By Janneke Bruil and Diana Quiroz
In 2015, a series of unique FAO organised meetings on agroecology took place on three continents. Hundreds of food producers, civil society representatives, academics and policy makers attended. What have the meetings achieved and what is next?
“Agroecology (…) is an approach that will help to address the challenge of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms” said José Graziano da Silva in 2014. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which he leads, had just organised the first International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition. Throughout 2015, continued to discuss agroecology via regional meetings in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, in which hundreds of food producers and many others participated.
This article is a brief reflection on the outcomes around four key themes of these discussions: 1) food and nutrition security; 2) natural resources and climate change; 3) learning and knowledge building and 4) public policies.
1) Agroecology as a path towards food and nutrition security
Agroecology can be a key strategy to improve food and nutrition security, argued Roberto Ugas (National Agrarian University La Molina, Peru) at the regional meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean: “Andean farmers who keep at least 70 % of their productive area under agroecological management have better food availability, access, use and stability.”
In all meetings, the need to enable biodiverse, agroecological farming was voiced. One fundamental step is securing producers’ access (especially women, youth, family farmers, and indigenous peoples) to land, water, and seeds. A lack of knowledge and awareness about the contribution of agroecology to diverse diets was highlighted as a major barrier. To tackle this, participants suggested integrating agroecology into education for youth and adults, as well as farmer field schools and other farmer-to-farmer methodologies, with special attention for traditional knowledge.
“Andean farmers who keep at least 70 % of their productive area under agroecological management have better food availability, access, use and stability” – Roberto Ugas
It was made clear that a holistic, transdisciplinary approach based on new relationships between farmers, academia and other knowledge holders will be crucial. In all regions, producers presented agroecology as a way of life and a path towards food sovereignty for rural and urban citizens. In this respect, participants emphasised the importance of recognising the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, and food and land policies.
2) Agroecology and natural resources in a changing climate
3) Learning processes in agroecology
There was general consensus that farmers and other food producers should be at the forefront of knowledge co-creation in agroecology. Farmer-led, bottom-up, local innovation systems and practices are especially important, as expressed by Ibrahima Diedhiou of the University of Thiès in Senegal when he said: “Farmer innovations have greatly improved the livelihoods of farming communities. Unfortunately, the innovation capacity of local communities remains insufficiently valued”.
“The innovation capacity of local communities remains insufficiently valued” – Ibrahima Diedhiou
As a result, the way knowledge is built and shared needs to be fundamentally different from conventional technology transfer in order to support agroecology. In the words of Clara Nicholls (SOCLA, Latin American Scientific Society for Agroecology): “Agroecology is not only a scientific approach, it is a way of life that values science, but is also aware that knowledge comes from the ancient traditions of people.”
In all regions, participants discussed how to strengthen and increase the recognition of peasant and indigenous knowledge, farmer-led research and farmer-to-farmer learning. Participants reflected on the role of scientists in interactions with farmers, and discussed how to transform these into processes that are truly driven by farmers.
4) Public policies to promote agroecology
Discussions in all regional meetings made it clear that fundamental change in policy is needed for agroecology to reach its full potential. The cross-sectoral nature of effective policies was highlighted, as agroecology not only touches on production and consumption, but also on issues such as health, education, and the environment. The first policy priority in agroecology would be to put control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters and knowledge in the hands of producers. Without access to these resources the transition to agroecology is impossible. Farmer Sophia Ogutu from Kenya emphasised: “The focus of policies needs to be on giving farmers, especially women, control over their natural resources.”
In many ways, the regional meetings boosted the official recognition of agroecology as a relevant and time tested approach, and strong recommendations were made in all regions (see box below). While this is welcome progress, the meetings could have addressed the inherent contradictions between agroecology and the current neoliberal approach to modernising agriculture in a more systematic way. More specifically, they could have explored how to achieve a shift away from a productivist mindset, with its focus on aggregate supply and increases in yields, towards a more multi-functional agricultural model that pursues improved nutrition, resilience, food sovereignty and the sustainable use of resources.
Several important issues were not on the table during the meetings. For example, how to overcome the strong influence of agribusinesses on policy making processes. In the future, this issue should be dealt with in more detail and with more time. It is also notable that confusion exists around FAO’s support for agroecology on the one hand and their engagement with the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture on the other.
Inadequate discussions about the above issues seemed to imply that ‘business as usual’ can continue, instead of making it clear that a fundamental shift towards agroecology is needed. As social movements stated in the Nyéléni Declaration of the International Forum on Agroecology (2015), “the real solutions to the crises of the climate, malnutrition, etc., will not come from conforming to the industrial model. We must transform it and build our own local food systems that create new rural-urban links, based on truly agroecological food production by peasants, artisanal fishers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, urban farmers, etc.”
FAO can potentially play an important role in connecting various actors around agroecology and in catalysing a shift towards an enabling policy environment for agroecology worldwide.
While we appreciate the start of the conversation on how to strengthen agroecology in the regions, and the majority of the recommendations are worthy of implementation, bolder steps are now needed. We must emphasise the need to transform dominant approaches to food and agriculture, and put farmer-led agroecology firmly at the centre of policy, practice and research. Then, agroecology can play a major role in creating fair and sustainable future food systems, food sovereignty and healthy societies.