SHIFT Prize: Award for Transformative Agroecological Research

Farming Systems Comparison in the Tropics (SysCom), a project carried out by the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL) wins the 2021 SHIFT Prize for Transformative Agroecological Research for Development.

In light of the triple burden of malnutrition, depletion of natural resources, severe consequence of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, the need for a profound transformation of global agricultural and food systems becomes increasingly evident. Agroecology is emerging as a viable alternative pathway to enhance the resilience and sustainability of farming systems by applying ecological principles to agriculture and ensuring a regenerative use of natural resources and ecosystem services while also addressing the need for socially equitable food systems within which people can exercise choice over what they eat and how and where it is produces.

The SHIFT Prize aims to recognize collaborative research for development projects and initiatives, which have made an exemplary contribution to the agroecological transformation of food systems. Among the 28 applicants, three research projects were selected as finalists by an independent jury.

Towards Food Sustainability: Reshaping the coexistence of different food systems in South America and Africa (FoodSAF)

The project by the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) aims to provide evidence-based, transdisciplinary scientific knowledge for innovation strategies and policy options for food systems sustainability. In a collective action phase, 13 “Transformative Pilot Actions” (TPA) were co-designed and co-implemented between researchers and food systems stakeholder. Read the factsheet


Farming Systems Comparison in the Tropics (SysCom)

Through this project, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) compares different production systems to obtain scientific evidence on their potential and limitations in order to develop systems that contribute to sustainable agriculture. Thereby, they conduct long-term experiments, as well as participatory on-farm research to ensure direct benefits for local communities. Read the factsheet


Malawi Farmer-led Agroecology Initiatives by Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC)

Initially designed as a participatory research project, the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) organization developed into a farmer-led non-profit organization that aims to support rural Malawians in building sustainable, healthy, equitable, and resilient communities. Thereby, gender and social equity play a crucial role for improving food security, nutrition and livelihoods of smallholder farming households. Read the factsheet


On September 15, the SysCom project carried out by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) was announced as the winner of the 2021 SHIFT Prize for Transformative Agroecological Research for Development.

Watch the video about the winning project here: FiBL Projekt für biologische Landwirtschaft in den Tropen gewinnt internationalen Forschungspreis – YouTube

As the jury member Olivia Yambi puts it: «[SysCom] provides evidence for food systems transformation and contributes to the debate and potential policy changes to support agroecology, organic agriculture and diversity […].»

The SysCom coordinator and Head of Department for International Cooperation of FiBL Beater Huber, expressed that: «The award is an excellent motivation for our team, and it comes at the right moment: we have just completed an extensive midterm review with all partners where we concluded that we want to engage stronger in national and supra-national policy dialogues on the sustainable transition of the food systems. The SHIFT prize will help us gain awareness and link up with respective networks.»

The award ceremony will be held at the Agroecology Europe Forum 2021 in Barcelona in mid-November.


Burkina Faso: CNABio exchanges with stakeholders on the challenges of agroecology

© Modeste Bationo, CEAS

On 29-30 July 2021, the National Council for Organic Agriculture (CNABio) of Burkina Faso, in partnership with the Permanent Secretariat for the Coordination of Agricultural Sector Policies, held a session with the aim to bring together the actors of the inter-ministerial technical team for the drafting of the national rural sector programme (PNSR) and to discuss issues related to the production and consumption of agricultural products.

During the two day work-shop, the organisers present the main stakes of agroecology, its definition, and above all its importance for Burkina. “Currently, our agriculture suffers from soil degradation, lower yields, pest pressure and many health problems. The aim is to equip the technical team developing the PNSR 3 to take into account issues related to agro-ecology so that it is a production technique that is best disseminated in Burkina” explained Arsène Sawadogo, deputy secretary general of CNABio, in his speech at the opening ceremony.

Read the full article by LeFaso here (in French).

Review to the UN Food Systems Summit Pre-summit affiliated session

At the UN Food Systems Summit 2021 pre-summit affiliated session “Strengthening food systems through agroecology”, France emphasized that agroecology is an important lever for resilience and development.

The agroecological transition must be accompanied, in Northern and Southern countries alike, through technical systems, public policies and the development of synergies between all actors in a systemic and territorial approach, combining farmers’ knowledge and scientific evidence through a combination of research and training.

Philippe Lacoste, Sustainable Development Director, French Ministry for Europe and Foreign affairs

But how are local governments supporting food systems transformation based on agroecological principles?

Find an overview over existing policy initiatives here: Download PDF

Missed our UNFSS Pre-summit affiliated session?

Watch the recording and read the overview of financial and policy initiatives which show that #AgroecologyWorks!

The UN Food Systems Summit has initiated an impressive process over the past 12 months

Frank, Eyhorn, CEO of Biovision and organic agriculture expert with more than 20 years of experience in international cooperation

Biovision Foundation participates in the preparations for the UN Food Systems Summit.
After the pre-summit, Stefanie Pondini and Frank Eyhorn take stock

»» Read this interview

New Food Policy Video Series Published

As part of Devex’ Future of Food Systems series, Biovision Foundation published a Food Policy Series that portray policy champions from different countries who talk about their efforts to transform food systems at various levels and scales. I a total of four videos, decision makers from Madagascar, Colombia, India and the Philippines tell us about how to strengthen farmers’ networks, connect rural food producers with urban consumers and promote organic agriculture as a means of combating food security and preserve biodiversity.

Organic produce as a means of combating food security issues in Madagasgar

Fanomezantsoa Ranarivelo, Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Madagascar, talks about a new law that aims to combat the country’s food security issues and climate change while supporting smallholder farmers, and promoting trade of organic produce.

Connecting rural food producers and urban consumers in Colombia

César Augusto Carrillo Vega, from the District Department of Economic Development of the city of Bogota, explains how the “Mercados Campesinos” initiative helped overcome food security issues during the COVID-19 pandemic by connecting rural farmers to urban residents.

Making Sikkim, India, 100% organic

Dr. Anbalagan Sundaram explains how Sikkim became the world’s first fully organic state in 2016.

Strengthening farmers networks in the Philippines

Carlos Isagani Zarate, Member of the House of Representatives in the Philippines, explains the need for agrarian reform to help small-scale farmers, and how amending the law on organic farming could help farmers improve their livelihoods whilst improving the country’s food security.

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.

Opinion: How agroecology can help food systems be more climate-resilient

Global food security is increasingly under threat. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how vulnerable our food supply chains are. In the medium term, however, a changing climate, together with dramatic biodiversity loss, is the much bigger challenge.

Article by Maryline Darmaun, Martin Herren, Fabio Leippert, published on Devex, 22 May 2021

“Resilience … can be compared to a spider web: The more nodes and flexible threads that are part of the system, the better it can buffer external shocks.” Photo by: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Agriculture is both villain and victim in the midst of a global climate and biodiversity crisis and we urgently need to transform how we produce food. But how can we foster resilience to increasing external shocks and adapt to changing conditions to support the most vulnerable?

Diversity is our best insurance for resilient food systems

Resilience should be considered from a systemic angle. It can be compared to a spider web: The more nodes and flexible threads that are part of the system, the better it can buffer external shocks. Perhaps we should mimic what nature has proven works best?

Based on field experience and scientific evidence it becomes increasingly clear that agroecology is the best solution. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines 10 agroecological elements and The High Level Panel of Experts gives 13 principles vital to sustainably transform the agriculture sector so it can be more climate-resilient.

A recent study by FAO, Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, or FiBL, and Biovision revealed the strong correlation between the concept of resilience and agroecology, emphasizing three cornerstone aspects of agroecology’s resilience-enhancing potential:

• Diversity creates synergies and redundancies to minimize shocks and reduce complete failures — including species and varietal diversity of animals, plants, fungi, and microbes up to diversity of landscapes, farming practices, and economic diversification.

• Healthy and fertile soils are fostered through agroecological practices, e.g. by nurturing soil biodiversity, closing nutrient cycles, and reducing the input of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

• Local farmers and their communities with their knowledge of the terrain, traditions, and heritage, blended with cutting edge scientific knowledge, can bolster resilience.

Climate resilience is best strengthened through a targeted interplay of locally adapted ecologic and socioeconomic measures based on holistic agroecological principles. There is little use in isolated measures only.

Read more:

• Agriculture at a Crossroads by IAASTD.

• From Uniformity to Diversity by IPES-Food.

• Systemic Challenges, Systemic Responses by TMG.

• Farming with Biodiversity by WWF.

• Agroecology and Climate Change Rapid Evidence Review by CCAFS and FCDO.

The three cornerstones of resilience through agroecology. Image by: Biovision

It works: Evidence from all over the world

Twenty-seven case studies from across the globe demonstrate how the agroecological approach can work, representing an extensive network of agroecological individuals and initiatives. Three of the case studies from Andhra Pradesh, the Sahel, and the Peruvian Amazon, illustrate initiatives that foster food security and resilience despite the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn about the Avaclim project

Fostering uptake of agroecology in arid regions, the project will run from 2020 to 2022. Funded by the Global Environmental Facility and the French Facility for Global Environment, the research component of the project is coordinated by the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, and supported by a scientific consortium composed of IRD, CARI, CIRAD, Montpellier SupAgro, and local researchers.

Another encouraging example is the Avaclim project, which aspires to create supportive uptake conditions for agroecology in arid regions. The NGO Centre d’Actions et de Réalisations Internationales collaborates with practitioners, farmers, and scientists to conduct a multidimensional evaluation of the impacts of agroecological initiatives in seven countries, advocate for good practice approaches, and for better integration of agroecology into policies and strategies.

The project furthers context-specific knowledge on the potential and challenges of agroecology to scale it up.

The results are first shared among practitioners themselves and then feed science-based policy briefings to political authorities of the partner countries as well as to intergovernmental bodies.

Policy to support an enabling environment

However, sensitization of stakeholders alone will not transform a food system from uniformity and standardization toward diversity and resilience. It is vital to create an enabling policy environment for agroecology that truly levels the playing field for sustainable producers and consumers

A few governments already provide a favorable policy setting to include agroecological principles. In 2015, the Danish government launched an ambitious plan to double the area under organic cultivation by 2020 and ultimately render Denmark entirely organic. For Bhutan, two key policy goals are to achieve food self-sufficiency and establish a resilient, productive organic farming system, whereas Senegal highlights agroforestry as a key approach in their climate pledge under the Paris Agreement.

Generally, the current revision of the nationally determined contributions by each country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change presents an opportunity to embark on an agroecology-based transition. Our study revealed that 12.5% of the initial NDCs already mention agroecology either as an adaptation or mitigation strategy, but are proposed as isolated measures rather than as a holistic approach.

In this context, the intergovernmental treaties such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Committee on World Food Security play a key role. They must provide guidance on how to change from silo approaches to systemic measures and there is great potential to mobilize economic resources through the institutions’ funding mechanisms to finance agroecological initiatives and research.

Changing course toward sustainable food systems

The scientific evidence and cases presented here give hope. But they also highlight the Herculean challenge we still face to protect our food systems from climate change and biodiversity loss.

For a successful transformation, we need to fully embrace complexity, discuss and negotiate trade-offs, and consider the political and economic implications. Remembering the spider web, this means to create and protect as many nodes and threads as possible, connecting the different scales. Locally, farmers should be trained to find context-specific solutions building on agroecological principles.

Nationally, a change of mind among policymakers should promote holistic adaptation and development plans, designed and implemented in a participatory manner. Internationally, discussions in relevant fora must follow a systemic-thinking approach along the Sustainable Development Goals and planetary boundaries.

Such a paradigm shift also implies that current dominant stakeholders and technologies might diminish in power if current intervention strategies are not rethought. However, just as during the COVID-19 pandemic, measures must now focus on the health of people and the planet.

While this is certainly a complex and challenging endeavor, starting by consequently building on diversity, soil health, and shared knowledge, guided by the principles of agroecology, is a viable key strategy that will lead to a better future for all.

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.

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

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 BelgiumDenmarkFrance, 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.


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.