Opinion: Governments must lead the charge in agroecology

News that hundreds of financial institutions have pledged support for sustainable development and efforts around climate change and biodiversity is very welcome. In reality, however, only a tiny proportion of their agridevelopment investment is currently targeted at sustainable food systems such as agroecology.
Article by Hans Herren, published on Devex, 10 December 2020

An organic tea farmer in Kakamega, Kenya. Photo by: Patrick Rohr / Biovision

News that hundreds of financial institutions have pledged support for sustainable development and efforts around climate change and biodiversity is very welcome. In reality, however, only a tiny proportion of their agridevelopment investment is currently targeted at sustainable food systems such as agroecology.

This promises a real contribution to almost all 17 Sustainable Development Goals through harnessing the power of ecological processes to tackle problems related to biodiversity, emissions, climate change, and health, while promoting the transition to a fair, just, and sovereign food system. In contrast, current farming practices take us further away from reaching those targets.

This was flagged as far back as 2009, when the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development published its seminal “Agriculture at a Crossroads” reports. Calling for a paradigm shift in agriculture toward agroecology, these provided detailed warnings about the negative environmental and socioeconomic impacts of industrialized agriculture, such as land degradation, greenhouse gas emissions, water contamination, vulnerability to price shocks, or lower nutrient content of crops.

Money flows

We sought to explore these funding bottlenecks in our “Money Flows” report under the belief that only by examining investment flows, understanding which actors are influencing them and why, and handing back power to public policy makers will we arrive at a food system that serves everyone. This then inspired a string of location-specific studies focusing on agroecological investments in Belgium, Denmark, France, and the European Union.

Together, these revealed that for most European donors, less than 15% of the agricultural budget goes toward integrated agroecological approaches.

Only a handful of bilateral donors and international organizations — notably France, Switzerland, Germany, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and International Fund For Agricultural Development — specifically identify agroecology as a sustainable approach for achieving food security. The majority of donors endorse some principles of agroecology but take a piecemeal approach, seeking to patch individual practices onto otherwise conventional farming systems that do not benefit smallholders.

Myth-busting

Donors provide various reasons for failing to put agroecology at the center of their strategy. These include funding constraints, concerns about profitability and scalability, and perceptions that agroecology is too complex and work-intensive to be implemented within development projects’ relatively short time frames.

There is, however, no evidence that agroecology cannot be scaled up profitably, with only the size of fields, rather than farms, needing to be controlled. Recent research demonstrates that agricultural diversification does not negatively impact yield and often improves it, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, where the starting point is subsistence agriculture. And while agroecology is complex, increased investment in research and implementation will combat this.

The billions of dollars mobilized to combat COVID-19 also belie arguments around limited financial resources, suggesting rather that the threats of climate change and its catastrophic impact on agriculture and food security are either misunderstood or underprioritized.

We believe this is due to the influence of big agribusinesses, which profit less from an agroecological system that frees farmers from dependence on their seeds, fertilizers, and data and instead rewards farmers with higher produce prices and better standards of living.

Proportions of investment benefiting an agroecological transition, compared with broader funding flows for agriculture, from major European donors. Source: CIDSE and CAWR, 2020; Coalition contre la faim, 2020; DanChurchAid, 2020; Action contre la Faim, CCFD and OXFAM France, 2020; Biovision and IPES-Food, 2020; Pimbert & Moeller, 2018

Power plays

Powerful groups with strong self-interest are also responsible for the fragmented nature of agridevelopment, with agricultural and food system transformation research too often funded by agribusiness lobbyists or large foundations and multilateral organizations that have embraced their so-called productivist ideology and seek to undermine any transition toward agroecology.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has significant sway over the global agricultural agenda through its dominance of funding flows and influence over other actors. It predominantly supports the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which in turn has funded external consultancy companies to write Kenya’s recent agriculture strategy.

At the same time, the president of AGRA will play a leading role in the upcoming “Food Systems Summit” in 2021. World Bank and African Development Bank loans and grants are also the most important source of funds for national research systems in most sub-Saharan African countries.

Given that food security is recognized as a human right, we believe power to design and implement sustainable food system policies should be restored to democratically elected governments that represent their citizens’ interests. Investments in agroecology would then undoubtedly accelerate.

Next steps

To increase the efficiency of financing flows, Biovision believes it is vital to improve transparency and accountability around the decision-making, funding, monitoring, and impact measurement of agrifood projects. We recommend an extended common reporting system with impact studies — examining, for example, the social or environmental consequences of funding granted — attached to all funding.

In tandem with this, we must support the development of holistic performance measurements and metrics for capturing project alignment with the SDGs. Public funding criteria should be expanded to include the delivery of public goods, as well as the integration of different sectors, perspectives, and forms of knowledge.

Finally, transforming an agridevelopment system is a multidecade process that requires stable, long-term funding commitments. Governments can do this if they want to. We suggest promoting institutional rules for donors that provide enhanced flexibility in program planning and funding, including the removal of obstacles to funding subsequent phases. To support long-term research programs, donor alliances with overlapping funding periods should also be facilitated.

Signs of progress

Despite the headwinds outlined above, agroecology is gaining ground, mostly driven by civil society and NGOs.

As noted in “Transformation of Our Food Systems” — a book I co-authored in 2020 to assess progress over the decade since the IAASTD report — numerous transdisciplinary studies, as well as United Nations and intergovernmental processes, have recognized the transformative potential of agroecology for food resilience, climate resilience, and social equity.

Restoring biodiversity is now a key goal in the European Green Deal action plan, and all major U.N. agencies now promote agroecology to some extent. And while a shared focus on “other innovations” by last year’s FAO report on agroecological approaches was disappointing — not least because agroecology, by definition, encompasses the whole food system in all three sustainable development dimensions — such a report would have been unimaginable five years ago.

Switzerland, too, demonstrates a strong political commitment to agroecology that could provide a model for other high-income nations. Although many of its investments target individual components of biodiversity rather than aiming at holistic transformation, it is encouraging that all its foreign aid now has some agroecological element.

These developments, alongside growing support for agroecological principles among civil society, provide hope that we are heading in the right direction. It is not too late to transform our food systems — but the time for complacency has passed.

For more information and recommendations on effective investments in food system transformation and agroecology, click here.

Q&A: From nature-negative to nature-positive — why the Food Systems Summit is a chance for change

There are many vested interests in how current food systems work, but the 2021 Food Systems Summit is a great opportunity to change mindsets, policies, investment patterns, and food production practices, according to Frank Eyhorn, CEO at Biovision Foundation and adviser to the summit’s Action Track 3 on boosting “nature-positive production.”

By Rachel Shue on Devex, published on 25 February 2021.

Frank Eyhorn, CEO at Biovision Foundation and adviser to Action Track 3 of the 2021 Food Systems Summit. Photo: Peter Lüthi / Biovision

 

“It is crucial that we don’t leave agricultural policymaking to the industrial agriculture lobby but take interest also from civil society, consumers, academia, and sustainable businesses and show that change is possible,” he said.

There are trade-offs for consumers too. According to “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020,” “unhealthy diets translate into actual costs for many people in the world and for society as a whole, such as increased medical costs and the costs of climate change, respectively.”

“There is an overwhelming consensus that current food systems have enormous negative externalities. Most recognize that they urgently need to change, but the big question is how,” said Eyhorn, who sat down with Devex to talk about the “three levers” that Biovision is currently working on to make food production more nature-positive.

“Currently, food production is the main driver for soil erosion, for biodiversity loss, for the depletion of aquifers and fish stocks, but also for ill-health.”

— Frank Eyhorn, CEO, Biovision Foundation

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the biggest challenges facing smallholder farmers who produce food crops in low- and middle-income countries?

Smallholders want to nourish their families, and they want to earn a decent living. Their main challenge is that they need to do this in an environment that is quite hostile to these goals. Most policies, subsidies, research, and extension are in favor of large-scale industrial agriculture. Post-World War II, it was perhaps appropriate to say: “We need to produce cheap calories for the masses. We need to get people out of agriculture and put them into services and industries.” But things have changed since then.

Often we hear this question of whether smallholders are efficient. Maybe industrial agriculture is more efficient in producing cheap calories, at least as long as the wider public is paying for the externalities in terms of degenerated natural resources and the negative impacts on human health, which are quite substantial. Ecological smallholder farmers, however, are more efficient when it comes to providing healthy food, creating incomes and value locally, and maintaining the natural resources on which agriculture depends.

So in the end, it is a market failure that needs to be fixed. This is why goals and measures of success for sustainable food systems need to be revised and we need policies that are coherently aligned with these goals. Then smallholder farmers have a fair playing field where they are able to compete.

The 2021 Food Systems Summit is happening later this year. Action Track 3 focuses on how food production can be nature-positive. What does this mean to Biovision, and why is it currently an issue?

In very simple words, it means production that maintains and regenerates natural resources: soil, water, biodiversity, but also a conducive climate in which food production can thrive. Humans are also part of this system, so it is also about healthy and safe food, incomes, and livelihoods.

The very first step is to stop being nature-negative. Currently, food production is the main driver for soil erosion, for biodiversity loss, for the depletion of aquifers and fish stocks, but also for ill-health, and I don’t only mean the triple burden of malnutrition and health issues related to pesticides, but also antibiotic resistance or infectious diseases stemming from industrial animal husbandry.

A second step is to regenerate natural resources so once you stop being nature-negative, you can start being nature-positive. For example, we can sequester carbon in soils by building humus that enhances soil fertility, increases water retention, and also mitigates climate change.

Luckily, when I look at the preparations for the Food Systems Summit, there is an overwhelming consensus that current food systems have enormous negative externalities; most recognize that they urgently need to change, but the big question is how?

Agroecology has a lot to offer: By redesigning production systems based on ecological processes, replacing synthetic inputs with know-how, restoring healthy agroecosystems and fertile soils, and closing cycles. In the end, this helps not only to be nature-positive but also to build resilient livelihoods and foster human health.

Can you provide concrete examples of how food production can be nature-positive?

What is widely practiced and works very well is to enhance agrobiodiversity by including a variety of crops in the production system, including traditional crops for which an increasing market demand exists. Combine that with integrated pest management, bio-control methods, and resistant breeds instead of using synthetic pesticides, and nutrient cycles based on organic manures and crop rotations instead of chemical fertilizers.

There are some very good systems that show this in practice. For example, the push-pull approach promoted by Biovision in eastern Africa, where legumes are intercropped in maize or sorghum so that they fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. They also repel pests and suppress weeds, and they serve as fodder crops.

Many farmers in Kenya are applying this system very successfully, not only to restore their soils but also to substantially increase their incomes. Some are now experimenting on integrating vegetables and fruits into the system, which again increases the diversity and with it the nutritional value and the income they can generate.

What is Biovision hoping to achieve this year given the momentum to transform food systems?

We see the Food Systems Summit as a real opportunity to manifest a paradigm shift and to define broadly agreed sustainable food system goals. We need to identify the levers of change and build collaborations and coalitions to move these levers. One of these levers is to invest in the knowledge generation and in the dissemination of agroecological know-how. Most investments in agricultural research and development are still going into the conventional paradigm while very little is invested in agroecological systems.

The second lever on which we will focus is policy reform. With support from Switzerland, Germany, and the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] we initiated the Food Policy Forum for Change, which facilitates a peer-to-peer exchange among policymakers so that they can discuss how to realign agriculture and food-related policies with sustainability goals; what works and how to overcome the obstacles. We see that more and more governments are joining this process.

We will also work on a third lever, enhancing investments in agroecological enterprises and proving the business case of agroecology.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises that provide inputs, bring the produce from the farm to the market, or process food products play a crucial role, but they find it difficult to access capital. Together with the TIFS Initiative, we are trying to enhance capital flows to these “agroecopreneurs,” as we call them. If we can make some progress on these three levers, I think we can really make a big contribution to food system transformation.

Visit the Future of Food Systems series for more coverage on food and nutrition — and importantly, how we can make food fair and healthy for all. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #FoodSystems.

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

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.

Article by Michelle Langrand published on Geneva Solutions, 09 April 2021. © licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0

©Peter Lüthi, Biovision

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.