Food and agriculture systems for the common good

June 16, 2016

(Brussels / Trondheim: June 2016) Input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must be consigned to the past in order to put global food systems onto sustainable footing, according to the world’s foremost experts on food security, agro-ecosystems and nutrition.

The solution is to diversify agriculture and reorient it around ecological practices, whether the starting point is highly-industrialized agriculture or subsistence farming in the world’s poorest countries, the experts argued.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), led by Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, released its findings this month in a report entitled ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’.

De Schutter said: “Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates.”

He added: “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms.”

The report was presented today at the 8th Trondheim Biodiversity Conference (Norway) by lead author Emile Frison, former Director General of Bioversity International.

The report reviews the latest evidence on the outcomes of the different production models, and identifies eight key reasons why industrial agriculture is locked in place despite its negative outcomes. It also maps out a series of steps to break these cycles and shift the centre of gravity in food systems.

Frison explained that some of the key obstacles to change are about who has the power to set the agenda. “The way we define food security and the way we measure success in food systems tend to reflect what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver – not what really matters in terms of building sustainable food systems,” Frison stated.

Based on a review of the latest evidence, the expert panel identified industrial agriculture as a key contributor to the most urgent problems in food systems:

  • Food systems contribute around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Around 20% of land on earth is now degraded;
  • More than 50% of human plant-derived foods now depend on three crops (rice, maize and wheat); 20% of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction;
  • The extinction of wild species and the application of insecticides threaten the 35% of global crops dependent on pollination;
  • Around 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies; current food systems produce an abundance of energy-rich, nutrient-poor crops.

The experts concluded that a fundamental shift towards diversified agroecological farming* can deliver simultaneous benefits for productivity, the environment and society.

A growing body of evidence shows that diversified agroecological systems deliver strong and stable yields by building healthy ecosystems where different plants and species interact in ways that improve soil fertility and water retention. They perform particularly well under environmental stress and deliver production increases in the places where additional food is most needed.

Diversified agroecological systems have also shown major potential to keep carbon in the ground, increase resource efficiency and restore degraded land, turning agriculture into one of the key solutions to climate change.

Diversifed agriculture also holds the key to increasing dietary diversity at the local level, as well as reducing the multiple health risks from industrial agriculture (e.g. pesticide exposure, antibiotic resistance).

Some of the key findings:

  • Average organic yields equivalent to conventional agriculture, and 30% higher in drought years (30-year study);
  • Total outputs in diversified grassland systems 15%-79% higher than in monocultures;
  • 2-4x higher resource efficiency on small-scale agroecological farms;
  • 30% more species and 50% higher abundance of biodiversity on organic farms;
  • Around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in organic meat and milk.
  • Around 30% more employment and year round employment on organic and diverse farms rather than monocrop and industrial operations, plus those working report being happier than their counterparts

The experts identified major promise in the burgeoning initiatives now forming around alternative food and farming systems, from new forms of political cooperation to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits.

“The challenge is to join up these initiatives,” Frison urged. “Farmers can only be expected to transform their practices when they are certain that they will find markets. And consumers will only shift towards healthy, sustainable food when it is accessible and affordable to them. These changes must lock each other in, just as current dynamics conspire to lock them out.”

De Schutter added: “We must change the way we set political priorities. The steps towards diversified agroecological farming are steps to democratize decision-making and to rebalance power in food systems.”

 Commentary from Adam Parsons:

Diversified agroecological farming refers to models of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Organic agriculture often reflects these principles, but organic certification does not guarantee a holistic diversified approach.

In the discussion about resource depletion, hunger, agriculture, food wastage, and environmental footprint there has been a tendency among scientists and policymakers to address the problems as individual pieces of the puzzle, and to overlook the power relations that play a major role in shaping these systems. And crucially, the knowledge of those affected by food systems problems has not been fully harnessed in framing the problems and diagnosing the solutions. The challenge is now to produce a joined-up picture of food systems and their political economy, and to do so in ways that reach across the scientific disciplines, and reach beyond the traditional bounds of the scientific community.  A report  by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, IPES-Food asked:  Who holds the power to shape food systems, and who sets the terms of debate when it comes to reforming them?  The report, entitled The New Science of Sustainable Food Systems: Overcoming Barriers to Food Systems Reform, proposes a new analytical lens for food systems, and makes the case for reaching beyond the traditional bounds of the scientific community in conducting this analysis.

The report’s executive summary says:

We need an analytical lens that enables us to understand the various problems in food systems as the component parts of wider systemic problems. This type of analysis will allow us to identify leverage points for systemic change. What should be brought to light by this holistic food systems lens?

The increasing power of private corporations in shaping food systems should also be considered in such an analysis. Over recent decades, producers have often been encouraged to deliver large volumes of commodities for global supply chains, in parallel to policies favoring the expansion of trade flows. The multinational agribusiness firms that have thrived under these conditions also play a key role in maintaining them. This can take the shape of direct political lobbying, or more indirect influences, e.g. funding programs that encourage particular research and development pathways. This results in ‘lock-ins’: different components of food systems have co-evolved so as to become mutually reinforcing. A detailed picture of the political economy of food systems is therefore needed. Food systems analysis must bring to light the differential influences of actors on decision-making, and the ensuing obstacles to reform.

Key messages include:

  • Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.
  • Many of these problems are linked specifically to ‘industrial agriculture’: the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes. The uniformity at the heart of these systems, and their reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preventive use of antibiotics, leads systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities.
  • Industrial agriculture and the ‘industrial food systems’ that have developed around it are locked in place by a series of vicious cycles. For example, the way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems.
  • Tweaking practices can improve some of the specific outcomes of industrial agriculture, but will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates.
  • What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build longterm fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods, i.e. ‘diversified agroecological systems’.
  • There is growing evidence that these systems keep carbon in the ground, support biodiversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for secure farm livelihoods.
  • Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.
  • Change is already happening. Industrial food systems are being challenged on multiple fronts, from new forms of cooperation and knowledge-creation to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits.
  • Political incentives must be shifted in order for these alternatives to emerge beyond the margins. A series of modest steps can collectively shift the centre of gravity in food systems.

A multi-scale and holistic understanding of sustainability as the benchmark of food systems reform. Sustainability must serve as the benchmark for food systems reform, and to do so, it must be defined at the appropriate scales. According to the report, the sustainability of food systems must partly be assessed in terms of effects at the global level, e.g.: the contribution of food systems to global warming and the impacts of food systems on the crossing of planetary boundaries.  However, some changes must be measured at sub-global levels such as regional ‘foodsheds, forest biomes, and river basins.

Sustainability must also be defined in all of its dimensions, in line with the emerging definition of sustainable diets that are: protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, with optimal use of natural and human resources supportive of food and nutrition security culturally acceptable accessible, economically fair and affordable nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy, for present and future generations.

A one-way street of knowledge transmission, from scientists to policymakers, will not suffice in conducting this analysis of food systems, says the Executive Summary. What is needed is a multi-directional flow of knowledge between the worlds of science, policy and practice. This shift is urgently needed for five reasons: Food systems are complex ‘social-ecological’ systems that require different sources of knowledge to be combined. This means collaboration between the social and the natural sciences, and requires scientists to collaborate systematically with farmers, food workers, indigenous communities, consumer groups and a range of other practitioners whose actions and choices shape these social-ecological systems. Political and ethical choices cannot be made by scientists alone. Scientists can identify the human consequences of certain development pathways; they can compare scenarios; and they can identify ecological tipping-points. However, the normative valuation of these various development pathways will ultimately be grounded in political and ethical choices, and must be commonly reached with social actors. Scientific methodologies are not immune from biases and assumptions, and must be subject to deliberation. There is no universally agreed method for measuring hunger or agricultural outputs – let alone more complex metrics of sustainability such as resource footprints. The choice of scientific methodologies is subject to implicit assumptions, biases and knowledge politics; it must therefore be open to challenge and deliberation. The recommendations made by scientists must be context-specific and adaptive in order to succeed. Social actors must be able to influence the framing of scientific analysis, in order to ensure that the questions being asked are relevant to the contexts they know best. Strong feedback loops between the worlds of science, policy and practice must also be ensured, so that social actors can weigh in when the answers turn out to be ill-adapted to their context. Social actors hold unique knowledge that can catalyze change. Involving actors from outside the traditional bounds of the scientific community in devising food systems reform is essential, in order to bring in knowledge that scientists may not hold. Agroecology, with its focus on innovation in the field, is a striking illustration of why this matters, and how it can be a catalyst for change.

Significant progress has been made over recent years in accommodating different actors, framings and sources of knowledge in leading science-policy initiatives. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), completed in 2008, allowed the parameters of discussion and the proposed methodologies to be open to contestation, placing a wide range of stakeholders on equal footing in this deliberation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) have also integrated different sources of knowledge, allowing dominant arguments, such as those based around market efficiencies, to be challenged in the process of framing the problems to be addressed. The recentlyformed High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has been equally open to diverse sources of knowledge and the diverse worldviews underpinning them. However, initiatives at the science-policy interface have struggled to capture the totality of food systems. Assessments have been disproportionately centered on boosting food production, a focus which has found a new incarnation in ‘sustainable intensification’, now widely adopted as a means of squaring environmental concerns with the imperative to grow more food. ‘Food security’ is another framing that appears to cast the net wide, but too often becomes a byword for raising the global food supply. This tendency to narrow the analytical lens risks perpetuating the agronomic knowledge bias and agroindustrial political bias of the ‘green revolution’. It may also reflect a tendency to prioritize technological innovations over social innovations. Meanwhile, the impacts of agricultural subsidies and the biases implied in export-led agricultural policies have been insufficiently explored in nutrition-focused analyses.

The challenge, then, is for science-policy initiatives to resist the narrowing of the analytical lens, and to overcome the fragmentation of food governance spaces. The approach of such initiatives should be systemic, and it should include an analysis of power relations and the political economy of food systems. In order to contribute to food systems reform, a critical mass of evidence must be gathered and transposed into policy recommendations. The voices of academic experts and social innovators will be all the more powerful for their ability to talk the same language, and to anchor themselves to common reference points and analytical toolkits. Furthermore, this emerging science of sustainable food systems must be informed by the knowledge of practitioners, and appropriated by those to whom it seeks to be useful. C

Olivier De Schutter is cochair of IPES-Food. He served as UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food from May 2008 until May 2014 and was elected to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2014

Read the executive summary

Read the full report

Read the key messages, also available in French and Spanish

The authors term “feed the world” narratives that continue to inform public policy, based on a narrow vision of food security understood in terms of delivering sufficient net calories at the global level are a particular problem. These productivity-focused narratives tend to ignore the fact that hunger is fundamentally a distributional question tied to poverty, social exclusion and other factors that prevent sufficient access to food, as emphasised by statistics from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Impressive productivity gains in industrial systems have clearly not translated into global food security by any measure, with 795 million estimated to be suffering from hunger in 2015, and 2 billion people afflicted by the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiencies.

Furthermore, narratives about “feeding the world” through increased net production levels also serve to deflect attention away from the failings of industrial agriculture, thus reinforcing the dominant paradigm. In this light, the report cites the initiative called the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa” (NAFSN) that was launched by G8 countries in 2012 with the noble aim of improving the lives of smallholder farmers and lifting 50 million out of poverty by 2050. By focusing on integrating smallholders into agribusiness-led global supply chains through outgrower schemes, the NAFSN initiative ignores the power imbalances and livelihood stresses that are often exacerbated in these types of arrangements. It also overlooks the severe environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, and the unrealised potential of diversified agroecological systems to deliver a sustainable pathway to global food security.

The underlying problem is the concentration of power in food systems, which the report describes as a “lock-in of a different nature” that reinforces all of the other lock-ins. A small number of dominant agribusiness firms control the majority of chemical fertilizer supplies, pesticides and input-responsive seeds, for example, while power is highly concentrated at every node of the commercial food chain – in commodity export circuits, the global trade in grain, and through supermarkets and other large-scale retailers. These dominant actors are able to use their power to reinforce the prevailing dynamics that favour food systems geared to uniform crop commodities and massive export-oriented trade. Through lobbying policymakers, influencing research and development focuses, and even by co-opting alternatives – such as organic agriculture – these vested interests are able to perpetuate the self-reinforcing power imbalances in industrial food systems.

Resistance to change

Herein lies the crux of the issue for putting agroecology at the forefront of the global political agenda: the mismatch between its potential to improve food system outcomes, and its potential to generate profits for agribusiness:

A wholesale transition to diversified agroecological food and farming systems does not hold obvious economic interest for the actors to whom power and influence have previously accrued. The alternative model requires fewer external inputs, most of which are locally and/or self-produced. Furthermore, in order to deliver the resilience so central to diversified systems, a wide variety of highly locally-adapted seeds is needed, alongside the ability to reproduce, share and access that base of genetic resources over time. This suggests a much-reduced role for input-responsive varieties of major cereal crops, and therefore few incentives for commercial providers of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. The global trade and processing industry is also a major potential source of resistance to change, given that alternative models tend to favour local production and short value chains that reduce the number of intermediaries.”

Questioning whether the balance can be shifted in favour of diversified agroecological systems, the report goes on to identify several opportunities for change that are emerging through the cracks of the existing models of industrial agriculture. This includes the policy incentives enacted by some governments to shift their food systems towards more ecologically sustainable means of farming, such as the oft-cited example of Cuba that has been compelled to shift away from chemical input-intensive commodity monocropping since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Alongside the marked rise in public and academic awareness in favour of agroecology over recent years, as well as a surge in many grassroots schemes and initiatives that embody agroecological principles (i.e. farmers markets, community supported agriculture, direct sales shops and other new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits), also of note is the positive developments in the global governance agenda. There are now many examples of new intergovernmental processes and assessments that are responding to the case for a wholesale food systems transition. In particular, the first International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition was held in 2014, with a further symposium to be held in China in August this year, followed by a regional meeting in Hungary towards the end of 2016.

In 2009, the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) also gave the strongest support to the development of agroecological science and practice, presenting policymakers with an effective blueprint to confront today’s global food crisis.

But as the IPES-Food report concludes, these new opportunities are not developing nearly fast enough. Farming systems now stand at a crossroads, and there is a great danger that the current reinvestment in agriculture in the global South will replicate the pathways of industrialisation followed in wealthy countries. However, the author’s recommended “pathways of transition” are not overly inspiring given the convincing case for change presented in the earlier evidence sections of the report. There may also be nothing new for progressive scholars or food justice campaigners in the outline of new political priorities that must be urgently established by governments, no matter how important these policy shifts remain – such as the promotion of shorter supply chains and alternatives to mass retail outlets, and the ultimate relinquishing of all public support from monocultural production systems.

Redistributing power downwards

More compelling is the report’s acknowledgement that the distribution of power is crucial to the transition towards diversified agricultural systems, and hence the key to change is the establishment of new political priorities that can, over time, redistribute power in the global food system away from the dominant actors. That is, of course, an immense challenge that cannot succeed without the strengthening of social movements, from the many indigenous and community-based organisations that advocate for agroecological practices, to the diverse coalitions and civil society groups from the global North and South that embrace the food sovereignty paradigm. The fact that the report acknowledges the importance of these grassroots, bottom-up, farmer- and consumer-led initiatives makes it a potential tool for activists to use in the ongoing struggle for a just and sustainable food system.

From STWR’s perspective, the call for sharing is central to this alternative vision of a new paradigm in global agriculture that is designed in the interests of people and the environment, rather than the profit-making imperatives of multinational corporations. For example, as the historic Nyéléni Declaration on Agroecology asserts in its statement of common principles from February last year, collective rights and the sharing of access to the commons is a fundamental pillar of agroecology, which is as much a political movement as a science of sustainable farming. It is fundamentally about challenging and transforming structures of power in society, and placing the control of the food supply – the seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons – back into the hands of the peoples who feed the world, the vast majority of whom are small-scale producers.

If governments are to finally accept their responsibility to guarantee access to safe, nutritious food for all the world’s people, there is now a clearly established roadmap of the policies needed to democratise and localise food economies in line with the principles of sharing and cooperation. The IPES-Food report has provided another valuable assessment and set of recommendations that strengthens the case for a global transition towards food systems that diversify production and nurture the environment in holistic ways, rebuilding biodiversity and rehabilitating degraded land. The core of the challenge is not a lack of evidence, as the report authors have again made clear; it is the ideological support for an outmoded model of agriculture that continues to generate huge profits for the few, at the expense of long-term healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods.

Adam Parsons

Adam Parsons is the editor at Share The World’s Resources, (STWR), a London-based civil society organization campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. He can be contacted at [email protected]