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.