In a recent and fiery attack on U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) policy, Kip Tom (the Trump appointed Ambassador to the FAO), expressed his concern that a growing number of the 193 U.N. member countries did “not share the basic values and core assumptions on which we operate here in the United States.”
Addressing to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2020 Agricultural Outlook Forum, Ambassador Tom pulled out all the stops to discredit the democratic and scientifically informed work of the U.N. body, going so far as to say that agroecology, which is on the rise within FAO policy is “an explicit rejection of the very idea of progress.”
Ambassador Tom invoked the spectre of famine and ongoing locust plagues in East Africa, in order to argue that farmers need to embrace ‘innovation’ and make sure that their businesses have ‘the ability to scale’ in order to stay competitive. This aggressive lobbying pushes the American agribusiness agenda by deflecting attention from the facts: that myopic visions of progress have ensured that the majority of proud American family farmers have been pushed off their land over the past 60 years to make way for ever larger farms, growing ever fewer products (mostly just corn and soya). The tragic irony being that in today’s world, we grow too much food already. One in every three people are overweight, while half this many (one in six) go hungry. In the USA and abroad, the dietary related diseases – such as diabetes and chronic heart disease – which are associated with the oversupply of highly processed derivatives of this model of monocrop farming constitute a global health crisis.
In 2017 the costs of diabetes treatment in the USA alone amounted to a staggering USD$327 billion – almost four times the total profits made by all American farmers that year. This is clearly neither just, nor profitable.
Meanwhile, the American countryside, once a rich tapestry of farms, grasslands, rivers and glades, has been cleared not only of the majority of its family farmers but also much of its unique wildlife to make way for the so-called ‘innovation’ that Ambassador Tom seems so proud of. Sadly, these trends are not unique to the U.S. and do not keep to national borders: The huge oceanic dead zone caused by U.S. fertilizer run-off into the Gulf of Mexico, is but one sad example.
Reflecting on this, the question to the U.S. Ambassador is this: If, in spite of the plethora of high-tech farming technologies available to your farmers, a well-resourced country such as your own could not prevent radical job losses, a national health crisis or the poisoning of vast tracts of open ocean, how can this approach be the right solution for the rest of the world?
Ambassador Tom is also the CEO of Tom Farms, which is one of Bayer/Monsanto’s biggest seed growers, and the distasteful answer is that for agribusiness lobbyists, money comes first, irrespective of the social or ecological cost. For big American companies such as Tom Farms, there are great profits to be made in convincing family farmers in Africa and elsewhere to buy into this myopic vision because, as in America, these companies will not pick up the tab for the real costs.
Therefore, while it may be true that the emerging trend within global food policy is to reject the basic values and core assumptions of American agribusiness (and for good reason), this policy direction is far from a rejection of America’s proud family farmers and even less so a rejection of progress. Quite the opposite.
So what is agroecology, and why has it so ruffled Mr. Tom’s feathers?
At its core, agroecology is a science-based movement which seeks to advance the types of innovation capable of reversing the trend which has seen family farmers being pushed off their land, both in the U.S., and across the globe. Agroecology seeks to mainstream innovations that keep family farmers on the land while restoring the ecosystems that support them. Far from having all the solutions, or being stuck in the past, the potentially productive and highly sustainable models of family farming that agroecology advocates are at the cutting edge of agricultural innovation. Hence it is unsurprising that the FAO, along with a growing number of its member countries, is realizing that this important work needs to be mainstreamed into global food policy.
Much like the kind of technology that has put unimaginable computing power into the mobile phones of billions of farmers across the planet, agroecology believes that when it comes to game changing innovation, bigger is not always better.
The compelling vision that agroecology presents for the future of agriculture is a vision in which technological and social innovation comes together to keep farmers on their land, while celebrating local food cultures and local, context-specific wisdom that responsibly manages what remains of Earth’s fragile ecosystems.
Decades of painstaking scientific research from around the world present a compelling array of such technologies: digitized peer-to-peer learning networks, advancements in satellite sensing and GIS support to enable sustainable land management, digital trading platforms that help localize food economies and shorten food value chains putting more money in farmers’ pockets, and entomological breakthroughs that are leading advances in the breeding of natural predators for pest control which render carcinogenic insecticides redundant, to name but a few. The magic of agroecology is the agility with which it is able to combine the cutting edge with the traditional, the high-end with the grass-roots, adapting its approaches based on the needs of the farmers on the ground – irrespective of whether they are farming in Minnesota, Manilla or Malawi.
However, the reason why agroecology is gaining such momentum globally is that it recognizes that the 21st century requires innovations that transcend the myopic focus on production to include social innovations that transform the way that food is traded, processed and consumed.
As former FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva had earlier indicated, “We need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process.”