Dear Friends and Colleagues
New FAO Report Highlights Agroecological Innovations for Sustainable Food Systems
The High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN) of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) released its report on “Agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition” on 3 July, 2019, in Rome, stating that “profound transformation is needed”. (Item 1)
The report comes at a time when the world is ready for an agroecological transition process. It describes an agroecological approach to sustainable food systems as one that recognizes that agri-food systems are coupled with social-ecological systems from the production of food to its consumption with all that goes on in between. The report provides a consolidated set of 13 agroecological principles related to: recycling; reducing the use of inputs; soil health; animal health and welfare; biodiversity; synergy (managing interactions); economic diversification; co-creation of knowledge (embracing local knowledge and global science); social values and diets; fairness; connectivity; land and natural resource governance; and participation.
The report starts from the recognition of human rights as the basis for ensuring sustainable food systems. It requests the CFS to add ‘agency’ as a fifth pillar of FSN (the other four being: ‘availability’, ‘access’, ‘utilization’ and ‘stability’) to ensure that ordinary people have the power to define and secure their own food security in their everyday lives. The report also identifies the potential of adding ‘ecological footprint’ as a fourth operational principle for sustainable food systems and distinguishes it from resource efficiency which can still be degradative.
If the CFS adopts these recommendations, it can help advance sustainable food systems that enhance food and nutrition security globally. For a transdisciplinary approach such as agroecology to flourish, these recommendations should also be adopted by their counterparts in other fora making decisions on the climate crisis (UNFCCC), biodiversity loss (UNCBD), soil health (UNCCD) and especially on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals on poverty and food security (Item 2).
It is not surprising that those with financial interests in the current input-intensive systems are responding to growing calls for agroecology with attacks on its efficacy as a systematic approach that can sustainably feed a growing population (Item 3). As the new expert report however shows, and as countless ecological scientists around the world can attest, agroecology brings much-needed innovations to prevailing smallholder practices. With a long track record of achievements in widely varying environments, the approach has been shown to improve soil fertility, increase crop and diet diversity, raise total food productivity, improve resilience to climate change, and increase farmers’ food and income security while decreasing their dependence on costly inputs.
With best wishes
HLPE REPORT ON AGROECOLOGICAL AND OTHER INNOVATIVE APPROACHES FOR SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE AND FOOD SYSTEMS THAT ENHANCE FOOD SECURITY AND NUTRITION
EXTRACT FROM THE REPORT: SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition
Food systems are at a crossroads. Profound transformation is needed to address Agenda 2030 and to achieve food security and nutrition (FSN) in its four dimensions of availability, access, utilization and stability, and to face multidimensional and complex challenges, including a growing world population, urbanization and climate change, which drive increased pressure on natural resources, impacting land, water and biodiversity. This need has been illustrated from various perspectives in previous HLPE reports and is now widely recognized. This transformation will profoundly affect what people eat, as well as how food is produced, processed, transported and sold.
In this context, in October 2017, the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) requested its High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on FSN to produce a report on “Agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition” to inform its discussions during the Forty-sixth CFS Plenary Session in October 2019.
In this report, the HLPE explores the nature and potential contributions of agroecological and other innovative approaches to formulating transitions towards sustainable food systems (SFSs) that enhance FSN. The HLPE adopts a dynamic, multiscale perspective, focusing on the concepts of transition and transformation. Many transitions need to occur in particular production systems and across the food value chain to achieve major transformation of whole food systems. Both incremental transitions at small scales and structural changes to institutions and norms at larger scales need to take place in a coordinated and integrated way in order to achieve the desired transformation of the global food system.
As highlighted by the HLPE (2016), transition pathways combine technical interventions, investments, and enabling policies and instruments – involving a variety of actors at different scales. In its previous reports, the HLPE (2016, 2017) highlighted a diversity of food systems across and within countries. These food systems are situated in different environmental, sociocultural and economic contexts and face very diverse challenges. Hence, actors in food systems will have to design context-specific transition pathways towards sustainable food systems (SFSs). Moving beyond this context-specificity, the HLPE (2016) identified the three following intertwined operational principles that shape transition pathways towards SFSs for FSN: (i) improve resource efficiency; (ii) strengthen resilience; and (iii) secure social equity/responsibility.
This report starts from the recognition of human rights as the basis for ensuring sustainable food systems. It considers that the seven PANTHER principles of Participation, Accountability, Nondiscrimination, Transparency, Human dignity, Empowerment and the Rule of law should guide individual and collective actions to address the four dimensions of FSN at different scales.
This report and its recommendations aim at helping decision-makers, in governments and international organizations, research institutions, the private sector and civil society organizations, design and implement concrete transition pathways towards more SFSs at different scales, from local (farm, community, landscape) to national, regional and global levels.
AGROECOLOGY: TRANSITION PATHWAYS TOWARDS SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
NEW UN REPORT ON AGROECOLOGY FOR CLIMATE, FOOD SECURITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
The United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) will launch its report Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition next week in Rome. The summary and recommendations of this latest report by the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the UN Committee on Food Security are already available online at the CFS-HLPE site (Disclosure: I am a member of the current (4th) Steering Committee of the HLPE). The July 3 launch is the penultimate step in an almost two-year process that included two open consultations and attracted extraordinary attention, as is evident from the public record on engagement from academics, civil society, private sector and governments. The report will be presented to CFS 46 in October 2019.
This much-awaited UN report comes out at a time when public awareness of the connection between the climate crisis and unsustainable development is at an all-time high, raising global concerns. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018, hunger continued to rise for the third consecutive year, reaching 821 million in 2017 (now affecting one in every nine people), returning to levels of a decade ago. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in October 2018 warns that we have just 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5˚C, and advises that “compared to current conditions, 1.5°C of global warming would … pose heightened risks to eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities and ensuring human and ecosystem well-being.” At the same time, the recent IPBES Global Assessment has revealed that nearly a million species are on the verge of disappearance at an unprecedented rate of extinction.
Agroecology as a solution to climate, biodiversity and food crises
Unsustainable development and associated land use changes, including though national and international policy support for unsustainable agriculture and food systems, have become a primary cause of biodiversity loss and water, climate and biodiversity crises. Both the IPCC and IPBES call for “transformative” change that can still reverse these catastrophic trends. It is in this context that the report from the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition, and specifically its recommendations warrants the attention of all stakeholders—and that means all of us who eat food!
These recommendations will likely not come as a surprise to proponents of sustainable agriculture who have been calling for policy support to help more communities adopt such practices, nor to communities who have already been practicing agroecological approaches in an attempt to survive the vagaries of climate change and market failures. In fact, many advantages of agroecological approaches were conclusively demonstrated in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a multi-year study involving hundreds of experts and several U.N. agencies a decade ago. These findings were re-substantiated by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in a 2010 report to the UN Human Rights Council, which showed also the additional value of agroecology for fast progress in the realization of the right to food and for economic development.
As scientific enquiry into the close connection between agroecology and food sovereignty began shaping the agroecology discourse, and the multiple ecological crises became ever more pressing, there has been a slightly increased openness in global policy spaces to considering the potential of agroecological approaches in addressing these challenges.
The decision in 2017 by the UN Committee on Food Security to learn more about agroecological and other innovative approaches showed an increased willingness on the part of many governments to look at the potential of agroecological approaches to help solve the many problems plaguing agriculture and food systems in twenty-first century. This also followed a series of agroecology-related initiatives at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), especially its first international symposium on agroecology in 2014, followed by further discussions at regional levels carried out in a series of regional symposia in 2015 and 2016. As a scientists’ letter coordinated by IATP pointed out early on, agroecology’s broad base in science and society makes it uniquely suited to address today’s challenges in food and agricultural systems, including but not limited to continued food insecurity, rural poverty, climate change, drought and water scarcity. All these processes contributed to the FAO’s development of its 10 elements of agroecology, based on seminal scientific literature on agroecology.
At the same time, civil society groups and academics have further stepped up their efforts in support of agroecology: For example in the United States, we have worked with a U.S.-based scholars network, Agroecology Research Action Collective, on a letter calling on Green New Deal advocates to include a robust, sustainable and just food and agriculture platform as part of the proposal. This platform should be rooted in agroecology, food justice and food sovereignty. In Europe, 59 German NGOs (including IATP Europe) released a position paper, Strengthening Agroecology for a Fundamental Transformation of Agri-Food Systems, directed at the German Federal Government. In South Africa, Biowatch shared its work with smallholder farmers in their book Agroecology Is Best Practice, while at the continental level, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) wrote Agroecology: The bold future of farming in Africa, showing how agroecology benefits Africa in terms of food and nutrition, livelihoods, restoration of biodiversity, knowledge and innovation, and climate change resilience. These calls are similar to those In Asia and Latin America, Europe and Australia.
The HLPE Report #14, on Agroecological and other innovative approaches, and its recommendations, thus, comes out at a time when the world is ready for an agroecological transition process.
Agency as the fifth pillar of Food Security and Nutrition
According to the summary, “This report starts from the recognition of human rights as the basis for ensuring sustainable food systems. It also considers that the seven PANTHER principles of Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Transparency, Human dignity, Empowerment and the Rule of law should guide individual and collective actions to address the four dimensions of FSN at different scales.” All too often, definitions of agroecology are reduced to a set of technologies, rather than also considering the vital role of people’s decisions and rights: Their agency. Thus, the first recommendation stems from the grounding of this report in the human rights framework and PANTHER principles, and requests the CFS to “consider the emerging importance of the concept of ‘agency’ and the opportunity to add it as a fifth pillar of FSN (the other four being: ‘availability’, ‘access’, ‘utilization’ and ‘stability’) with the view to progress towards the realization of the right to adequate food.” Having agency as a fifth pillar would ensure that ordinary people have the power to define and secure their own food security in their everyday lives. This would be key to the progressive realization of right to food.
The summary goes on to define the agroecological approach to Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) as, “one that favours the use of natural processes, limits the use of external inputs, promotes closed cycles with minimal negative externalities and stresses the importance of local knowledge and participatory processes that develop knowledge and practice through experience, as well as scientific methods, and the need to address social inequalities.” Such an approach recognizes that agri-food systems are coupled with social-ecological systems, right from the production of food through its consumption with all that goes on in between.
Ecological footprint as a fourth operational principle for SFSs
Building on previous HLPE reports, especially the three operational principles identified in the 2016 HLPE report as shaping transition pathways towards SFSs for FSN (improving resource efficiency; strengthening resilience; and securing social equity/responsibility), the report identified the potential “utility of adding ecological footprint as a fourth operational principle for SFSs to adequately capture how consumption patterns affect what is produced, and how ecologically degradative and regenerative practices have impacts beyond those that occur through resource efficiency, since resource-efficient practices can still be degradative.”
The summary further adds that a “key reason for distinguishing ecological footprint from resource efficiency, as operational principles, lies at the heart of the differences between agroecological and sustainable intensification approaches to transitions to SFS, because it is possible to have high resource use efficiency at the same time as having a negative ecological footprint.” Unlike carbon footprint, ecological footprint is a more holistic concept that expresses “the impact of food consumed by a defined group of people measured in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water required for production and to assimilate the wastes generated.” Tracking the ecological footprint contributes to assessing sustainability; its trend over time indicates to what extent transitions towards SFSs are occurring.”
The way forward
Following the second international symposium of the FAO, which discussed policies and actions that can support agroecology to help the SDGs, in particular SDG 2 on hunger and food security, the FAO’s Committee on Agriculture made the decision to support agroecology as a key approach for sustainable agriculture and food systems (FAO 2018 COAG/2018/5). A number of national and regional governments are already moving forward with policies and funding support to institutionalize and operationalize agroecology, including under FAO’s Scaling up Agroecology Initiative.
If the CFS delegates adopt these recommendations, it can help advance Sustainable Food Systems that enhance Food and Nutrition Security globally. But for a transdisciplinary approach such as agroecology to flourish, these recommendations should also be adopted by their counterparts in other fora making decisions on climate crisis (UNFCCC), biodiversity loss (UNCBD), soil health (UNCCD) and especially on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals on poverty and food security.
AGROECOLOGY AS INNOVATION
On July 3, the High Level Panel of Experts of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its much-anticipated report on agroecology in Rome. The report signals the continuing shift in emphasis in the UN agency’s approach to agricultural development. As outgoing FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva has indicated, “We need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process.”
The commissioned report, Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition, two years in the making, is clear on the urgent need for change. “Food systems are at a crossroads. Profound transformation is needed,” the summary begins. It goes on to stress the importance of ecological agriculture, which supports “diversified and resilient production systems, including mixed livestock, fish, cropping and agroforestry, that preserve and enhance biodiversity, as well as the natural resource base.”
It is not surprising, of course, that those with financial interests in the current input-intensive systems are responding to growing calls for agroecology with attacks on its efficacy as a systematic approach that can sustainably feed a growing population. What is surprising is that such responses are so ill-informed about the scientific innovations agroecology offers to small-scale farmers who are being so poorly served by “green revolution” approaches.
One recent article from a researcher associated with a pro-biotechnology institute in Uganda was downright dismissive, equating agroecology with “traditional agriculture,” a step backward toward the low-productivity practices that prevail today. “The practices that agroecology promotes are not qualitatively different from those currently in widespread use among smallholder farmers in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa more broadly,” writes Nassib Mugwanya of the Uganda Biosciences Research Center. “I have come to conclude that agroecology is a dead end for Africa, for the rather obvious reason that most African agriculture already follows its principles.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. As the new expert report shows, and as countless ecological scientists around the world can attest, agroecology brings much-needed innovations to prevailing smallholder practices. With a long track record of achievements in widely varying environments, the approach has been shown to improve soil fertility, increase crop and diet diversity, raise total food productivity, improve resilience to climate change, and increase farmers’ food and income security while decreasing their dependence on costly inputs.
The failing policies of the present
The predominant input-intensive approach to agricultural development can hardly claim such successes, which is precisely why international institutions are actively seeking alternatives. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is the poster child for the promotion of input-intensive agriculture in Africa. At its outset 13 years ago, AGRA and its main sponsor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set the goals of doubling the productivity and incomes of 30 million smallholder households on the continent.
There is no evidence that approach will come anywhere near meeting those worthy objectives, even with many African governments spending large portions of their agricultural budgets to subsidize the purchase of green revolution inputs of commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers. National-level data, summarized in the conclusion to my book Eating Tomorrow, attests to this failure:
A recent article in the journal Food Policy surveyed the evidence from seven countries with input subsidy programs and found little evidence of sustained—or sustainable—success. “The empirical record is increasingly clear that improved seed and fertilizer are not sufficient to achieve profitable, productive, and sustainable farming systems in most parts of Africa,” wrote the authors in the conclusion.
Agroecology: Solving farmers’ problems
Branding agroecology as a backward-looking, do-nothing approach to traditional agriculture is a defensive response to the failures of Green Revolution practices. In fact, agroecological sciences offer just the kinds of innovations small-scale farmers need to increase soil fertility, raise productivity, improve food and nutrition security, and build climate resilience.
Do these innovations sound backward looking to you?
These innovations and many others are explored in depth in the new HLPE report, the full version of which will be available in English in mid-July. Those advocates of industrial agriculture would do well to read it closely so they can update their understanding of the sustainable innovations agroecological sciences offer to small-scale farmers, most of whom have seen no improvements in their farms, incomes, or food security using Green Revolution approaches. Many farmers have concluded that the Green Revolution, not agroecology, is a dead end for Africa.