The Energy Mix curator Mitchell Beer reported on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s recent agroecology symposium in his monthly column for Quebec Farmers’ Advocate. Republished by permission.
A sense of change and possibility was in the air earlier this month, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) held its second-ever international symposium on agroecology in Rome.
The event drew more than 750 participants from 70 countries—so many that it had to be relocated to a formal hall normally reserved for the FAO’s full plenary, and for World Food Day celebrations. No one came away from the three days with the sense that a less industrialized, more ecologically- and community-oriented approach to farming had hit the mainstream just yet. But there was a clear sense that momentum is building for a system change that puts more control in farmers’ hands, relies far less on expensive, often environmentally damaging chemical inputs, and builds the resilience of the land itself to help producers adapt to the impacts of climate change.
“Over the last three or four years, the landscape has really changed significantly,” with mostly local initiatives showing that agroecology is ready for prime time, said conservation and agriculture biodiversity specialist Emile Frison, a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). The starting point for the discussions in Rome, he told The Advocate, was a recognition that “the current model of industrial agriculture is broken and is leading nowhere. We must have a paradigm shift. That was really expressed in a very strong way.”
Increasingly, it looks like the FAO is buying into that shift.
“To feed the world while saving the planet from global warming, the United Nations will from now on encourage agroecology, an historic turn after multiple decades of a ‘green revolution’ based on intensive agriculture,” Le Figaro reports.
“Agroecology could feed and save the planet,” headlined l’Express.
“We have three big challenges to manage—climate change, food security, and the connection between agriculture, forestry, economy, and employment,” said Stephane Le Foll, the former French agriculture minister who now works with the country’s “4 per 1000” soil sequestration initiative.
As a solution, Thomson Reuters Foundation reports, Le Foll pointed to “ecological agriculture, which replaces chemical fertilizers with natural methods, such as planting trees amid crops and rotating foods grown to improve soils and deter pests.”
Throughout the meeting, the already-devastating impacts of climate change emerged as a key motivator for change.
“Agriculture is in transition,” declared Pasquale Steduto, FAO’s Middle East/North Africa regional program leader, in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation. “By introducing agroecology principles, you can reduce the risks of exposure to climate change.”
Frison said that kind of talk was a big change from past pronouncements about exploring the potential of agroecology. Now, the accent is on action.
From Theory to Practice
Exactly what form that action takes depends on where the work is being done, Frison stressed.
“You really have to look at the local situation, because things are so different in different environments, whether you’re in the plains growing cereals or legumes or talking about grasslands and livestock systems,” he explained. “The problems of the transition are quite different in different environments, so it’s very difficult to talk in generalities.”
But an across-the-board theme is the need for policies to position agroecology alongside today’s farm systems.
“Industrial agriculture benefits from various advantages, from subsidies to insurance to other means of support,” he said. Its negative impacts aren’t paid for, and agroecology is rarely acknowledged for the associated health and environmental benefits it delivers.
“So if we want to scale up, there have to be significant changes in policy to at least place sustainable agriculture on a level playing field,” he said. “The transition from industrial agriculture to agroecology isn’t easy for a farmer.” But an early step is to “start broadening the conversation beyond agriculture and productivity, toward a food system discussion that looks at health, environmental impact, and the cost of water purification in watersheds.”
For example: It was called a subsidy when New York City began paying farmers in its surrounding watershed not to use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But by recognizing the ecosystem service the producers could provide, the move supported community agriculture while saving the city hundreds of millions in water filtration costs.
Around the world, IPES-Food reports, those savings go into the trillions.
A Steep Hill to Climb
Frison said he came away from the meeting optimistic, but with a clear-eyed view of the hard work ahead.
“A lot of things are happening at a country level, at a local level, at a regional level, and my feeling is that the symposium will now unleash a whole lot of activity from groups that are holding back or being prudent, but will see now the time is right to start moving,” he said. “But I’m not naïve. It’s still going to be a steep hill to climb. There will be a lot of opposition. Counter-narratives will be put in place to defend the status quo. So it’s still a battle.”
Three measures of that battle: While the 70 countries at the table constituted a small but mighty group, the majority of countries still skipped the meeting. There were relatively few industry representatives in the room. And Frison said Canada was largely absent from the conversation.
“It’s still not a top agenda for the majority of countries, so we have to temper the enthusiasm a bit,” he said. “We’re not there yet.”