A transformation of agriculture and food systems has become paramount in the face of the world’s rapidly deteriorating natural resources. If strategically planned, agroecological agriculture and food system practices, together with the policies that support them, have good potential to help establish more resilient food systems. Agroecology creates positive and minimizes negative environmental externalities, leading to more resilient food systems, its promoters say. Agroecology is too ideological and not enough evidence based, sceptics argue. Can agroecology finally blaze the way for sustainable development that benefits all? Or is it nothing but an overrated buzzword?
A CFS side event with the title “Transistion towards Agroecology”, convened by Global Donor Platform Member Switzerland, in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of China, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), Réseau des Organisations Paysannes et des Producteurs Agricoles de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (ROPPA), Senegal and France, also a Global Donor Platform Member, looked at these questions and drafted evidence-based scenarios that demonstrate the impact of food system transformation building on agroecology.
One focus of the side event was on a new series of case studies published by IPES-Food. These case studies span a range of geographical locations, where farmers, social movements and local political actors have overcome the systemic ‘lock-ins’ holding current agriculture and food systems in place. They portray how these actors have embraced change (i.e. through changes in practice, knowledge generation and dissemination, social relations, and institutional conditions) to successfully drive a transition towards greater sustainability.
The challenges are immense. According to Emile Frison, IPES Food, who facilitated the side event, the Fith Assessment Report (AR 5) of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leaves no doubt that the world community must work towards the goal of 1,5-degree Celsius global warming instead of 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid dramatic consequences. Rapid changes are needed. Farming has a high potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Agroecology has the potential to turn agriculture from being a significant problem to a significant solution,” Frison said. This corresponds with the “Scaling up Agroecology Initiative” by FAO, which is important to move agroecology forward and which launched in early 2018.
Shifting to agroecology – a shift to paradigm
“Agroecology is a key path for the achievement of the SDGs. It offers a unique opportunity to tap on local knowledge and scientists to work together,” concluded H.E. Delphine Borione, Ambassador of the Government of France and referred the Green Sahel Initiative as a good example. For instance, in Senegal, agroecological approaches date back to the 1990s. Being strongly affected by climate change, the country sees agroecology as a promising alternative to formerly practiced, less sustainable farming methods. Farmers understand that agroecology preserves their soils. The government supports this approach, but due to the higher prices of organic products, they are only affordable to middle class consumers. More efforts are necessary to make the way out of this market niche.
Speakers like Steven Gliesmann, IPES Food, do not ignore such challenges, but consider the shift to agroecology as being without alternative. For Gliesman, agroecology describes a “movement”, a process to “break away from industrial food and farming systems”. “It is a paradigm shift, ” said Gliesman, emphasizing that it is now time to lift agroecology to a next level. “Agroecology is ongoing and growing despite the fact that almost no investments are being made,” he said.
Agroecology is science, practice and social movement
According to the Luo Shiming, South China Agricultural University, agroecological practices tie in with traditional knowledge of farming systems, like intercropping, fishponds etc. and recognize natural agricultural agroecology systems. Ibrahim Coulibaly, ROPPA, stressed that politicians and scientists should be encouraged to see what is going on the ground in order to raise awareness and consolidate support.
At the end of the day, agroecological practices only have a future if they reach economic maturity, pointed out Caroline Omondi, Head of Sustainability at Varistor AG, Switzerland. “Farmers discuss with you 1) money 2) money 3) money.” Market access and revenue to reinvest in value chains are crucial. One needs to bring in the private sector to become a partner in advancing the agroecology sector,” she summarized.
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