices and debunked them. It also acknowledged, right at the beginning, that the foundation of agroecology and regenerative approaches “lies in indigenous food systems”.
1. They can’t feed the world because they aren’t productive.
This is a two-in-one argument so let’s unpack it one-by-one.
First, feeding the world.
Yes, there are far too many hungry people in the world and that is not acceptable. But, “the problem of hunger in the world is not a problem of scarcity, it is a problem of distribution, poverty, lack of access, lack of power, inequality, and waste,” the report said, and I agree. See more below.
Second, they aren’t productive.
Not entirely true. Some research suggests that on a per-crop basis, yields are lower in agroecological farms by about 20% on average compared to conventional farms. However, studies done on a whole-farm basis show that these farms, where a range of diverse crops are grown under agroecological systems, are more productive by as much as 80%.
Also, the narrow focus on productivity per hectare has contributed to a malnutrition crisis.
2. They aren’t scalable.
The narrative is that agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways are “marginal, effective only at small scale, and incapable of producing food at greater levels”.
However, the debate is really about the meaning of scalability - whether it’s scalable to a large number of farmers on a large number of farms covering a large amount of area or if it is a single farm scaling to massive size employing only a few people.
The report argues that successful scaling, in the former sense, is “happening right now”, pointing to Andhra Pradesh Community-managed Natural Farming (APCNF), the world’s largest agroecology program in terms of number of farmers enrolled.
In 2016, when it started, the program had 40,000 farmers. By 2020, it had grown into 700,000 farmers and farm workers practising natural farming. The 2021 enrollment target is 1.05 million farmers and farm workers.
In context, Andhra Pradesh has an estimated 6 million farmers and 2 million landless farm workers. The program aims to enroll them all in the future.
The report also said more than half of the farming families in Cuba have been trained in agroecology. Coupled with agrarian reforms, more than 70% of land - 3.5 million hectares - is now managed by cooperatives and family farms. In the early 1990s, 80% of agricultural land was state managed.
3. They will keep farmers poor.
This narrative assumes that small-scale farming is inherently inefficient and that mechanisation or technological innovationis non-existent or actively discouraged and IMHO, is possibly one of the most pernicious accusations against agroecology.
From the report:
“By portraying peasants, traditional rural communities, and agroecological farming as backward, low-quality, inefficient, and unproductive, those with political and/or economic power can demotivate food producers and rural communities interested in agroecology. This narrative also serves to present large producers and industrial forms of agriculture as modern, productive, tidy, entrepreneurial, and representative of so-called “good” farming — insisting it is in farmers’ (and society’s) best interests to minimize the number of people unfortunate enough to be farmers.”
Again, not true, the authors said.
Thirteen case studies from Europe (behind a paywall, sigh) showed agroecological farming can lead to higher farm incomes than conventional or industrial farming and also create more employment per hectare, use less fossil fuel, and converse biodiversity, it said.
4. They can’t solve the climate, biodiversity and soil crises.
The report again pointed to APNCF where farmers are adapting to increased incidents of drought by capturing water vapour from the air, which allows them to grow crops throughout the entire year. Another method include using cow manure and mulch to maintain soil moisture.
A study by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) found APCNF farms with similar or even higher yields produce significantly fewer emissions than conventional farms. In fact, in three of the six crops (chilies, cotton, and maize), emissions on a typical APCNF farms could be less than half that of conventional farm emissions.
“Narrowly focused, technology-centric solutions and offset-trading regimes are also places where those with political and economic power derive benefits while smallholder farmers and food producers often do not.”
Geo-engineering or large-scale carbon capture sound exiting but “they ultimately fail to address the underlying problems and uphold the status quo”, the report said.
“Systemic problems require systemic solutions.”
5. They can’t transform food systems.
Systems transformation is about “challenging deep structures of the status quo” and these approaches are all about food sovereignty and agency, which is about the democratisation of agriculture and food. So yeah, they can transform the systems, if given the chance.
What does Thin think?
“The agroecological transition will most likely be chaotic, and certainly not linear,” according to Agroecology Europe.
In this way, agroecology is like a multi-party democracy. It’s messy. It’s a spectrum rather than a definitive set of things. It’s site-specific. It’s not a silver bullet. It’s massively misunderstood. And it’s harder than many of the one-size-fits-all approaches. But the fundamental principles are sound and the rewards could be great, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t give it a shot.
I also like the fact that feminism is a common thread in agroecological and food sovereignty movements and I see parallels in these movements with the call for social justice and political change.
Oh and before I get hammered for being so totally biased, let me just remind you that the whole point of the report was that these approaches should be considered in policy, financing and public spaces. Not that these are the only approaches to take. You can see the difference if you want to.
Food for Thought
“Accelerating food systems transformation requires decolonising and democratizing knowledge systems within education, research, and innovation.”
“There is a substantial amount of published scientific evidence that goes unnoticed by English speakers, as it has been published in other language.”
“The Green Revolution gave rise to a colonial form of science that marginalized traditional and Indigenous knowledge rooted in systems thinking. Instead, it elevated a positivist, reductionist approach to research and evidence that is poorly suited to addressing the systemic crises we face, let alone sustainably managing an agroecosystem.”
“In Western science, certain kinds of expertise and scientific disciplines are elevated over others. Many benefits of diverse, agroecological, and regenerative approaches are complex and difficult to quantify, in part because they are slow, long-term processes. Easily quantifiable data is often given preference over more complex systems dynamics that are harder to assess.”
The 103-page report is here.
But you might prefer a much shorter multimedia piece instead.
For those who want to look deeper into some of the citations, there are supplementary references running more than four hundred entries - yay for spreadsheet nerds.
Speaking of myths and narratives, the Open Society European Policy Institute is launching a report on the Spanish pork sector next Tuesday, Dec 14.
Tune in if you’re interested and you might find a familiar face there.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.