The food system at a turning point: now is the time for agroecology

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In September 2014, at the 1st International FAO Symposium on Agroecology, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said: “Today, a Window was opened in what for 50 years has been the Cathedral of the Green Revolution”. Almost 4 years later, following the organization of 7 regional symposia on agroecology between June 2015 and November 2017, he opened the 2nd International FAO Symposium on the same topic saying: “Now it is the time to scale-up the implementation of agroecology”(1).

Agroecology gaining ground

768 people (almost twice more than expected) attended the symposium, including representatives from 72 governments, 350 non-state actors and 6 UN organizations. A large majority of delegates agreed on the need to shift the current industrial agrifood system towards the agroecological paradigm. They recognized that the focus on increasing yield at any cost promoted by the Green Revolution is not sustainable, and that there is an urgent and critical need for a transformative change in how food is grown, produced, processed, transported, distributed and consumed, requiring the implementation of adequate legal and regulatory frameworks based on agroecology. Promoting agroecology as an integrated approach was seen as a key avenue to achieving Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, including hunger eradication, climate resilience and sustainable agriculture.

Key Actions for Scaling up Agroecology

At the end of the symposium the Chair presented a summary with key actions for scaling up agroecology. Family farmers, including small-scale producers, women, pastoralists and indigenous people were recognized as historical subjects of agroecology. Reintroducing diversity on farms, strengthening local food systems, valuing traditional knowledge and ensuring access to land, water and seeds have been identified as core components of agroecology. It is critical that the legal and regulatory frameworks are implemented in a way that ensures transformative change towards sustainable food systems based on agroecology, and that respects, protects and fulfills small-scale food producers’ rights. Bottom-up processes, family farmer-led participatory research and co-innovation, the enhancement of farmer’s autonomy and livelihoods are fundamental features of agroecology. The system re-design involves also the economic dimension, i.e. the development of a solidarity economy including shorter food supply chains and innovative markets, such as public procurement schemes and direct linkages between consumers and family farmers. But it doesn’t stop there. Scaling up agroecology also means stopping doing harm and removing perverse incentives for unsustainable agriculture.

Avoiding cooptation

The international recognition of agroecology as a key paradigm to achieve a sustainable food system has never been greater. But the same applies to the risk of its cooptation by actors who benefit from the current industrial food system. They seek to further consolidate it by proceeding to the minimum adjustments necessary by reducing agroecology to a narrow set of agricultural practices integrated in a the business as usual capital intensive industrial model while ignoring its social and political dimensions. As an example, who can believe that the “agroecological strategy” of Macdonald France truly aims at shifting the current agrifood system towards a radically different paradigm(2)?

To be credible, any serious international commitment to shift towards the agroecological paradigm will require avoiding such risks. From a civil society perspective the Nyeleni Declaration from 2015 states clearly what agroecology means and what it doesn’t mean. Small-scale food producers and other civil society actors made it loud and clear: “Agroecology cannot be just another tool for the expansion of the industrial agrifood production model. (…) Without the protection of our Rights, there is no Agroecology! Without feminism, there is no agroecology! Without our peoples, there is no Agroecology!”(3) They also denounced the alarming wave of criminalization and violent repression of defenders of territories and small-scale producers.

FAO seems to have understood the message. In his closure remarks, Graziano da Silva said: “When we speak of ‘agroecology’, we are not speaking strictly of technical matters. Agroecology involves other dimensions. And I would like to stress the social aspects of agroecology. (…) We are going to strengthen the role of family farmers, small-scale farmers, fisherfolks, herders, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, and in particular women and youth. There is no way to implement an agroecological project of any sort without the full participation and active roles of these stakeholders.

This is only the beginning

The challenge is now to keep the momentum going and build up institutional commitments. The outcomes of the symposium, as well as the FAO “Scaling Up Agroecology initiative”, will be presented during the committee on agriculture (COAG) of FAO in this October session, as a basis for setting up a work plan aiming at increasing international support to agroecology. At that occasion, it will be crucial that governments translate in commitments the clear signal sent by the symposium: now is the time to shift the industrial food system towards agroecology.

(1) This second International Symposium on Agroecology took place in Rome from April 3 to 5. It follows the organization of 7 regional agroecology FAO symposia held from June 2015 and November 2017. The synthesis of the main outcomes of these regional symposia is available here (PDF).
(2) See this example.
(3) Excerpt from the CSOs joint intervention made during the closure session of the symposium.