Article by Monica Evans
It’s entirely possible to shore up food and nutrition security whilst boosting biodiversity, ecosystem restoration, and climate mitigation. As a farming approach inspired by natural ecosystems, agroecology offers a clear pathway for addressing all of these global challenges and crises simultaneously.
This transformative potential was highlighted at an Agroecology Theme Day, organized by the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology (Agroecology TPP) and the Agroecology Coalition. The event was hosted under the framework of the Science Summit at the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York on 14 September 2023.
It’s particularly relevant right now, as nations prepare for the 28th UN Climate Conference in UAE – in which agri-food system transformation is “expected to do some really heavy lifting,” said Fergus Sinclair, chief scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and a co-convenor of the Agroecology TPP.
But the benefits of such a shift won’t be realized without decisive action, he said. “We hear a lot about food system transformation, but most of what we hear is not actually a whole transformation, but just incremental improvements to a model that is essentially unsustainable. Transformation of agriculture means moving away from that model.”
Widening the field
Several speakers offered examples of promoting such a shift, at various levels of governance. Natalie Broadhurst, the deputy permanent representative of France to the United Nations, talked about action being taken in her country to transition dominant food production models towards agroecology, through “ambitious public policy that involves a lot of partners on the ground. It’s an effort that is rooted in the diversity of our territories in their singularity, their uniqueness, but also based on the dissemination of knowledge and innovation.”
Gabriel Ferrero y de Loma Osorio, the chair of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), spoke of the need to advance the global political consensus on the topic – which CFS itself is working to do through its food security policy recommendations. Alex Awiti, a senior agroecology policy and advocacy advisor at CIFOR-ICRAF, shared insights on a tracking tool, currently in development, to monitor the national implementation of these recommendations, and emphasized the centrality of speaking the language of policymakers: “We believe that there is no other way you can push this,” he said.
Irish Baguilat, the coordinator of the UN Decade of Family Farming and Women Farmers’ Agenda at the Asian Farmers’ Association (AFA), spoke about the importance of two-way collaboration between farmer organizations and researchers to build the knowledge base on agroecological options. “For example, it’s the farmers who are the holders of knowledge on neglected and underutilized crops, and this has been used [in our region] as an interface where farmers and researchers can work together,” she said. “I think such creative interfaces should be replicated and multiplied.”
Ferrero y de Loma Osorio said it was critical to reward those farmers that are adopting, or already using, agroecological practices. “If we want to speed up the transition towards more just and sustainable food systems, it is unacceptable that smallholder and family farmers operate in an extremely imbalanced space,” he said.
H.E. Ambassador Maritza Chan-Valverde, Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the UN, noted that “it is unconceivable that those who produce our food could be among the poorest in the world.” She then invited more countries to be part of building solutions for the strengthening of agroecology as a basis of the development of sustainable food systems.
Several speakers also said it was critical to build the evidence base for agroecology – which requires more thorough and holistic approaches to agri-food system comparisons than those that currently prevail. “The key challenge to upscaling agroecology is being able to provide policymakers, donors, development actors, and farmers with ways of measuring performance that allow for the fair comparison with alternatives,” said Mary Crossland, an associate scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF.
“Common practice has been to measure a narrow set of metrics, often focusing on productivity and economic performance – and agroecological systems provide environmental and social benefits, not just economic ones, so assessing them just in terms of production and economic benefits misses the whole point,” she said. “Likewise, assessing conventional systems without including those longer-term impacts on social and environmental dimensions can lead to degradation. So what we need is ways to measure performance of different approaches holistically and to compare them on a level playing field.”
Beyond the farm
This hoped-for shift, however, “cannot just be a technical transformation,” said Jemimah Njuki, the chief of economic empowerment at UN Women. “We also need transformation in the power systems within our food systems.” That means looking carefully at key equity issues such as food distribution and access, income, gender, and climate change impacts, she said. “These inequalities are happening by choice, not by chance. So, as we think of agroecology – not as a new thing, but as a really important way of producing and managing our food, our soils, and the environment – we really must also talk about how we make sure that there is equity and fairness within that process.”
H.E. Prof. Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s ambassador to Belgium and the European Union, spoke about global inequities and their impact on African countries’ abilities to foster agroecological transitions. “When it comes to trade, for example, the global trade rules – because of the power dynamics and the economic systems – often favour elite nations,” he said, “and that’s disadvantaging the poor countries in international markets. Fair trade practices and addressing economic inequalities between nations are essential components of international equity efforts.”
Diamane Diome, Minister Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of Senegal to the UN, stressed that “the present climate crisis has added to already existing challenges. This is why we must pay attention to agroecology, for it provides one of the fittest responses, by promoting more equitable food systems.”
Maritza Chan-Valverde, permanent representative of Costa Rica to the UN. Photo by CIFOR-ICRAF
Participants in the event were also invited to discuss key challenges and opportunities for the implementation of agroecology-based food system transformation. A wide range of issues and ideas were floated, including climate impacts on water resources, the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge, the need for village-level policy advocacy programs to promote and boost agroecology uptake among local communities, and the need for private companies to align their practices with agroecological principles and work in collaboration with governments and other stakeholders to promote sustainable agriculture.
Whilst the list of actions to be taken towards securing an agroecological future remains long, many speakers took heart from the amount of progress made already. In her reaction to one of the presentations, Mariana Wongtschowski, director of Caring for the Earth at Porticus Foundation, recalled her first encounter with agroecology in Brazil as an agronomy student. “Back then, it was not just alternative – it was beyond alternative: we were not taught about it, and there was barely anything to read about it,” she said. “So we’ve come a long way… And we also know we have a very long way to go.”
You can access the presentation slides on:
- Evidence on relationships between diversity, productivity and resilience (by Fergus Sinclair)
- Tracking national implementation of CFS Policy Recommendations (by Alex Awiti)
- Measuring what matters: Guiding principles for holistic assessment of agri-food systems (by Mary Crossland)
You can also access the results of the online break-out sessions on:
- Policies and government actions to scale up agroecology
- The role of process indicators in building more equitable food systems
From left to right: Oliver Oliveros, Agroecology Coalition coordinator; Natalie Broadhurst, deputy permanent representative of France to the United Nations; Jemimah Njuki, chief of economic empowerment, UN Women; Fergus Sinclair, chief scientist, CIFOR-ICRAF and co-convenor, Agroecology TPP
This event was organised by the Agroecology TPP and the Agroecology Coalition with support from the European Union, the governments of Senegal, France, and Switzerland, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the Liechtenstein Development Service (LED).
Speakers and moderators present at the event also included Oliver Oliveros, Coordinator, Agroecology Coalition; Fabio Ricci, Global Communications Coordinator, CIFOR-ICRAF and Communications Officer, Agroecology TPP; and Rachel Bezner Kerr, Professor, Department of Global Development, Cornell University.
Article picture credits: CIFOR-ICRAF
Banner picture credits: Chatvit Turapub/ Shutterstock