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Food Systems Summit: Agroecology at the centre of a fierce battle

Farm workers weed organic lettuces in the Pluk Rak or 'Grow Love' Thai organic farm in Ratchaburi, Thailand, 16 December 2007. (Keystone/EPA/Barbara Walton)

As calls for a transformation of our food systems continue to be echoed globally, two main groups have formed: those who want to “tweak” the existing system and those who call for a fundamental redesign with agroecology at the core.

East of Berlin, halfway to the German border with Poland, Paula Gioia lives and works as a beekeeper in a community-run agroecological farm. They plant a variety of vegetable crops, practise agroforestry and plow the land with horses of local breed. They go into Berlin every week to sell their produce to local markets and to consumers.

“We put quite a lot of value into the crops we plant. We try to revive old varieties that have been lost here in this climate zone in Germany, and the same for the animals. The chickens, the goats and also the cows we have are all local breeds,” she told Geneva Solutions.

Gioia describes herself as a “peasant farmer” originally from Brazil. Like thousands of other farmers around the globe, she advocates for a way of producing food that does not damage ecosystems, but rather works closely with them.

As a representative for the German farmers group Arbeitsgemeinschaft Bäuerliche Landwirtschaft (ABL) at La Via Campesina, an international movement of peasant farmers that promotes small scale sustainable farming practices, she’s also part of the movement of rights groups that are boycotting the UN Food Systems Summit, unless some substantial changes are made.

“We are challenging the way the summit is being structured and developed and have been engaging in exchanges with them,” said Gioia.

Read also: Human rights overshadowed by big business in UN food summit, says UN expert

At the core of the heated debates that are weighing down on the summit’s preparations is the claim that agroecology is only a side note to an international landmark gathering meant to transform the way the world produces, sells and consumes food.

Why this matters. Food systems are responsible for roughly a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, a fifth of all the food produced for consumption goes to waste every year, while hunger is on the rise. The current mainstream intensive-resource food system is depleting the Earth’s natural resources and accelerating biodiversity loss and land degradation. Over a third of global arable land has been lost in the past four decades, according to experts.

This has sparked a global demand for food systems to use up less resources, limit global warming, stop polluting the environment, offer a nutritious diet for consumers all while allowing farmers and other workers to make a decent living.

Many believe that agroecology is the answer to all these problems. “Agroecological transition is the only answer out there now to reconcile food security, resilience, improving the livelihoods of small scale farmers, tackling hunger, while preserving the environment and rebuilding ecosystems,” said Nick Jacobs, director of the Brussels-based International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

Though very skeptical of the summit, IPES Food has decided to participate through its chair and former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter.

The myths around agroecology. Rooted in a healthy relationship between humans, animals and plants, agroecology has many definitions depending on who is asked. The most commonly known practices associated with agroecology include crop rotation, using organic-derived pesticides and fertilisers and recycling manure as compost.

As a niche food production model, agroecology is also surrounded by many myths.  “There is this big myth that we need to get rid of: that agroecology is old fashioned and back bending type of work that our grandfathers have done and that is not productive,” Frank Eyhorn, CEO of Biovision, an NGO in Geneva that promotes sustainable agroecological practices in Africa, told Geneva Solutions.

“This is not true, agroecology is a modern approach that integrates the latest scientific research and know-how on how to manage plant-pest interactions, for example.”

Biovision works with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPES) headquartered in Nairobi to promote one of their innovations, known as the push-pull agroecological pest management method, among small scale farmers in East Africa. Plants that attract and trap pests are planted outside the crop area and plants that repel pests are planted inside.

Gioia also contests this idea that farmers wish “to remain in the stone age”. “We want to be consulted on what are our needs,” she said, citing the example of the horses her farm uses to plow the land.

“It's not very often you find farms that use horses so there are big difficulties finding tools that are not as heavy. But we also want to take care of our bodies and of our animals so they can also live longer. So for this, for example, it would be great to have research to develop together with us tools that can help us with our needs.”

Read also: Big data and AI won’t solve world food problem, report says

“This is different from giving all the information about your farm to a big company and then you don't have sovereignty over your field anymore.”

One of the challenges that Biovision points out is lack of funding for research in agroecology, with most going to more conventional agricultural methods.

Another misconception of agroecology, Eyhorn noted, is low productivity. “If you look at the good agroecological systems, the overall output in terms of nutritional value, in terms of income for the farmers can be much higher than in conventional farming,” he said. “It is also important to not only look at the yield of one single crop but to look at the overall output of the system.”

Research has also suggested that there is enormous economic potential in agroecology. A study found that in Switzerland organic farms generate as much net value as conventional farms but since organic farms are more labour intensive and employ more workers, a greater part of it goes to wages, boosting rural economy.

Despite the benefits, agroecology does present challenges for farmers, he added. It can take years to restore soil fertility, a wait that many poor farmers cannot afford. It also requires extensive knowledge of how the elements of agrosystems interact, meaning that farmers need training to be able to do the transition.

Proponents of agroecology argue that for a shift to happen, governments need to support it through policies including funding research into this field, working with markets to be more flexible with farmers that produce less amounts of one same crop but rather a greater variety of crops and taxing hazardous pesticides and fertilisers.

A threat to the status quo. Agroecological practices, like organic farming, are gaining ground around the world. In 2018, there were around 2.8 million certified organic farmers around the world and a total of 71.5 million hectares of land were organically managed, according to figures from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FIBL).

Organic farming shares some of the key principles of agroecology, such as using biological materials to cultivate plants to avoid polluting the environment with harmful synthetic substances. Agroecology goes farther, by viewing farmland as an ecosystem that provides services such as fertile soil and air and water, and by seeking to preserve those services and work with them to optimise yield.

Members of the agroecology movement have also been critical of organic farming becoming large-scale and being taken up by big corporations that might phase out pesticides but that heavily promote monocultures, burn up enormous amounts of fossil fuels to power their machinery or to transport the food from one continent to another, and that pay their workers poorly.

Agroecology has also increasingly been recognised by international organisations like the Food Agriculture Organization. Countries have started identifying it as a solution to food insecurity. In 2018, Switzerland for example allocated 51 per cent of its funds for agricultural research for development to projects with an agroecological component, according to a joint report by IPES-Food and Biovision. But projects that can be considered completely agroecological from A to Z remain a minority, the report states.

At the same time, other interest groups are pushing back. The Swiss parliament postponed a few weeks ago an agricultural reform bill that would render agriculture in Switzerland more sustainable.

“Agroecology has less profit opportunity than other systems do. It's a decentralised way of organising food systems, with less middlemen. It keeps more value with farmers and farming communities,” Jacobs noted.

“It doesn't create opportunities for capturing huge profits like global supply chains with high usage of chemical inputs, for example, which can be marketed globally with universal applications. Agroecology is locally specific and if done properly, it can't be monetised to the same extent by big corporations. That’s what makes it so threatening to the status quo.”

Agroecology is seen by many as a political struggle. “Agroecology is about how society values the ones producing the food. Without them, they could not survive since food is something so basic for human beings. So it's also about giving land back to the people who really work and cultivate it,” Gioia explained, noting that peasants around the world have to depend on subsidies to survive when they would prefer to be autonomous.

According to research by the Land Inequality Initiative, one per cent of farmland owners use 70 per cent of global farmland. Farmer communities also make up around 50 per cent of people facing food insecurity, Jacobs said.

With so much at stake, the summit is being set up as the stage of a political battle between those who wish for existing agricultural models to be tweaked and those who want a more radical reshuffle of the power dynamics between agribusiness and small scale farmers.

A compromising model. This has paved the way for a model compromising ecological goals with economic ones. Sustainable intensification, as it is called, means increasing production in existing farmed land without putting any further pressure on the environment. Many say this is the model being championed at the summit.

For Jacobs, this approach is based on the assumption that the intensive farming of land can be compensated with restoring and conserving the rest. Segregating these two could lead to more centralised systems, he argued, and is still relying on monocultures, a practice that has proven to accelerate biodiversity loss and land degradation.

Eyhorn has a more nuanced view. “Tweaking the system is definitely not sufficient, but at the same time, agroecological systems are still comparatively small and will take time to scale them up, so we need both: incremental steps and agroecological redesign,” he said.

Setting the stage for failure. There are fears that the deadlock could set the summit up for failure. “It’s a waste of time to spend quarrelling about who should win or which is better. These two approaches can be multiplayers, reinforcing and massively cross fertilising,” he said.

Jacobs also hopes that the summit will be a chance for a meaningful confrontation between the two models that will reveal to the world in what direction we’re heading.

While still weary of the summit, Gioia says La Via Campesina is open to discuss further with the summit’s organisers about letting rights groups have more influence on the outcomes of the summit.

“We don't want to give legitimacy to a process that is going in a wrong direction. We have been addressing it to summit organisers. But so far the pre-defined direction didn't change. Under these conditions we can not participate,” she said.