In the lead-up to the COP 27 climate summit, a food systems think tank is calling for more discussion of “agroecology” and warning that corporations can exploit less well-defined terms to greenwash, while maintaining business-as-usual operations.
“Very loose terms like ‘nature-based solutions’ are being bandied about in international summits without clear definitions, and they’re open to being mobilized in the interests of all kinds of agendas. At worst, they are a cover for green grabs that undermine people’s rights and threaten the land and resources they depend on,” warned Melissa Leach, a food expert with the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) director of the Institute of Development Studies.
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“COP 27 must be really careful about the use of these ambiguous terms and reject solutions that are not clearly defined,” she added.
In a new report, IPES analyzes three concepts for food systems change—agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and nature-based solutions—that are often grouped together but imply different things. Because the three concepts have been researched and spelled out to differing degrees, those that are less comprehensively defined can be exploited by stakeholders trying to suppress transformative food system changes, IPES says.
With this year’s climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, promising to be the first COP climate summit to prominently feature food systems, IPES is urging policy-makers to “reject solutions that lack definitions, exploit ambiguity, and mask agribusiness as usual” by adopting agroecology as an approach and as a term. It’s “the only concept among the three that has attained clarity and conceptual maturity through a long process of inclusive and international deliberation,” the group says.
“Getting food systems on the global agenda isn’t enough,” IPES stresses. “we must ensure inclusive global processes based on a shared understanding of food system transformation and a comprehensive (socially and environmentally) sustainable food system vision.”
The report casts agroecology as a comprehensive pathway towards food system sustainability that, despite being clearly defined, has been sidelined in food systems, climate, and biodiversity summits. The concept has its origins in Indigenous peoples’ approach to food systems—an approach that preserves and enriches ecosystems that “are interconnected with language, traditional knowledge, governance, and cultural heritage.”
A bibliometric analysis that IPES conducted for the report highlights the strength of the concept—it found 2,921 studies that mention agroecology, compared to only 212 mentioning nature-based solutions and 143 for regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture, which is closely linked with the organic farming movement of the 1980s and 90s, has become more widely-known of late. But although regenerative practices often reflect agroecological principles—and sometimes include social justice considerations—the term’s comparatively sparse background allows leading food manufacturers and retailers to now redefine It. That has them touting “regenerative agriculture through proliferating corporate sustainability schemes—sometimes using the term interchangeably with ‘carbon farming’ and ‘no-till’ agriculture, often watering it down in the process,” writes IPES.
Nature-based solutions is the newest concept of the three. It is most often used to describe climate change mitigation and carbon offset schemes and emphasizes environmental benefits while largely ignoring social and human rights issues, IPES says. The limited scope and sparse literature backing nature-based solutions leaves the concept vulnerable to being exploited and misappropriated to protect corporate interests.
“Nature-based solutions is increasing in currency across governance spaces, despite growing concerns over its lack of commonly agreed definition and principles (or perhaps because of this fluidity),” says IPES.
“Civil society groups have already warned that fossil fuel majors and agribusinesses are using nature-based solutions to greenwash their activities and continue expanding core developments (and net emissions) while engaging in carbon offsetting.”
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