Amplifying agroecology to achieve the SDGs: A political matter

By Paulo Petersen and Markus Arbenz

Agroecology-based food systems have an enormous potential to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The crucial question is: if agroecology already proved it can address social and environmental challenges, why do successful initiatives often remain confined to the local level? With enabling political-institutional conditions, agroecology can scale up and scale out, and guide us on promising pathways towards achieving the SDGs.

Young people in Senegal experimenting with compost

Thousands of isolated experiences in agroecology around the world demonstrate that it can produce healthy food, safeguard soil, water and biodiversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and build resilient, just communities and economies. These same experiences behold important clues about key institutional and technical principles for spreading agroecology from the bottom up, and about obstacles that impede their social and geographical spread.  New governance mechanisms and public policies that can enable agroecology to fulfil its potential of addressing today’s multifaceted crises.

The formalisation by the United Nations in 2015 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Transforming Our World placed on the agenda of the international community a comprehensive set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs can be a useful benchmark for guiding strategies to address today’s global systemic crisis. Agroecology offers a promising pathway towards achieving the SDGs, but only if we face the world’s crisis at its roots.

The world’s structural crises

Since 2008, there has been a notable increase in global instability, characterised by intensified economic, political, social, environmental and climate upheaval. As we are witnessing a convergence of environmental and social crises, there is no longer any doubt that we are experiencing a unique crisis, structural in kind. Structural crises demand structural solutions. Transformations of great magnitude and complexity are therefore needed.

It is becoming increasingly clear that agriculture and food production have emerged as the main driving force behind the planet’s environmental degradation, while at the same time, it is the economic sector that is most affected by these biophysical transformations. Adequate ecological conditions for agriculture (fertile soils, biodiversity, clean water, a stable climate) are seriously deteriorating due to the form in which foods are currently produced, processed, distributed and consumed. Resolving this paradox is urgent.

The agroecological pathway

The 2008 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that in order for agriculture to turn from a problem into a solution, it is necessary to shift from the current, prevailing productivist mindset towards an approach that considers the complexity of farming systems within their socio-environmental contexts. In 2010, Olivier De Schutter, then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, pointed to agroecology as the appropriate approach to guide the transformations needed in agri-food systems. Other academic and ‘grey’ studies followed, drawing similar conclusions.

According to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), instead of the uniformity imposed by globalised markets, agroecology promotes diversity (from cultivated plot to plate, from the local to the global), which enables citizens to regain autonomy over the flows that link production to consumption at local or territorial levels. Nonetheless, recent global institutional arrangements facilitate the dominance of transnational corporations, homogenization of the global food system, and systemic institutional obstacles to the scaling up of agroecology, such as land grabbing. There is also a scientific and political push towards reiterating and deepening the scientific-technological legacy of the Green Revolution (see box), now presented in new rhetorical guises as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ and ‘sustainable intensification’.

An agroecological market in Minas Gerais, Brazil

The forces driving agroecology and alternative food networks

People are engaging in agroecology across all regions of the world, often in response to the overwhelming dominance of huge transnational conglomerates in agriculture. For example, Mexican family farmers are saving and producing seed of traditional varieties because the seed market has created a genetic bottleneck. In a completely different context, in the Netherlands, family farmers organise in territorial cooperatives and around soil enhancing practices to counter regulations that are in favour of large, industrial farms.

Other initiatives have developed as a response to situations of rural poverty and/or food insecurity. For example, in India, new practices of rice production have emerged because of a need for higher yields with less water, seeds, agrochemicals and labour and in Argentina, the economic crisis of 2002 drove the citizens of Rosario to transform the city into a living garden that provides fresh, affordable vegetables. Million Belay, coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa describes how agroecology can address rural and urban poverty in Africa.

Whatever their starting point, trajectories of agroecological innovation can be considered as localised expressions of a struggle for autonomy in the face of suffocating socio-political realities. By developing new forms of producing, processing, distributing and consuming foods, and developing innovative institutional arrangements based on new values and social relationships, many of these networks contribute to the relocalisation of agri-food systems and the re-appropriation of increasing portions of the political power and the economic value usurped by food empires. The spreading of Community Supported Agriculture and new peasant markets over the last decade is one testament to this promising trend.

New networks of agroecological innovation are emerging that facilitate crucial dialogue between experiences and knowledges and through this, fostering economic and political emancipation. Furthermore, it has become evident that women are often at the centre of these initiatives, promoting social transformation through the mobilisation of their valuable knowledge, skills and agency. For example, in Brazil, a network of female farmer innovators have linked experiments in agroecology with reflections about gender inequalities, and through this has changed the lives of hundreds of women.

In isolation, these emergent experiences may appear irrelevant or ineffective. But combined they reveal the powerful force of agroecology. Lifting these experiences out of their invisibility and isolation is thus one of today’s major challenges, as agroecology is finally beginning to gain official recognition.

Contradictions of the failed agri-food regime

Celebrated as one of the biggest examples of the ingenuity of science and technology because of its supposed capacity to definitively rid the human species hunger and malnutrition, industrial agriculture not only proved to be incapable of creating the conditions for this goal to be achieved, it is also responsible for engendering new, growing contradictions related to health and wealth. While one in seven people in the world struggle every day to have something to eat, another one in seven suffer the effects of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer – diseases that are spreading like epidemics and that are a result of nutritionally imbalanced diets full of chemical additives.

This contradictory asymmetry is emblematic of a food production and supply system that treats food as just any other commodity. This system spread worldwide in particular from the 1990s under the impetus of neoliberal globalisation. Monocultures that are structurally dependent on fossil fuels and the intensive use of pesticides have spread at the cost of biocultural diversity. To add to the contradictions, large areas have been reserved for environmental preservation in the name of conserving biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby expropriating the territorial rights of peasant communities who historically acted as custodians of natural resources and as producers of healthy foods.

The combined effect of these patterns of occupying agrarian spaces is unequivocal: a concentration of wealth and the means of production; unprecedented environmental degradation; worsening levels of public health; out-of-control urbanisation; and increased vulnerability of agriculture to climatic and market variations.

The SDGs and international trade

Possibly the biggest challenge to achieving all 17 SDGs is to overcome the major contradictions between international treaties relating to the environment on the one hand, and to economic and trade-related issues on the other.

These contradictions will not be overcome through the same responses to economic crises of the past, that is, by deepening the exploitation of people and nature through the promotion of new technologies, and new forms of organising power and commodity production. Market-driven development mechanisms merely serve to strengthen an economic system that functions as though nature were an endless source of resources and an infinite waste sink. This reality is particularly notable in the agri-food sector, the economic sector that most closely connects society to nature. Today, an ever-shrinking number of transnational corporations imposes, in the name of economic freedom, the increasing standardisation of production and consumption, eroding the sovereignty of local peoples and communities over their livelihoods and ways of life. New international arrangements are needed in which ecological and economic objectives are reconciled.

A new generation of public policies

Under the motto ‘locally rooted, globally connected,’ since the 1980s the AgriCultures Network has identified, systemised and disseminated lessons related to agroecology initiatives around the world. All these decades of documentation reveal that agroecology starts and grows mainly in the convergence of (and dispute between) economic and socio-political interests in specific territories. This means that the spread of agroecology cannot occur through technocratic interventions that are conceived outside of the local socio-environmental and cultural context.

A new generation of public policies is needed that recognises and strengthens the role of local institutions, especially organisations of family farmers, in regulating agri-food systems and territorial development. Such new policies, that can only be adopted and implemented in a democratic institutional environment, must enable farmers and other dwellers to act in networks to create and develop local alternatives based on agroecological principles. In one example, the city of New York has developed an innovative arrangement with upstream farmers who now protect the source of clean, safe water for people living in the mega metropolis. Elizabeth Mpofu, general coordinator of La Vía Campesina, describes the type of institutional and policy framework that would facilitate sustainable development through agroecology.

Testing a new weeder for agroecological rice production with SRI

Towards the SDGs

Trajectories of agroecological innovation are oriented towards valuing, re-organising and enhancing local resources, whether material or social, providing combined responses to the varied interests and strategic objectives defined and negotiated in local networks. At the territorial level, these trajectories are developing the multifunctional potential of agriculture by simultaneously achieving economic, social, environmental, cultural and political objectives. In fact, the global movement of organic agriculture has its origin in agroecological principles; together agroecology and organic farming can make decisive contributions to achieving the SDGs.

On all continents, agroecology is being put into practice at significant social scales. We argue that agroecology has huge potential for contributing to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and for achieving the SDGs, especially when policies and institutional arrangements work towards scaling it up socially and geographically, to help humankind to take a more promising path towards the future now looming before it.

Paulo Petersen (paulo@aspta.org.br) is Executive Coordinator of AS-PTA and Vice President of the Brazilian Association on Agroecology.
Markus Arbenz (m.arbenz@ifoam.bio) is the Executive Director of IFOAM Organics International.