Transform?…or conform and adjust?

  • Bernadette Oehen, Department of Socio-Economic Sciences, Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), Switzerland
  • Angelika Hilbeck, ETH Zurich, Switzerland

How can inefficient, poorly managed smallholder systems be transformed into productive agroecological systems? And how can environmentally destructive, energy and chemical-intensive industrial systems be converted into productive agroecological systems? What role does international trade play in today’s agro-food systems, and are short supply chains relevant? This brochure provides a platform to a number of experts working in various fields relevant to these issues. It gives them space in which to share their visions and voice their concerns about how we are feeding the people of the world.

The focus is on small-scale farmers who, all over the world, are prone to food insecurity, but who nevertheless feed more than 80% of the world’s population. Many of these farmers are located in what we often call the developing world, but we should make no mistake: change is needed in developed and developing countries alike. Food insecurity in today’s world results from a globally dysfunctional agro-food system that is failing to meet the needs of many people in both developing and developed countries.

“There is an urgent need for a transition from the existing agro-food systems to sustainable agroecological systems.”

This brochure explains many reasons why change is needed, based on strong science to underpin the arguments. At the same time, the authors highlight the main needs for further research and describe impediments to the progress of agroecology.

The articles examine aspects of agricultural policy, the role of livestock and nutrient cycles, climate change, international trade and certification schemes, the need for innovation and the need to bring consumers closer to producers. In this way, we hope to contribute to a constructive and inspiring debate on this important issue that affects everybody around the globe!

A lot of know-how has been generated on the production side, and many methods for alternative, sustainable forms of agricultural production have been documented. This rich body of expertise continues to grow. The flourishing organic sector, the growing interest in agroforestry and permaculture, the spread of integrated pest management approaches are just a few examples. These developments so far have yet to be matched by a similar degree of support in other fields necessary for their broader adoption. Therefore, to scale up the use of these agroecological production systems, there is a need to develop and improve the means of knowledge transfer that includes the participation of farmers. And it is important to establish regional supply chains, including food storage, processing and trade links.

At both national and international levels, there is an absence of broad-based political support, regulatory frameworks and appropriate economic incentives – or they are just in their infancy. Just as the industrial, mechanized systems of monoculture that transformed post-war global agriculture could only be installed with massive public investments and the concerted efforts of all the relevant segments of society, so too will the next transformation of agriculture require a similar concerted effort for its success – an effort that involves science, research and technology combined with adequate policies and economic incentives.

The way forward for agroecology and the transformation of the global industrial agro-food system

  • Funds must be provided and opportunities created for scaling up the best agroecological systems and integrating them into a coherent supply and value chain.
  • National and international trade agreements must support the development of regional food systems.
  • Training and extension work for agroecological production and fair trade must be integrated into academic and vocational education programmes.
  • Significant investment is now needed to research and develop new economic paradigms that penalize business models contributing to environmental degradation, and reward those that protect and promote biodiversity, and eliminate environmental pollution and other harmful practices. While research into agroecology in its broadest sense has delivered results, that research has been largely decoupled from the study of economics.
  • Final product prices must reflect the true costs of production by internalizing all the externalities.
  • A detailed review is needed of the existing WTO rules, including its trade and agricultural policy measures, in order to strengthen food security, food sovereignty and sustainable rural development. Other relevant agreements should also be examined, such as those on anti-dumping, public procurement and the agreement on services.
  • For this reason, we are calling for a billion-euro flagship research programme on agroecology and the transformation of the current agro-food system. The disadvantaged position – even exclusion – of agroecological research from major funding mechanisms must be overcome. Agroecology is an innovative form of food production that offers huge potential, not only to provide better food but also to remedy the environmental destruction that now threatens human societies.
  • It is imperative that we break free of our collective dependency on the industrial agro-food systems that is under-serving the people and destroying the environment – it is also achievable, because the necessary agroecological systems do exist and are ready for deployment as soon as we have a conducive institutional and political environment. Missing this opportunity would be unforgiveable to future generations
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