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How to Fix Our Food System

April 30, 2018

AgorecologyA good idea doesn't stay buried forever. Even with a $5 trillion agrochemical industry shoveling their propaganda on top of it.

Ten years ago, the World Bank and the United Nations initiated an assessment of the state of global agriculture by some four hundred experts around the world. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IASTTD), as the final report was titled, concluded that gains in agricultural productivity have come at a high cost, including "unintended social and environmental consequences," and that investments in biological substitutes for agrochemicals, and in programs that support agroecology, are needed to address the situation.

At times oversimplified as "sustainable agriculture," or confused with organic agriculture, the definition of agroecology is found in in its constituent parts — agro and ecology. Agroecology puts ecological science at the center of food production. With a focus on the stewardship of soil, water and biodiversity, agroecology seeks to heighten soil fertility and moisture and regenerate ecosystems by encouraging farmers to reduce their use of chemical inputs — a leading source of pollution, soil degradation, and farmer debt.

And yet, despite lifting up the many benefits of agroecology in terms of food safety and watershed health, not to mention endorsements from fifty-eight governments, implementation of the IASTTD report has been slow, at best. Whatever the cause, many of us within the growing agroecology movement are disappointed, and angry.

Earlier this month, however, there was a glimmer of hope. At the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Second International Symposium on agroecology, change was in the air.

The symposium was attended by more than seven hundred participants representing seventy-two governments around the globe. After three days of discussion and keynote addresses from global leaders in the field, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva concluded that "it is time for agroecology to receive greater attention on the world stage....It's time to scale up the implementation of agroecology."

What had changed over the last decade to cause one of the leading multilateral agencies focused on food and agriculture to embrace agroecological practice? While it's hard to point to a single explanation, certainly climate change has played a role. Droughts, floods, extreme weather events, and pest explosions have got farmers around the globe worried and asking, "What do I do when the crops I'm used to growing fail?" And consumers are just as worried — or should be.

Ironically, although industrial agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, the agrochemical industry has adopted the term "climate-smart agriculture" to market tech-heavy packages of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides “engineered” to help farmers cope with climate uncertainty. But at the FAO symposium, no one spoke about those solutions. Instead, case after case presented to attendees underscored the fact that agroecology is the climate-smart solution. When farmers diversify the crops they plant and return moisture and nutrients to the soil, the entire system becomes more resilient and less likely to fail. It's no wonder La Via Campesina, an international movement of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities, has successfully organized millions of people under the banner "Small farmers cool the planet."

Mounting proof of the effectiveness of agroecology also helps explain its growing popularity. In the ten years since the release of the IASSTD report, several studies have deepened the evidence base. A final report issued in 2010 by Olivier De Schutter, former United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, found that "[a]groecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within ten years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty." And in June 2016, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) issued From Uniformity to Diversity, which many consider to be the best report to date on the shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecology systems.

But perhaps the strongest driving force behind the accelerating shift to agroecological practices has been the persistent advocacy by farmer organizations, consumer groups, and researchers debunking the claims of the agrochemical industry that only industrial farming can feed the world.

At the FAO symposium, many grassroots organizations — some of which have received grants from my organization, the AgroEcology Fund — were able to share their experiences with strategies designed to amplify the agroecology message. In Ghana, for example, the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (CIKOD), part of Groundswell International, is working to revitalize arid landscapes in that country through a program known as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration. In Ecuador, the Agroecology Collective links consumers to agroecological farmers. And in South Africa, the African Centre for Biodiversity seeks to turn traditional agricultural subsidy programs on their head by shifting that support to agroecology.

Given sufficient resources, these and other programs can scale agroecology across the world. At the moment, however, the financing simply isn't there. While multi-donor funds like mine are by no means a replacement for essential public funds, private support can help grassroots advocacy organizations demonstrate how efforts to create more resilient food systems can be scaled and, at the same time, advance progress on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Those same groups also can exert pressure on donors and governments to increase funding for agroecology practice and research, and to pass pro-agroecology legislation.

The official summary document from the FAO symposium calls for "transformative change towards sustainable agriculture and food systems based on agroecology." While undoing the damage caused by our present unsustainable agricultural practices and shifting investment toward agroecology will require much time, money, persistence, and, yes, courage, that transformation is gaining momentum and closer to becoming a reality than ever.

I urge others to join us in supporting the agroecology movement. The sustainability of soil, our sources of fresh water, and our climate depend on it.

DanielMossDaniel Moss is executive director of the AgroEcology Fund, a multi-donor fund that supports agroecological practices and policies. Since 2012, AEF has awarded $4 million to more than two hundred collaborating organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States.

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