Between alarming discourses and action: the math doesn’t add up
A recent UN report revealed that the world keeps failing reaching the targets it sets to safeguard biodiversity and the benefits it provides to people. And the bad news keeps pilling up: climate chaos, biodiversity collapse, increasing inequalities, hunger and malnutrition. Every day brings further evidence of a collapsing global civilization. Forest fires, droughts, Covid-19 are further examples. Human-made disasters are no longer future threats. It is widely recognized that 2030 is a key year with respect to addressing the multiple, converging crises and associated challenges: it is the year the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals have to be achieved and a key year with respect to the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Yet, according to the FAO-OECD 2020-2029 agriculture outlook, greenhouse gas emissions from the food system will grow another 6%, telling us that something’s got to give. According to current estimates, global food systems already contribute a considerable proportion of global GHG - between 21% (according to the FAO), 24% (IPCC) or up to 50% (Grain), if processing, packaging, transport, refrigeration and distribution are taken into account. A large gap remains between transformative discourses and incremental action, which can no longer be justified, nor excused. The math doesn’t add up: a paradigm shift is desperately needed.
Agroecology: a paradigm shift
Agroecology is the needed paradigm and has been embraced a wide range of organisations. As an appropriate way of redesigning and managing food systems – “from the farm to the table, with a goal of achieving ecological, economic, and social sustainability” – agroecological principles can be adapted to different contexts all over the world. At least since the important report of IAASTD in 2009, agroecology has been lauded as an approach that should guide the transformation of food and agriculture systems. Its potential to achieve the SDGs and implement the Paris Agreement is now also recognised. But talking about agroecology as a paradigm shift is not enough: action needs to be taken now. Many people around the world, peasants, indigenous people, neo-rural youth, farmers and NGOs are working tirelessly to restore and enhance the ecological health and diversity of the land they cultivate. They are, however, being undermined by policies and finance still feeding the expansion of petrochemical-dependent agribusiness. The needed paradigm shift requires political action in order to direct funds away from an entirely unsustainable agricultural sector and towards more-than-sustainable and regenerative agroecology.
Finance for agroecology: too little, but not too late
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While lip service is paid to the urgent need for “food system transformation”, the bulk of financial flows still goes towards business-as-usual approaches and efficiency-oriented approaches (conventional and industrial agriculture). We have now reached a critical mass of evidence highlighting this gap. Several reports and studies have critically analysed the financial support for transformative agroecology provided by countries and institutions. The support is either minimal (Belgium, Germany, USA) or inexistent (UK). A recent joint IPES-Food and Biovision study on financial flows highlighted the lack of funding anew, by showing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s agricultural research spending on agroecology amounted to a mere 3%. Spending on agroecology research in Kenya was slightly higher at 13%. FAO’s own analysis of their 2018-2019 work plan highlighted that only 8% of their expected results were supportive of a transition towards sustainable food systems. The case of Switzerland (where 51% of Swiss-funded agricultural research for development projects had agroecological components) seems to be the exception.
The same political, scientific, and financial will that accompanied the green revolution in its early stage must back agroecology now.
Other reports have shown that development banks, such as the International Finance Corporation (World Bank) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), are strongly financing industrial livestock farms and meat and dairies industries, having directed $2.6bn to these in the past 10 years. We have also recently learned that “$500bn (£388bn) of environmentally damaging government subsidies have not been eliminated”.
Through the research partnership between CIDSE and the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, we identified similar trends in funding for agroecology at European Union (EU) and Green Climate Fund (GCF) level. Projects supporting transformative agroecology aimed at redesigning food and farming systems were only found in the GCF portfolio and represent 10.6% of the total invested in agricultural projects. Only 2.7% of EU funds channelled through FAO, IFAD and the WFP between 2016 and 2018 focus on substituting harmful inputs and practices with less degrading ones - which should be the starting point of a transition towards agroecology. Though the analysis of EU projects only provided a snapshot of one specific part of the overall EU development portfolio (and thus may overlook some EU financial support for agroecology elsewhere), the meager figures reflect the typical gap between discourse and implementation mentioned above. The bottom line is disappointing.
Thinking big, acting fast
A profound transformation of food systems is needed and such a shift must happen rapidly to constructively address the multiple crises that are threatening humanity. We find ourselves at the end of the petrochemical era which ushered in the so called ‘green’ revolution. What is needed is a new vision to catalyse the next revolution. Agroecology – together with food sovereignty has this potential and where it has been implemented it has delivered. The same political, scientific and financial will that accompanied the green revolution in its early stage must back agroecology now. Fortunately, recent developments at the international level (the uptake of agroecology by all major UN agencies) and at EU level (inclusion of agroecology in its Green Deal) suggests that things might be changing. Now we just need public institutions and governments to put their money where their mouths are.