Towards a global shift to agroecology

A report by an international panel of experts has highlighted the serious problems associated with the current food and agricultural system (often referred to as industrial agriculture) and has called for a shift to more diversified agroecological systems. Clare Westwood looks into the report released in June this year.

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 greenhouse gas emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micronutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world. Ironically, small-scale farming communities make up about 50%1 of the world's 795 million hungry.2 Modern agriculture is clearly failing to sustain the people and resources on which it relies and has come to represent an existential threat to itself.

Many influential studies have helped shape our understanding of the perilous situation our food systems are in. However, few studies have provided a comprehensive view of how alternative food systems, based around fundamentally different agricultural models, perform against the same criteria, while fewer still have mapped out the pathways of transition towards the sustainable food systems of the future.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) has sought to fill this gap. IPES-Food is an independent panel working to inform the debate on how to reform food systems. Launched in 2015, the Panel comprises environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists and sociologists as well as experienced practitioners from civil society and social movements. In June 2016, IPES-Food released its first major report, entitled 'From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems'.3 This article summarises the main points of the report.

The report highlights how many of the problems of today's food and agricultural systems are linked specifically to 'industrial agriculture', specifically, the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that currently dominate farming landscapes. The uniformity at the heart of these systems and their reliance on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and the preventive use of antibiotics have systematically led to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities. The report therefore calls for a shift towards diversifying agriculture and reorienting it around ecological practices.

Specialised industrial agriculture and diversified agroecological farming stand at two ends of a wide spectrum. The report examines the outcomes of both industrial agriculture and diversified agroecological systems. It asks what the impacts on food systems would be if diversity, rather than uniformity, was the key imperative. Based on a review of the latest evidence, the report identifies the potential for diversified agroecological systems to succeed where current systems are failing, namely in reconciling concerns such as food security, environmental protection, nutritional adequacy and social equity.

Making the case for changing course is crucial, but so too is mapping out a pathway of transition. Although the foundations of this transition are already being laid by farmers, consumers, civil society groups and many others, the current industrial agriculture model is locked in place by a series of powerful feedback loops extending well beyond the world of farming. Farmers cannot simply be expected to rethink their production model nor consumers to radically reorient their purchasing patterns without a major shift in the incentives running through food systems.

Industrial agriculture

Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food from 2008-14 and Co-chair of IPES-Food, states:4 'Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The solution is to diversify agriculture and reorient it around ecological practices, whether the starting point is highly-industrialised agriculture or subsistence farming in the world's poorest countries. 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.'

Some of the key systemic outcomes of industrial agriculture are listed in the IPES-Food report as follows:

*          Stagnated or collapsed yields in 24-39% of the world's maize, rice, wheat and soybean production zones over recent decades.

*          Increased pest resistance and disease vulnerability, largely due to massive pesticide usage.

*          Degradation of 20% of global land.

*          Contributor of the 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions arising from food and farming.

*          Severe water contamination and over-usage due to the excessive application of fertilisers and pesticides in crop monocultures, and the waste generated by industrial animal feedlots.

*          Biodiversity loss threatening the 35% of global crops dependent on pollination and erosion of the genetic pool.

*          High production costs which are unviable for many small-scale farmers.

*          Trade and export orientation expose economies to price shocks and 'commodity-induced poverty traps'.

*          Hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition due to the focus on energy-rich, nutrient-poor staple crop varieties.

*          Health problems due to pesticide exposure, like Alzheimer's disease, birth defects, cancers and developmental disorders. The preventive use of antibiotics in industrial animal production systems has exacerbated the problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

The negative impacts of these systems are multiple and mutually reinforcing. Industrial agriculture's weaknesses are its core characteristics, i.e., the principles of specialisation and uniformity around which it is organised, and the reliance on chemical inputs as a means of managing agro-ecosystems.

The report makes clear that industrial agriculture does not and cannot reconcile the multiple concerns of sustainable food systems. Food and farming systems can be reformed, but only by moving away from an industrial orientation and organisation. A fundamental reorientation of agriculture, particularly in its relationship with ecosystems, is required in order to break these cycles.

The outcomes above are further mediated by a range of factors extending well beyond the realm of agriculture. Identifying the power imbalances and how they lock industrial agriculture in place is crucial. Industrial food systems have in fact taken shape around industrial agriculture, creating a set of feedback loops ('lock-ins') that serve to reinforce this mode of farming. These lock-ins are identified in the report as follows:

*          Path dependency - Industrial agriculture requires significant up-front investments, in terms of equipment, training, networks and retail relationships, and often requires farmers to scale up. Once these investments and structural shifts have been made, it is increasingly difficult for farmers to change course.

*          Export orientation - Specific supply chains (e.g., for animal feed and processed food ingredients) have become increasingly export-oriented and export-dependent, with accompanying risks and problems like price volatility, environmental degradation and competition for land.

*          The expectation of cheap food - Industrial agriculture and shifting consumer habits have helped facilitate the emergence of mass food retailing, characterised by the abundance of relatively cheap, uniform, highly processed foods and year-round availability of a wide variety of foods. This pushes farmers to industrialise their production.                    

*          Compartmentalised thinking - Green Revolution thinking remains dominant today. Highly compartmentalised structures continue to govern the setting of priorities in politics, education, research and business, allowing the solutions offered by industrial agriculture to remain at centrestage.

*          Short-term thinking - Key players in food systems are often required to deliver short-term results, e.g., retailers are bound by consumer expectations for year-round availability of a variety of foods at low prices. These conditions are not conducive to fundamental shifts in production requiring a transitional period in order to bear fruit.

*          'Feed the world' narratives - Such narratives predispose us to approach the question in terms of global production volumes of mainly energy-rich, nutrition-poor crop commodities. Thus, industrial agriculture continues to be seen as the solution while several key issues like social equity are sidelined.

*          Measures of success - Narrowly defined indicators of agricultural performance, e.g., yields, tend to favour large-scale industrial monocultures and fail to capture many of the benefits of diversified systems, including resilience to shocks and reduced health risks.

*          Concentration of power - The way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue mainly to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political dominance, and thus their ability to influence the governance of those systems.

Diversified agroecological systems

Agroecology is a universal logic for redesigning agricultural systems in ways that maximise biodiversity and stimulate interactions between different plants and species as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. It is a broad landing space that can be reached via a variety of pathways and entry points, progressively or in more rapid shifts, as farmers free themselves from the structures of industrial agriculture and refocus their farming systems around a new set of principles.

The report finds that diversified agroecological systems have huge potential to improve on the outcomes of industrial agriculture. Data show that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, conferring resilience in the face of environmental stresses and delivering production increases. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health. The evidence in regard to the environmental benefits of these systems is overwhelming, from increases in wild biodiversity to the improvement of soil health and fertility and water retention. In particular, the capacity of diversified agroecological systems to restore degraded land and to keep carbon in the ground is unmatched by any other options on the table.

Some of the key findings are:

*          A 30-year study shows that average organic yields are generally equivalent to conventional agriculture, and 30% higher in drought years.

*          Total outputs in diversified grassland systems are 15-79% higher than in monocultures.

*          Resource efficiency is 2-4 times higher on small-scale agroecological farms.

*          15% more biodiversity has been found in diversified agriculture and 30% more wild species on organic farms.

*          Organic meat and milk provide around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional equivalents.

It is the reintegration of agriculture with healthy ecosystems and sustainable land management that holds the key to a range of other positive outcomes, from strong and stable outputs to secure farm livelihoods. Where diversified systems raise productivity, they do so durably, and in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified systems produce diverse and changing outputs. These systems have, however, not yet been adopted widely enough to show their full impacts, nor have they been able to benefit from significant investments and an enabling environment in which to fulfil their full potential.

Conclusions and recommendations


Based on the evidence gathered, IPES-Food concludes that there may be no greater risk than sticking with industrial agriculture and the systemic problems it generates. The strategy is riskier the longer it continues. Industrial agriculture and the 'industrial food systems' that have developed around it are locked in place by a series of vicious cycles.

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. The key is to establish political priorities, namely, to support the emergence of alternative systems which are based around fundamentally different logics, and which, over time, generate different and more equitable power relations. Incremental change must not be allowed to divert political attention and political capital away from the more fundamental shift that is urgently needed, and can now be delivered, through a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to 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. Although a shift to diversified agroecological systems is not without challenges, it is likely to be the only way to set food systems on a sustainable footing. A key insight is recognising the discrepancy between the potential of diversified agroecological systems to deliver what really matters and our capacity to measure and value those things.

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.


The report cites seven recommendations to turn the lock-ins of the industrial agriculture system into entry points for change to agroecological systems. These steps must shift the centre of gravity in food systems, allowing harmful dependencies to be cut, the agents of change to be empowered, and alliances to be forged in favour of change. They are listed below.

*          Develop new indicators for sustainable food systems.

*          Shift public support towards diversified agroecological production systems.

*          Support short supply chains and alternative retail infrastructures.

*          Use public procurement to support local agroecological produce.

*          Strengthen movements that unify diverse constituencies around agroecology.

*          Mainstream agroecology and holistic food systems approaches into education and research agendas.

*          Develop food planning processes and 'joined-up food policies' at multiple levels.     

Clare Westwood is a researcher on food and agriculture issues with the Third World Network.


1          World Food Programme (2015). Who are the hungry?

2          FAO, IFAD and WFP (2015). State of Food Insecurity in the World - SOFI - In Brief.



4          How to Leave Industrial Agriculture Behind: Food Systems Experts Urge Global Shift Towards Agroecology.

*Third World Resurgence No. 312/313, Aug/Sept 2016, pp 2-4