At a recent European regional dialogue, policymakers, researchers, farmers, civil society organization leaders, and others gathered to discuss “The Politics of Knowledge,” a new compendium from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, and agroecology’s role in helping to solve interconnected global crises.
“We really need a different paradigm, it’s not just about tweaking the current system to make it a bit more effective,” says Emile Frison, Interim Coordinator of the Agroecology Coalition and Member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).
According to Frison, a different paradigm for global food production must have diversified agroecological systems to address economic, environmental, health, social, and cultural objectives simultaneously, “and not work in silos anymore.”
The current food system is responsible for one-third of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions and is the primary driver of global biodiversity loss. A 2019 study published in The Lancet estimated that, globally, poor diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risk factor. Meanwhile, there is a crisis in generational renewal: one-third of farmers in the European Union are aged 65 years or older, and the average age of U.S. farmers has been rising for four decades.
Panelists agreed that agroecology can provide the transformational change needed to solve these multiple, interconnected global crises.
“We are now in a position to really start changing at scale,” says Frison.
A 2019 study by the University of Gloucestershire, published in the Journal of Rural Studies, showed significant economic gains for farmers using agroecological versus conventional practices: income per kilogram of milk increased by 110 percent for dairy farmers in the Netherlands, income per family worker increased by 73 percent for farmers in France, and gross margins per hectare increased by 75 to 80 percent for farmers in Ireland.
Frison says that agroecological practices not only boost income but also promote resilience and stability on the farm—and this is already happening at scale across the globe.
Millions of hectares of farmer-managed natural regeneration are re-greening the Sahel region of Africa. Seventy-two organizations have come together to form an Alliance for Agroecology in West Africa. And more national policies are supporting agroecology including Mexico, Senegal, Nicaragua, India, France, and Denmark.
But “if agroecology works, both for large and small farms, why isn’t it more widely adopted…if the evidence is there, why isn’t there more action?” says Nina Moeller, Associate Professor at the Center for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience at Coventry University in the United Kingdom.
Agroecology remains marginalized within the agricultural industry despite on-the-ground evidence supporting its value and potential. According to Moeller, this is because “we’re locked into the existing system” of industrial food production.
“There is a vast infrastructure that is in place, which makes it so much easier and so much more convenient for all actors to just continue with business as usual,” says Moeller.
Frison says that large multinational corporations controlling the global seed, fertilizer, pesticide, and grain trade have a heavy influence on agricultural policy, “and they have an interest in maintaining the current system because it’s what serves their needs.”
And according to Lili Balogh, Farmer and President of Agroecology Europe, agrarian education teaches mostly about the benefits of industrial agriculture, further strengthening this model.
“The big corporations are mostly financing these institutions and research centers,” says Balogh. “They portray agroecology as an idealistic and unreal narrative that is not productive enough, when in reality it is quite the opposite as real evidence and scientific data shows.”
To overcome these systemic barriers, Moeller says that it’s critical to expand the industry’s understanding of what counts as evidence. This means valuing not only qualitative data but also evidence from the ground—from farmers, Indigenous peoples, and social movements as well as researchers and policymakers working in agroecology.
“This evidence is abundant,” says Moeller, “but it is marginalized in decisionmaking processes … power dynamics determine much of what is understood and disseminated as evidence.”
Christophe Larose, Head of Sustainable Agriculture / International Partnerships at the European Commission, thinks building partnerships with different stakeholders, from the private sector to civil society organizations and research actors, is key to supporting a wider transition to agroecological practices.
“We need to not oversimplify what agroecology can mean but make it land on more concrete aspects. For instance, to accept and to engage with partners if we want to move ahead with a transition that is not an easy one, but it’s certainly needed,” says Larose.
And these partnerships must include conversations with farmers, says Alfred Grand, Farmer and Owner of Grand Farm in Austria. “It’s important to show farmers that there are solutions.”
Throughout the dialogue, panelists agreed that it’s critical to take an inclusive, participatory, and transdisciplinary approach to producing evidence for agroecology.
“Systemic problems require systemic solutions, and so we need multiple perspectives and input from many different disciplines, but also from points of view that are non-disciplinary,” says Moeller. This includes the lived experience and cultural history of farmers, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and various types of practitioners using agroecological practices across the world.
Frison is hopeful as more and more countries recognize the value of agroecological systems. He points to the lessons learned from global supply chain disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis in Ukraine.
“More local, shorter value chains in more diversified systems have really been able to overcome a lot of the shortcomings in the crises in many countries,” says Frison. “The evidence is there.”
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Photo courtesy of Derek Liang, Unsplash