To Diversify Agriculture, We Must Diversify the Questions We Ask
Why narrowly- defined indicators of agricultural performance fail to capture many of the benefits of diversified and organic systems
It is not uncommon for ‘food security’ to be the subject of gatherings and conferences around the world, particularly since the food price spikes of 2007-2008. More often than not, the discussion is framed around the following questions: How can we ‘feed the world’ and with what technologies? How can we tweak current approaches in order to maintain crop yields? As farmers groups and civil society organizations gather in Romania for the Nyeleni European Food Sovereignty Forum, it is refreshing and reassuring to note that ‘feeding the world’ is not at the top of the agenda.
The key problem with these questions is that they are built on the assumption that industrial-style food systems are the only way forward. Yet it is the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that are driving a series of devastating impacts, from the rampant biodiversity losses now threatening the 35% of global crops dependent on pollination, to the degradation of some 20% of global land, and the 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions arising from food and farming systems.
The uniformity at the heart of these farming systems, and their reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preventive use of antibiotics, leads systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities. Tweaking current practices is therefore unlikely to change the direction of travel.
How then is industrial agriculture able to reinvent itself as the solution? Unpacking the politics of food systems is necessary to answer this question. In its recent report, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity’, The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) identified the power to set the terms of debate as one of the key ‘lock-ins’ keeping industrial agriculture in place.
For example, asking how we can ‘feed the world’ is in fact a reflection of the power of dominant actors to keep the agenda focused on industrial agriculture. This framing predisposes us to approach the question in terms of global production volumes of mainly energy-rich, nutrition-poor crop commodities, i.e. what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver. Meanwhile, it sidelines a number of key questions about poverty and access, the root causes of inadequate diets, and the crucial issue of where and by whom additional food must be produced.
How we measure success is also a key question – and a highly political one. Narrowly- defined indicators of agricultural performance – e.g. yields of specific crops, productivity per worker - fail to capture many of the benefits of alternative diversified systems, including high total outputs, high nutrient content of outputs, reduced health risks, resilience to shocks, provision of ecosystem services, high resource efficiency, and job creation.
The latest evidence suggests that diversified agroecological systems are indeed succeeding where current systems are failing, namely in reconciling concerns such as food security, environmental protection, nutritional adequacy and social equity. In a 30- year study, organic yields were equivalent to conventional yields, and 30% higher in drought years. Resource efficiency has proven to be 2-4x higher on small-scale agroecological farms, while organic systems have been found to host 30% more species and 50% greater abundance of biodiversity than conventional holdings.
"The latest evidence suggests that diversified agroecological systems are indeed succeeding where current systems are failing."
The potential of agroecology is not just emerging from the scientific literature. Farming groups and social movements from around the world are increasingly testifying to its benefits. CIDSE’s recent workshop “Climate and Agriculture: Harvesting People’s Solutions for Sustainable Food Systems” heard a range of these testimonies, from the successes of participatory seed breeding and farmer-field schools in the Philippines to revitalizing unproductive soils in Zambia, and creating employment and regenerating urban spaces in Brazil.
More experiences are being shared at this week’s Nyeleni European Food Sovereignty Forum. Rather than asking how we can ‘feed the world,’ those gathered in Romania are asking how we can improve the social conditions in food and farming systems, how we can secure access to natural resources, and what public policies and processes should govern these systems.
In other words, events like the Nyeleni Forum allow people to take back the power to set the terms of the debate. This may be the most crucial step of all. As described above, current systems will be held in place insofar as they are defined and measured in terms of what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver, at the expense of the many other outcomes that really matter to society. Farmers, social movements, researchers and policymakers must therefore continue to call into question the ‘feed the world’ narrative and put the questions that really matter at the top of the agenda.
IPES-Food’s first major report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’ (pdf) was released in June 2016 – see the executive summary and full report. Emile Frison, former Director General of Bioversity International, is a member of IPES-Food and the lead author of this report.