The right to food is fundamental but we need a revolution in how food systems work to achieve it for all.
“A greater emphasis on agroecology holds the promise to not only tackle the immediate global food crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but also to provide long-term solutions to other environmental and social issues, including climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty and gender inequality,” said Fergus Sinclair, the Chief Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research – World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF), in his opening remarks at an event built on the margins of the 77th UN General Assembly in New York.
The event, organized by the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology and co-hosted by Switzerland in New York on October 27th, explored the implications of the report issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, for the emerging Agroecology Coalition for the transformation of food systems through agroecology. The Agroecology Coalition is a group of around 40 countries and 80 organizations that have come together to promote agroecological transitions globally.
Armed conflicts, climate disruptions and the lack of social protection have put millions of lives at risk of hunger, according to Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. The crisis is exacerbated by countries which rely on importing food to fulfil their national needs.
“Agroecology [is] increasingly seen as one tool to address this crisis,” said de Schutter. “[It] has … the virtue of providing an answer to the important impact of food systems on both biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.”
Agroecology involves 13 universal principles that focus on farming in harmony with nature and organizing food systems so that they are equitably governed. When the principles are locally applied, they result in a diversity of practices that combine local and scientific knowledge and are adapted to local ecological and cultural contexts. Agroforestry – in which farmers grow mixtures of trees, crops and livestock in integrated systems rather than separate crop monocultures and intensive livestock rearing that rely on environmentally disruptive chemicals – epitomises the sort of practices that result.
“Agroecology feeds local communities, making healthy food an affordable item that they may have access to,” de Schutter said.
Compared to today’s heavily industrialized food production that often harms the environment and depletes the soil, destroying its regenerative properties, agroecology allows people to grow food while maintaining soil functions to sequester carbon and store and regulate water and nutrients. This way, soil health is preserved and the sustainability and resilience of food systems improved.
Agroecology can also contribute to addressing the poverty crisis, as de Schutter suggested, because it is “labour intensive” and so creates employment in rural areas. This contrasts with the conventional goal of reducing the number of people in food production. It is not only the quantity of work that matters however, but also how meaningful the work is to those who do it. It has been argued that agroecology, which requires more workers than industrialized farming, also provides opportunities for personal development and community connectivity, as well as helping to alleviate issues in cities by stemming the tide of rural–urban migration.
Growing food more locally and improving connectivity between producers and consumers – core principles of agroecology – are aligned with developing ‘deliberative’ or ‘deep’ democracy that confers more equal participation in decisions about food production and distribution, said Jahi Chappell, the incoming Director of the Michigan State University, Center for Regional Food Systems. He identified the concentration of corporate power in the food industry, which has vested interest in maintaining the status quo, as a key constraint to agroecological transitions, indicating that enhanced agency of producing and consuming communities will be required to bring about change. He likened the challenge ahead for agroecology to that faced by independence movements of the past several centuries.
More equal participation in food production through agroecological transitions might also help address gender inequity, evidenced by how today’s food crisis disproportionately affects women and girls. According to UN Women, the gender gap in food insecurity has increased from 1.7% in 2019 to 4% in 2021 – meaning there are now 126 million more women who don’t have access to food than men, as noted by Jemimah Njuki, Chief of the Economic Empowerment section at UN Women.
But hunger is only part of the problem for women. Food crises often lead to other issues, including gender-based violence. Food-insecure households see more conflict compared to their secure counterparts. In some parts of the world, women are also forced to be involved in transactional sex for food, which may lead to human trafficking. “This is a gross violation of human rights. It is endangering women’s and girl’s, physical [and] mental health, but also their dignity,” said Njuki.
Therefore, in applying agroecology to solve today’s global food crisis, Njuki suggested prioritizing women and girl’s participation. She also promoted the implementation of gender-responsive agroecological practices and climate-resilient agricultural policies, practices and programmes – which will also be in line with efforts to solve climate issues.
Agroecological transitions involve co-creating agriculture systems together with farmers. Farmer associations and agricultural coalitions in Asia and Africa are leading the way. In Indonesia, a farmer union bought crops from farmers during the Covid-19 pandemic. “The pandemic has underlined the value of solidarity and the importance of the application of traditional local knowledge in times of extreme hardship,” said Zainal Arifin Fuad, a representative from Indonesia of the global La Via Campesina farmers’ network.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, which is the continent’s largest civil society network, has played an important role in promoting transitions to agroecology across the continent. The alliance has been working with the African Union to develop policy and strategy for food system transformation, said Million Belay, the coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.
Young people are also an important variable in the shift to agroecology. How Millennials and Generation Z use their money is a key driver in the food marketplace. “People care, but all too often they are not taking action,” said Eve Turow-Paul, the Executive Director of Food for Climate League. She suggested that food producers need to think about framing messages to entice young people to demand climate-friendly food. People don’t want to think about difficult ideas when they are eating. Food is comfort and celebration, so we need to “make sure that climate-smart food is positioned in a way that makes it enticing, exciting and culturally relevant to the individuals we’re speaking to.”
Despite significant recent progress, there are still some major obstacles hindering transitions to agroecology. De Schutter highlighted that some are financial, such as public debts by developing nations that prevent them from investing in agricultural development. Connected with this is a lack of political will from some governments to shift away from input subsidies that buy the loyalty of farmers, who are also voters. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 report, on average between 2013 and 2018, the world spent nearly USD630 billion each year to support food and agriculture. But much of that money, channelled through market policies and fiscal subsidies for inputs, distorts markets, is unequally distributed and thus does not reach many farmers, harms the environment and does not promote the production of nutritious foods. Only a tiny proportion of these incentives are directed to agroecology.
A sea change in attitudes, structures and actions around food systems is required across nations. Therefore international cooperation, as evidenced in the Agroecology Coalition, is vital for translating aspirations for change into food system transformations on the ground. Switzerland has become an important actor on the international stage, providing support through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, which is part of the country’s federal government. Marylaure Crettaz Corredor, co-lead of the agency’s global programme on food security, said the Swiss government had engaged in “peer-to-peer exchanges” with policymakers from up to 80 nations to share knowledge on best practices on agroecology.
Summing up the debate, de Schutter identified three key points. First, that it is important to dispel lurking doubts about whether agroecology can feed the world. For many small-scale farmers in the developing world, agroecological intensification through intercropping, natural pest control, rainwater harvesting, mulching and use of biological nitrogen fixation can increase productivity; whereas in industrialized countries, agroecological transitions can make agricultural and food systems more sustainable. Second, the multiple dimensions of agroecological transitions open the way for broader alliances to promote their uptake, including public health bodies, anti-poverty groups, and the climate change movement, who can join with farmer organizations and civil society to precipitate change.
Greater food democracy is required to ensure that global, regional, national and local food policies counteract large corporations that have a disproportionate influence over how food systems are organized, thereby allowing food producers and consumers to assert their preferences for nutritious and delicious food that is sustainably and equitably produced.
Watch the recorded session:
This research is part of the Transformative Partnership Platform (TPP) on agroecological approaches to building resilience of livelihoods and landscapes. The Agroecology TPP convenes a broad group of scientists, practitioners and policymakers working together to accelerate agroecological transitions. Since 2019, the TPP has worked to address knowledge gaps across eight domains that support various institutions and advocacy groups in key decision-making processes. Its online ‘Community of Practice’ on GLFx is open to all, providing a space for members to share their insights, knowledge and experience.
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- Fakhri, M. (2022) A/77/177 interim report to the UN General Assembly: The right to food and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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