Acknowledged by agronomists for its effectiveness and sustainability for years, agroecology has finally found its place in world debates. In January 2021, it was at the center of the One Planet Summit discussions. Is it really a large-scale solution to address environmental protection, food safety and socioeconomic development altogether?
While the current agricultural and food systems produce large volumes of foodstuffs for the world markets, most of them do not follow a rationale of sustainable development and are not beneficial to the majority of people.
The choice of agroecology: toward a new agricultural paradigm
In Latin America, the pressures on existing farmland have been accentuated to the detriment to the indigenous populations, the vegetation in forests and savannas, and biological diversity. According to a report on agroecology from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) dating from 2018, “high-external input, resource-intensive agricultural systems have contributed to deforestation, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.”
There is also the worrisome socioeconomic situation facing farmers: bound to the powerful, influential multinational petrochemical companies that push them to go into debt to buy seed and fertilizer, many of them in developing and emerging countries as well as in developed countries can no longer feed themselves. In India, some people oppose the liberal agricultural policy put forward by Narendra Modi’s government in hopes of blocking ratification of three liberalization laws. These laws aim to reduce State authority over the agri-food giants, endangering farmers’ independence.
With a view to reconciling agriculture and climate, NGOs, civil society and governments seek to apply solutions based on an integrated approach that respects natural resources and contributes to improving farmers’ living conditions. In Cuba, agroecology has been preferred over industrial agriculture since the 1960s – although the food crisis and import difficulties currently affecting the island have given rise to a reversal in recent months. On the other side of the globe, in Andra Pradesh, a state in southeast India, nearly six million farmers are working for a more economical agriculture, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. This is the largest agroecology project in the world.
Other initiatives recognized at the highest level worldwide, such as the International Agroecological Movement for Africa (IAM Africa) coalition, aim to develop agroecology in Africa in line with the “the Great Green Wall” plan to make the Sahel greener and fight against desertification.
More than a simple change in the agricultural paradigm, agroecology, once again according to the FAO, provides “a unique approach to meeting the needs of future generations while ensuring no one is left behind.” There is one condition: the international community must make serious commitments in favor of this new system.
Betting on agroecology to feed the planet
One thing is certain for the defenders of sustainable organic agriculture like the NGO CCFD Terre Solidaire: the switch to sustainable farming and food systems while feeding the planet requires us to recognize the importance of farmers and peasants once again.
In this respect, family farms, the most widespread social model of agricultural organization in the world, stand out: 90% of the 570 million farms in the world belong to families and 80% of the farms in Africa are family farms. Industrial agricultural and food systems contribute to environmental degradation, reduced food diversification, and the impoverishment of farmers by flooding markets with cheaper imported products. Conversely, so far these family farms have contributed significantly to supplying cities with basic foodstuffs (grains and tubers) as well as more diversified products (vegetables, milk, fruits and oilseeds).
But can family farms and agroecological principles really feed nearly 10 billion people by the year 2050? How do we modernize and collect traditional methods and tools from the developing and emerging countries to scale up agroecological principles? Conversely, what will happen to the industrial exploitations in the developed countries? Technically, will we be able to apply radical transformations to them to integrate agroecological principles?
In 2014, the NGO Oxfam predicted that this transition – if it happens one day – would be particularly hard on farmers. Shifting from industrialized production systems to resilient, low-carbon agroecological systems will take time, the challenge being to avoid a drop in productivity and yields that could result from suddenly giving up synthetic inputs. Despite the scope of this challenge, one thing is clear – the days of agriculture as we know it are numbered.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.