If you can count as successes increased greenhouse gases, ecosystem degradation, rises in hunger and obesity, and unbalanced power in food systems, then industrial agriculture has done one heck of a job.
That's according to a panel of experts, whose new report, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems (pdf), calls for breaking the chains that lock monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots to the dominant farming systems in order to unleash truly sustainable approaches—ones that use holistic strategies, eschew chemical inputs, foster biodiversity, and ensure farmer livelihoods.
As the authors write, "The evidence in favor of a major transformation of our food systems is now overwhelming."
The new publication from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), released Thursday, compares the two opposing methods of agricultural systems; looks at why, given the negative outcomes of outcomes of industrial agriculture, it remains in place; and suggests paths for how to move towards widespread adoption of agroecological systems.
"Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides," stated Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and leader of the panel. "Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates."
For example, the report notes that food systems are responsible for about one-third of all GHGs, "Aquifer exploitation and water table depletion are now occurring at alarming rates, particularly in industrial cropping zones such as the U.S. Midwest," and pesticide exposure has been linked to numerous health problems.
Among the factors keeping the dominant system in place, the report notes, is the flawed "feed the world" approach that frames industrial agriculture as the solution while ignoring power relations and poverty, as well as policies that keep fossil fuels cheap and short term political thinking that demands immediate results.
As De Schutter added: "It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms."
Among the key messages, as noted by IPES-Food
- Today's food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.
- Many of these problems are linked specifically to ‘industrial agriculture’: the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes. The uniformity at the heart of these systems, and their reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preventive use of antibiotics, leads systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities.
- Industrial agriculture and the ‘industrial food systems’ that have developed around it are locked in place by a series of vicious cycles. For example, the way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems.
"We must change the way we set political priorities," De Schutter said. "The steps towards diversified agroecological farming are steps to democratize decision-making and to rebalance power in food systems."
The new publication, presented at the invite-only Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity in Norway, follows a call in November 2015 by United Nations expert Hilal Elver to ditch industrial agriculture.
"There is a need for a major shift from industrial agriculture to transformative systems such as agroecology that support the local food movement, protect small holder farmers, respect human rights, food democracy and cultural traditions, and at the same time maintain environmental sustainability and facilitate a healthy diet," she said at the time.