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Smallholders Look to Agroecology for Sustainable, Equitable Food Systems

Agroecology can encourage environmental sustainability while empowering smallholder producers—leading grassroots organizations to embrace it as a solution to the inequity and environmental destruction caused by the industrialized global food system.

“Current food and agricultural systems are at a crossroads,” begins the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) Stock Take Report on Agroecology. “The increasing demand for safe, healthy, and nutritious food, combined with a growing global population and the escalating impact of climate change and disasters, are challenging the current paradigm of food production and consumption.”

Industrial farming systems have enlarged the global food supply—a mechanized thresher “can process 450 to 600 kilograms of rice, sorghum, or beans,” compared to the 15 or 40 kilograms a human can process, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. But lawmakers’ failure to also establish accompanying social and economic policies has increased small-scale farmers’ vulnerability and distributed food access inequitably. As a result, says IFAD, consumers in affluent countries can purchase an abundance of food while an estimated three billion people worldwide are unable to “afford a healthy and diversified diet.” 

Similarly, ineffective ecological policies have let food producers intensify operations while degrading land and producing greenhouse gases. Leading meat producers supplying the rising demand for meat in affluent countries are now responsible for more emissions than large European countries, reports Clean Energy Wire. Despite the damaging effects they cause, meat producers are minimally regulated and are often sustained by government subsidies.

Awareness of these issues is contributing to “a growing recognition of the need to transform food production and consumption patterns and develop food systems in which farmers can build resilience to climate change while making nutritious food available and affordable for all, without compromising natural resources and ecosystems,” writes IFAD.

But so far, approaches to ecological food production in affluent countries typically fail to address social inequities. “How is your farm really sustainable if only 1% of people can afford your food?” asked Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms, in an interview with The Guardian. Newman argues that mass participation in the food system is an essential element of sustainability.

Agroecology addresses Newman’s concern, as it “integrates ecological, economic, and societal development components” to create a food system that aligns with all three sustainability pillars, says IFAD. By diversifying farm systems and emphasizing traditional knowledge alongside scientific innovation, recycling resources, and supporting vulnerable and marginalized communities, agroecology aims to be a guiding light at the food system crossroads.

In fact, an African alliance of food producers recently identified agroecology as a promising strategy to undo the harm industrial agriculture brought to smallholder farmers and the environment, reports SciDevNet. In a letter, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) asked philanthropic “Green Revolution” organizations to redirect support away from subsidies for seeds and fertilizers, and to instead support African-led agroecology systems.

“Farmers all over Africa have shown far more promising results sharing knowledge and working with scientists to establish low-input farming methods that leave the control of production in the hands of African farmers,” the letter states. 

To support such organizations in their response to the combined crises of climate change, land degradation, and global food insecurity, “a bold paradigm shift” is needed, says IFAD. “Small-scale producers must be at the core of this transition, as they play a crucial dual role in food systems” as both food providers and consumers.