M. Jahi Chappell on Food Security, Engagement, and the Nature of Good Food

M. Jahi Chappell explains why focusing on our roles as consumers to change the food system and to address food and agricultural justice is nonsensical.

Source: M. Jahi Chappell on Food Security, Engagement, and the Nature of Good Food

Your bio for the IATP states that your work hopes to move toward a food system that “serves and supports both farmers and citizens (not just consumers!).” What’s the difference between a citizen and a consumer, and how do they factor into a sustainable—and just—food system?

This is an important and tricky distinction. While we are all consumers of food—and in that way, the term includes everyone, including farmers—the idea of “voting with our fork” has been amply and rightly critiqued over the years. Figures ranging from Frances Moore Lappé, Marion Nestle, and Josh Viertel have encouraged us to “vote with our vote” and (Lappé in particular) outlined various democratic and participatory actions we can take to improve food systems.

So, here is the basic difference: The term consumer limits our conception of what we can do in terms of what we choose to eat and defines us as humans as the sum of our consumption choices. Besides being an impoverished way to look at our diverse and multifaceted people and communities, it is antidemocratic, and uncreative to boot…”

More at M. Jahi Chappell on Food Security, Engagement, and the Nature of Good Food

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Commentary on Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now (reposted from the Great Transition Initiative)

Commentary on [Frances Moore Lappé’s essay] Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now

by M. Jahi Chappell

Lappé has given an excellent summary of many of the challenges, and opportunities, facing us. I want to bring in a quote that she has often used in the past:

“[There are] core, often unspoken, assumptions and forces—economic, political, and psychological—now taking our planet in a direction that as individuals none of us would choose.”

The thing that regularly excites me about the future, a potentially food-sovereign and agroecological future, goes back to this oft-made point: very, very few people would choose the direction we’re going in—that capitalism’s forces and assumptions so often push us. It can be easy to forget this, given the triumphant technocratic narratives that surround us. But, with apologies to Mark Twain, the news of capitalism’s vitality has been greatly exaggerated.

We, of course, are seeing that in various ways right now. Rather than seeing, for example, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the rise of Bernie Sanders, the growth of La Vía Campesina, and many other recent events as discrete points, I view them as continuing manifestations of a rising tide for change. Political scientist John Kingdon pointed out three decades ago that specific issues rise and fall in the public agenda process, but the dynamics underneath them—public awareness, potential solutions, and attention from elected officials—continue evolving even when they are not at the top of the list.1 Said another way, it can take many years for significant change to happen, but that doesn’t mean that all previous attempts at change “failed.” Any one of them could have worked, but there is a large dose of random chance (luck) in social change, alongside planning and opportunity. But all the while, the underlying desire for change, the continuing experiments, examples, and imaginaries draw us ever closer to what will in retrospect likely look like a sudden switch to a better way. And each event, each manifestation, each movement, makes that switch a bit more conceivable, a bit more likely to happen.

Despite the hubris of capitalism’s promoters, if we know one thing with high certainty, it is that capitalism is unlikely to be the ultimate and everlasting expression of human economic organization. Claims that it best aligns with human nature take too pessimistic a view of what people are capable of, remain intentionally blind to all the counterevidence, and take too optimistic a view on the stability of human beings’ own conceptions of what “human nature” looks like.

Many of the various members of the nobility thought feudalism was the ideal and eternal system.

Mercantilists were not looking at their world and going “this is just a phase.”

Colonialists all around the globe each had their own version of thinking that the sun would never set on their empire.

The world changes. Capitalism is simply not the last system we will have. Are we guaranteed to have a better one? Not by a long shot. Can we have a better one? Absolutely.

And so we return to the promise of agroecology, and its partner, food sovereignty. They are both concepts that are still evolving—more processes than destinations.2 They will only be realized, and improved, in the practice. The exciting thing is that so many people are doing, are practicing, or would like to if given the opportunity. Young farmers are having an incredibly difficult time entering farming due to barriers in land access and credit. Indigenous peoples, small family farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, gatherers, and more around the world are struggling to hang on to their land, their rights, their sovereignty, their traditions, and their livelihoods. But these millions of people are struggling, because they believe something better than what we have now is possible (and in many cases, of course, because they do not have another choice).3 Billions of people, in fact, want to and are in the process of pushing to take the planet in a direction that we, as parents, children, spouses, friends, and communities would choose. Insofar as we deepen and improve our solidarity—through agroecology, through food sovereignty, through compassion, love, and participation—we build strength and power towards change for the better. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”4

Agroecology gives us a science and practices to help inform this movement towards a better, more just, more sustainable food system. Food sovereignty seeks to reunite, and to invent new ways to unite, the rights to decide and control our own food systems and the responsibilities we have to each other in our communities. Not just our local communities, but also as part of the world community. We can no longer deny that the actions of each individual have an effect on the quality of life for everyone else, and for future generations. This is why my colleague Mindi Schneider and I have recently argued that the three pillars of food system sustainability ought to be agroecology, food sovereignty, and food justice, rather than the bland, uninformative, and uninspiring “social, economic, and environmental.”5 Beyond the food system, we might think of the three pillars as democracy, justice, and ecology. But whatever you call it, one thing is clear from the growing profile for agroecology and its siblings: it represents values and needs that are deeply and genuinely felt by many people around the globe. It will be of course by no means be easy to “get there.” But more and more, I believe we have every reason to think that we can.

1. John W. Kingdon,  Agendas, alternatives, and public policies, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).
2. For an expansion on this theme, see Jill Carlson and M. Jahi Chappell, Deepening food democracy (Minneapolis: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2015),  http://www.iatp.org/files/2015_01_06_Agrodemocracy_JC_JC_f_0.pdf.
3. See, for example, International Forum for Agroecology, Report of the International Forum for Agroecology (Sélingué, Mali: The Nyéléni Center, 2015), http://ag-transition.org/?reports=report-of-the-international-forum-for-agroecology.
4. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech delivered at the 11th Annual Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, 1967). Reprinted in King Institute Encyclopedia, accessed March 29, 2016,http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention/.
5. M. Jahi Chappell and Mindi Schneider, “The new Three-Legged Stool: Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Food Justice,” in Routledge Handbook of Food Ethics, ed. Mary Rawlinson (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).

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Contribution to Asia Regional Meeting on Agroecology: IATP x-post

Contribution to Asia Regional Meeting on Agroecology:
Supporting Agroecology by Securing and Building on Appropriate Rights

By Dr. M. Jahi Chappell and Shiney Varghese
Originally published by IATP, May 10, 2016

Minneapolis, May 10, 2016—The Regional Meeting on Agroecology in Asia in November of 2015 marked the culmination of four FAO meetings on Agroecology. These vibrant meetings confirmed a rising tide that we have written about previously: agroecology’s prominence is growing worldwide. The importance of its concepts, tools, knowledge and its emphasis on respect for and collaboration with producers have been borne out by the reception it has seen across FAO meetings on four continents.

More broadly, agroecology has been growing on national and international agendas, ranging from the 2012 decree on agroecology of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, to the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology, to the 2014 International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition held by the FAO and subsequent regional meetings. This growing prominence reflects the important roles of both science and civil society in addressing the challenges facing us and that extend across borders—including climate change, environmental degradation, and continued hunger and poverty. Agroecology is unique in its increasing incorporation of science, practices and movements, bringing together three vital parts of social and environmental change for the better.

As a science, agroecology draws together the disciplines of agronomy, horticulture and ecology, along with social sciences such as economics and sociology. The term dates back to at least 1928, around 50 years after the term “ecology” itself was coined. It can be thought of as the application of ecological science to inform agricultural practice, along with the use of social sciences to understand the dynamics the have led to current sets of agricultural practice, the evolution and context of functional traditional knowledge and practices, and the socioeconomic and political dynamics of producers’ efforts, livelihoods and contributions. The practice element of agroecology translates ecological knowledge into agricultural practice, as well as observing and learning the costs and benefits of current practices. Finally, agroecology as a movement is important because a system of agriculture which takes into account larger environmental costs and threats like climate change will require the re-organization of a number of social institutions. Social movements and civil society are undeniably an important element of such a re-organization, and hence can be said to be part of agroecology. Further, social movements offer a logical point of articulation for agroecology’s focus on acknowledging and supporting farmers’ leadership, knowledge and local contexts. Lastly, as a practical note, movements can be thought of as a vital part of agroecology, given that effective articulations between farmers and scientists will require a politics of inclusion and community empowerment. In these ways, agroecology’s three elements may also be described more accessibly as studying, doing and changing socioecological relations towards sustainable and socially just agricultural systems.

Discussion Points

As we wrote in our discussion document for the Africa Regional Meeting, there is strong support in the relevant literature for the most important factors in supporting food security, good farmer livelihoods, productivity and effective environmental management (e.g. for climate change mitigation and adaptation). Although no factor can guarantee success, the factors at the center of each of our key points are associated with higher probabilities of success. Further, these factors are either part of existing agroecology discourse, or are compatible with it, especially if agroecology is paired with the concept of food sovereignty: the rights and resources for each community to determine its own food system. In several places, we have adjusted and added some factors of particular note for the Asian context.

Key point 1: Securing rights and supporting equity across race, gender, class and ethnic affiliation are vital to reduce hunger, fight climate change and increase sustainability, according to established empirical and theoretical research.

Agroecology supports, and in turn is supported by, community well-being and the public goods inherent in these factors.

Extensive research and experience to date show that securing communities’ and individuals’ rights ranks the highest in terms of interventions in Asia that will reduce hunger and increase resilience and sustainability.1 As the IAASTD (2009) reported, “People are the wealth of ESAP [East & South Asia & the Pacific]. Since this region is home to three of the world’s most populous countries, investing in people will yield development dividends.”2

A significant part of the current conversations around food security and climate change has focused on production and productivity to meet present and future needs. While this can make important contributions to solving these problems, more and more scholars and community members are observing that it is not sufficient. As one recent peer-reviewed paper states, “there are a series of filters that determine the extent to which intensification is sustainable and contributes to greater food security… unless it meets the demands of both distributive and procedural justice, increased food production cannot be described as sustainable”.3

To this point, an important observation is the sizeable impact public goods make on improving food security and health measures (and these in turn support social capacity for mitigation and adaptation).4 To quote a broad-based and thorough expert analysis:

“For South Asia, while continued improvements in women’s education and food availabilities are needed, three of the determinants should be of particular focus: access to sanitation, dietary diversity of the food available in countries, and gender equality.… [N]ational food availability does not feature near the top of the priorities for accelerating undernutrition reductions in either South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. This does not reduce the importance of maintaining adequate food supplies, including food production, but simply acknowledges that the scope for it to reduce stunting prevalences is lower than that of the priority underlying determinants we have identified.” [emphasis added].5

Securing rights, Particularly Women’s Equality and Education6

Gender has been repeatedly and strongly tied to food security and productive, nourishing agriculture. Around the world, women play a major role in accessing food for their family members and in preparing food for household-level consumption. Women’s access to safe water for domestic use is a necessary condition for ensuring household-level food security. However, this direct link between the right to water and the right to food is often overlooked in deliberations on defining the right to water and in defining obligations related to the right to water. For poor women, food preparation entails collecting firewood and water, an increasingly difficult task in degraded environments. Thus, realization of the right to water becomes a prerequisite for rural food security, especially in degraded environments.

Despite women’s role in ensuring food security at the household level, when it comes to consumption, they usually have the least access to food. Sociocultural-, gender- and age-based inequalities play a big role in each individual’s ability to meet their food security needs, even when there is household-level food security. Women-headed households tend to be more food insecure compared to male-headed households. This has given rise to the phrase, “the feminization of food insecurity.”7 In South Asia, the low nutritional, educational and social status of women was cited as one of the major factors that contribute to a Hunger Index in the region that characterizes the problems there as “serious.”8 Though, too, it is important to note that in Southern and Southeastern Asia, both of which have a lower proportion of hungry populations than much of Sub-Saharan Africa, the absolute size of the malnourished population is nearly 50 percent greater than the malnourished population on the entire African continent.9 Which is simply to say, the scope of the problems in Asia should not be underestimated.

In this light, agroecology’s strong and growing focus on women’s rights and gender equality10 takes on particular importance and potential. The focus on gender in agroecology is still being examined and expanded and is strengthened by the concept and commitments of food sovereignty11 and the related agroecology and food sovereignty movement.12 Issues of gender are, naturally, complex and locally-specific and may need different approaches even within the same small community. Therefore addressing gender is not well-suited to the use of automatic processes and is likely best served by adaptive, specific, locally-suited and participatory approaches.13 Also, although there are many probable benefits to women, men, children and agriculture when gender inequality is dealt with in an effective manner,14 careful consideration and deliberation is important so that an emphasis on fulfilling women’s potential does not lose sight of their rights or place additional disproportionate burdens on them to support and improve community development:

“While recognizing the power of women to lift their families and communities out of poverty, women are not simply instruments for hunger reduction. Women must be empowered and recognized as equal partners—valued for their contributions and knowledge—not because they deliver results but because they are equal with men.”15

Nevertheless, the needs—and benefits—are clear. Smith and Haddad (2015) note that gender equality in South Asia “is far below its desired level… it has such a uniquely strong impact on child stunting in the region. Continued improvement in this area would likely greatly accelerate reductions in stunting. According to our estimates, if this determinant alone were to reach its desired level, the stunting prevalence in South Asia would decline by 10 percentage points.”

Numerous accounts16 illustrate the inequalities and even violence still facing a large number of women in the region. Thus concerted action is clearly necessary to support and empower women using approaches that work with whole communities— women, men, boys, girls—to re-consider and restructure gender relationships, responsibilities and resource distribution, in order to secure both the basic elements of safety for all and also the full suite of rights to which all people are entitled. Equity in access to resources (e.g. water, secure land ownership, credit, education) and equity in representation and participation in governance at all levels are vital tasks in their own right but also have the potential to improve food security, resilience and sustainability for all.17

Overlap with agroecology

The methods of agroecology require a combination of farmer leadership and knowledge with modern ecological science, meaning that support for education and two-way communication between farming communities and supporting governments and NGOs has repeatedly been seen as a key element of successful agroecological projects. In turn, certain agroecological approaches can provide numerous benefits to communities through conservation and maintenance of ecosystem functions, many of which are under-valued and/or non-market functions.18 According to one recent review, examples of functions provided by more diverse agricultural systems include “greater carbon sequestration, greater retention of nutrients, and greater ability to resist and recover from various forms of stress, including herbivorous pests, diseases, droughts, and floods.” 19 Agroecological methods are thus particularly important and valuable in areas of water and weather stress—from droughts to monsoons—and women in numerous regions have embraced these methods for these reasons, among others.20 And although agroecological systems can be competitive in productivity and profit with conventional systems,21 especially over the long-term,22 it is also true that they produce significant non-market benefits that, until internalized socially or economically into production systems, essentially require sustainable, agroecological producers to be sacrificial volunteers to the tune of trillions of dollars in total.23

It will be important to closely consider and discuss how and which agroecological approaches may best provide different benefits, such as the potential to mitigate climate change24 and increase resilience.25 This should be considered alongside participatory evaluation of which practices are the most accessible or locally suitable according to community desires, preferences, and near-term capacity. Towards this end, we would note that (a) particularly in agroecological systems, best practices raise productivity significantly26 (which reinforces the potential and importance of participatory research and education); and that (b) rural education, particularly when it increases access and achievement by women, usually both reduces malnutrition27 and increases productivity.28 In fact, quoting economist Jayati Ghosh, “government expenditure on education had the largest impact on reducing both rural poverty and regional inequality, and a significant impact on boosting production.”

In sum, improvements in the priority areas aligned with securing and supporting basic rights—from secure rights to land, gender equity and equality, education and water access to representation in governance—would also be likely to increase community-level autonomy, capacity and sovereignty, as well as improve agricultural productivity. Pertinent to FAO’s regional meeting in Asia, each of these priority areas can also gain from, and contribute to, successful agroecological initiatives. One key challenge will be the possibility, mentioned above, that addressing some priority areas—for example, increasing productivity—will not be effective unless other priority areas are addressed simultaneously.29 This may add additional challenges and complexity to creating successful interventions.

Key point 2: Evidence implies that improving and maintaining food sovereignty, autonomy and political agency are important levers to support improvements in food security, resilience and sustainability.

True, collaborative political empowerment and mutual accountability between communities and regional and national governments are necessary to achieve the potential of agroecology.

A common but often under-emphasized observation is that food insecurity, low socioecological resilience and agrifood system unsustainability represent market failures. The presence of food security is a public good that will not be provided in sufficient amounts by markets without government intervention; long-term agrifood system resilience is not easily or customarily included in calculations of value; and contemporary agrifood systems generate numerous negative externalities such that “business efficiency is not the same as social efficiency.”30 In other words, it is likely that food security will be under-provided by free markets, as will socioecological resilience; and negative externalities will exact costs on society that are not reflected in prices and therefore will not be efficiently or effectively managed without public intervention designed by and with local communities and governments. (It practically goes without saying, but decades of research in environmental justice and political ecology have shown as well that unsustainability, vulnerability and food insecurity are likely to be exacerbated by inequality—marginalized and poorer communities will receive even less public goods and suffer from more negative externalities than is proportionate or just.)

There are many proposals on how to best deal with the problems embodied by these externalities and inequalities. One very strong vein of research and practice towards this end has focused on empowerment and collaboration with local communities—decentralization along with a significant degree of devolution of resources and decision-making authority. Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom used both theory and field research to validate the proposition that greater autonomy for local communities improves the likelihood that they will create and maintain governance institutions that can sustainably govern scarce resources over prolonged periods.31 Numerous scientists have similarly written on the importance, track record and potential of strong, well-supported and empowering local governance32 and polycentricity and subsidiarity (strong local governance backed by governance structures at other scales).33 Beyond the cases presented by these researchers, others have made similar observations specifically in regards to decentralization and local empowerment in successful agricultural extension,34 nutrition,35 and conservation of protected areas.36

In fact, a common roadblock seen in successful implementation of agroecology projects is very much in line with one of the observed challenges to better conservation outcomes in community forestry: insufficient support and empowerment of local communities and too much privilege and control afforded to “expert” voices.37 And of course, focused empowerment and involvement of women and girls has been shown to improve multiple outcomes in terms of improving individual and community well-being, both ecologically38 and socially.39

A common element of successful projects is effective effort towards truly open and transparent participation by local populations40—which, when the local population is a historically marginalized one, is likely to require substantial public investment and collaboratively-tailored support, particularly from regional and national governments, in order to create and maintain the capacity to participate in the first place.41 Although support from other actors (such as donors and international NGOs) can lend additional help, accountability has been empirically observed to be important as a feedback mechanism and way to increase the likelihood of success, underlining the importance of responsive and adaptive governmental support. In particular, an important observation for consideration is that of Karnani (2010),42 who argues that “Corporate Social Responsibility” is conceptually and empirically ill-suited for providing public goods and cannot replace government action. This should be a careful part of the evaluation of the possible impact and viability, for example, of Private-Public Partnerships (PPP), which may have limited potential to improve food security, production and sustainability for marginalized communities.

It is worth noting that in addition to the empirical research cited previously, and theory-building by Ostrom and others, Farrell and Shalizi43 have recently synthesized research across economics, psychology, political science and network theory to propose that problem-solving is greatly aided by a significant degree of substantive equality among actors, the ability of dissenting minority voices to be heard and for their points to be given serious consideration. While providing the space for this in the context of the significant levels of inequality experienced by marginalized communities is a difficult challenge, deeply participatory models have shown promise and a number of successes.44

Food sovereignty

Given the above points, food sovereignty is an important framework to consider in the design and implementation of interventions to improve food security, resilience and sustainability. The concept of food sovereignty can be thought of, on the one hand, as an expression of the human right to self-determination and additionally, on a more functional level, to be an empirically-backed concept that may improve the realization of the right to food alongside sustainability objectives. That is, the elements of participation, autonomy and empowerment at the level of local communities are strong enabling factors and align with the normative principles and movement elements of agroecology, which has often been closely identified with food sovereignty.45 Food sovereignty in fact includes priorities of local-scale empowerment and collaboration and originated 20 years ago in part to address the need for rights-, equity-, and policy-based approaches to food production and consumption. Akram-Lodhi has described its basic pillars as: (1) a focus on food for people; (2) the valuing of food providers; (3) localization of food systems; (4) the [broad-based] building of skills; and (5) working with nature [ecosystems and ecological knowledge].46 Civil society groups recently reaffirmed these points, and added others, building on the 2007 Nyeleni Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty with the 2015 Nyeleni Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology. Thus, although many challenges and questions remain, it can be said that the theoretical and empirical evidence and support “from the bottom up” for the importance and potential of food sovereignty, paired with agroecology, is large, growing and strong.

Key point 3: From healthy, empowered people to healthy, sustainable, resilient environments.

Though connections between sociocultural factors and empowerment on the one hand and environmental health and climate change mitigation on the other can be difficult to understand, they are increasingly well-documented.

In an example from Africa, the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) project in Malawi has worked with over 4000 farmers in a participatory project where farmers use agroecological methods in a deeply collaborative process, which has seen improvements in soil fertility, food security and nutrition.47

Looking at Asia, in The Philippines, a philosophically parallel approach has led to very impressive initial results. The approach of MASIPAG (the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Agricultural Development) is based on the following elements:

  • “Bottom-up approach. Decision-making, planning and implementation within the organization come from the membership. This is coordinated through farmer groups and a decentralised organizational structure.
  • Farmer-scientist-NGO partnership. The organization is run as a process of mutual, ongoing learning between farmers, scientists and NGOs.
  • Farmer-led research. Research, including breeding of new rice varieties, is designed and conducted by farmer-members for farmer-members.
  • Farmer-to-farmer mode of diffusion. Training in the network is largely conducted by farmer-trainers, using a wide range of techniques including trial farms, exchange days and cultural activities.
  • Opposition to technological fixes. Change needs to be understood in a holistic way, including attention to farmer empowerment and farmer knowledge.
  • Advancing farmers’ rights. MASIPAG works within a broader commitment to farmers’ rights. These include rights relating to land, seeds and genetic resources, production, biodiversity, politics and decision-making, culture and knowledge, information and research, and socio-political factors.”48

The results reported thus far include:

  • Better food security: 88 percent of organic farmers found their food security better than in 2000, compared to only 44 percent of conventional farmers.
  • More diverse and nutritious diet: Organic farmers ate 68% more vegetables, 56 percent more fruit, 55 percent more protein-rich staples and 40 percent more meat than in 2000. The increase in consumption for organic farmers were double those for conventional farmers for vegetables, 2.7 times higher for fruit, 3.7 times higher for protein rich staples and 2.5 times higher for meat.
  • Higher diversity of crops: Organic farmers were growing 50 percent more crop types.
  • [Reductions in] Chemical fertilizer and pesticide use: Organic farmers had eliminated these chemical inputs altogether but they were still being used by 85 percent of conventional farmers. 97 percent of the organic farmers used alternative pest management techniques such as redesigning the agroecosystem…
  • Better health outcomes: 85 percent of the organic farmers rated their health better than in 2000. In the reference group, only 32 percent rated it positively…
  • Lower costs: Production costs for organic farmers were half those of conventional farmers.
  • Higher net incomes: Net incomes were higher for the organic farmers than the conventional ones, and had increased since 2000 in contrast to stagnant or falling incomes for the reference group…
  • Greater overall farm productivity: Rice yields for organic farmers were on a par with those of conventional farmers. But the organic yields were increasing over time in contrast to declining yields of the conventional farms…
  • Improved soil fertility: 84 percent of organic farmers, but just three percent of conventional farmers, reported increases in soil fertility.
  • Less erosion: 59 percent of organic farmers, but just six percent of conventional farmers, reported a reduction in
    soil erosion.
  • Increased tolerance of crops to pests and diseases: 81 percent of organic farmers reported increased tolerance to pests and diseases; but 41 percent of conventional farmers saw tolerance to pests worsening.
  • Greater climate change adaption: Crop diversification, agroforestry, windbreaks, salt-tolerant MASIPAG-bred rice varieties, more root crops… community cooperation [and other techniques] all help farmers adapt to climate change.49

These results are impressive, and re-emphasize the vast potential of agroecological methods—particularly with regards to the substantial diversity of diets seen in the experiences above.As noted by Smith and Haddad (2015), dietary diversity is one of the strongest potential contributors to decreasing food insecurity in South Asia.

While this is just one case (albeit a large-scale one), 50 similar results have been reported for the indigenous Karen communities of Thailand and Myanmar, where a very high degree of carbon storage appears to occur alongside a very high degree of dietary diversity (including 100 kinds of vegetables and 28 kinds of meat)51, as well as from reports and work from the Asian Farmers’ Association52, the Korean Peasant Women’s Association53, and projects in China and India54. Many of these cases showcase the importance and potential of Farmer Field Schools55 and the System of Rice Intensification—the latter of which has been estimated to provide reductions in external costs in terms of soil, air and water pollutants of up to 97 percent, 78 percent and 16 percent respectively, as well as increased yield and margins. 56

In sum, agroecological practices paired with empowering communities with the rights and resources to govern their local environment are likely to lead to improvements in well-being, sustainability, climate mitigation, and climate resilience57, and participatory analyses and approaches appear to practically be a prerequisite to successful agroecological interventions for small-scale farmers.58 Further, in terms of protected area use and human well-being, recent research shows that “positive conservation and socioeconomic outcomes were more likely to occur when PAs adopted co-management regimes, empowered local people, reduced economic inequalities, and maintained cultural and livelihood benefits. Whereas the strictest regimes of PA management attempted to exclude anthropogenic influences to achieve biological conservation objectives, PAs that explicitly integrated local people as stakeholders tended to be more effective at achieving joint biological conservation and socioeconomic development outcomes,” (emphasis added).59 This further supports the proposition that multiple healthy ecosystem functions are improved in well-managed diversified agroecosystems60, which go hand-in hand with well-supported, empowered communities able to exercise autonomy and engage in deliberative decision-making and knowledge co-creation.

Key Point 4: The Right to Not Have to Migrate

At a recent agroecology meeting in Mexico City61, a powerful statement was made about the vision of peasant farmers and their supporters: one of the most under-recognized and under-appreciated rights of farmers is the right to not have to migrate. There have been many statements about the worldwide trend of urbanization, and (former) farmers and laborers’ continuing exit of rural areas. Yet the vision of many farmers is clearly neither to leave their farms, nor to continue to in conditions of marginality. Rather, the vision is one of maintaining, remaking, and supporting countrysides such that farmers, farm laborers, and all rural residents can have decent, secure livelihoods. This is the clear implication of food sovereignty62, and clear in the demands of the International Peasants’ Movement La Via Campesina (which has 35 member organizations in 15 countries in Asia), as well as the many other signatories of the 2007 and 2015 Nyéléni Declarations.

Further, when we consider the concomitant benefits that can be seen from improved economic margins for farmers and—the evidence increasingly indicates—higher food prices, the possibilities and importance of rural livelihoods become both more apparent and more socio-politically possible. That is: recent studies show that higher food prices, when they contribute to increased farmer incomes, likely contribute to reducing both rural and urban poverty, although “safety nets” to maintain the food security of food-insecure populations are necessary in the (typically one to five years) adjustment period.63

The reality, necessity, and possibility of supporting improved, dignified, and food sovereign livelihoods for all food and agricultural producers is further fortified when we consider the immense, but currently un- or under-compensated externalities in the agricultural system. Estimates of these externalities range into the trillions of U.S. dollars in agriculture alone, and a recent report by the FAO concluded that natural capital costs of crop and livestock systems may reach 130 to 170 percent of their total production value64. The nature of externalities is that they are real costs borne by society, and without addressing them through internalization or other regulation, the costs are not reflected in prices and markets do not produce proper or efficient results. The fact that we are indirectly, but assuredly, paying costs that may reach nearly twice the production value of our agriculture and food products means that there ought to be ample potential to boost income and support sustainable livelihoods for farmers, farm laborers, pastoralists, and fisherfolk by properly compensating agroecological practices (and eventually penalizing less-sustainable practices). It is important to note that this aligns with the research: the 2015 FAO report on natural capital found improvements in climate change mitigation, reduced land-use change and water consumption, air and water pollution from holistic grazing, SRI and organic farming, which is additionally in line with recent results by Sandhu et al. (2015).

Key Point 5: Recognizing and reinforcing existing voices

Many of the observations and recommendations we present here have also been supported and demanded by civil society around the world. In particular, the 2007 Nyéléni Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, and the 2015 Nyéléni Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology united hundreds of delegates of groups of small-scale food producers and consumers, including peasants, indigenous peoples, communities, hunters and gatherers, family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people, from countries around the world, to support the autonomy, rights, sovereignty, gender equality, and sustainable livelihoods of all food and agricultural producers, as well as eaters. Along with rights-based principles of responsible agricultural investment and the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, the Nyéléni Declarations’ documentation of the needs, struggles, and demands of these broad constituencies are invaluable and should be at the heart of continued conversations about agroecology, climate change, sustainability, food security and resilience.

Concluding Point

In sum, food and agricultural producers are demanding the ability to make a living using sustainable agroecological practices, and all the evidence indicates that supporting them in doing so through autonomy, sovereignty, appropriate prices, research and peer-to-peer dissemination of new and traditional ecological practices, will benefit all of society.

Based on the above key points, we have the following recommendations.

Recommendation 1. Interventions to improve food security, productivity and sustainability should recognize the importance of communities’ basic rights, including food sovereignty, and thus must truly and directly involve them in participatory decision-making on the types of and approaches to appropriate interventions.

Recommendation 2. Correspondingly, interventions to improve food security, productivity, and sustainability will often require the improving and maintaining basic public goods (especially clean water, sanitation, and education) in the context of participatory processes with local communities.

  • Specific case: Recognize that knowledge and innovation are public goods, and thus intellectual property must be handled in careful, locally-tailored ways that recognize and support the existence and sharing of traditional knowledge; contemporary and mainstream “one size fits all” approaches may in fact do more harm than good.65

Recommendation 3. Fostering social equality—particularly, but not exclusively, along the lines of gender—is a vital element to properly implementing agroecological approaches, and will powerfully support the effectiveness of any effort. But, as with all other elements, this must be done with collaboration and methods appropriate to the local context.

Recommendation 4. Experts specifically (e.g., policymakers, administrators, and researchers) will need to use approaches that increase the effective voice of communities, and support increased equality between and among actors, in order to achieve the best results. These approaches should be based on established and innovative participatory methodologies (such as Farmer Field Schools) that can be found throughout peer-reviewed literature and “gray literature” reports.

Recommendation 5. Private-Public Partnerships (and related approaches) should be evaluated very carefully, given that provision of public goods is by definition an area where government action cannot be replaced and will not be sufficiently provided by private interests. This type of approach may not be well-suited to appropriate interventions for food security and sustainability, where significant (positive and negative) externalities are likely to be present and of significant size.

  • Specific case 1: Land tenure is a complicated, but vital, issue requiring careful coordination between governments, civil society, and private interests. Multiple forms of land tenure should be supported towards providing land, water, and food security, and must be appropriately suited to the community, culture, and ecosystem at hand. Where land redistribution/reform takes place, to be effective it must be truly pro-poor and substantively redistributive: “compensation to landlords at below market price and payment by peasants and workers at below actual acquisition cost… linked to the principle that land is not a simple economic factor of production [but] multidimensional”, with political, economic, social and cultural dimensions not reducible to strictly monetary terms.66
  • Specific case 2: Carbon markets are often not well-suited to addressing the climate challenges we are facing, and are particularly unsuitable for agriculture. IATP has previously recommended research into how loss and damage can inform corporate climate risk exposure and the design of both private and public sector projects within the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions.67

Recommendation 6. A socio-ecological approach must be taken, involving local community members as well as social and natural scientists (keeping the Point 4 in mind), in order to best implement agroecological practices to improve food security, sustainability, and resilience.

Recommendation 7. Use direct deliberation between experts/government officials and community members in order to generate mutual accountability. That is, those giving resource support for the intervention need to respect the deliberation of the community and support modes based on procedural justice. In turn, effective and empowering community participation is more likely to generate mutual accountability between supporters and community members.

Recommendation 8. Successfully implementing agroecology and food sovereignty-focused approaches are highly likely to require removing existing policy barriers and implementing appropriate policy supports—for example, improving the accounting and internalization of negative externalities, and improving the knowledge of and support for positive externalities. Further, multiple avenues to improved social well-being should be considered, including consideration of the varietyof markets agricultural producers may produce for, including local and regional markets, as well as effective increases in income through increased self-provisioning. The diversity of production and markets that can support improvements in food security, resilience, and sustainability is not necessarily well-served by a prioritization of international markets or commodity crops.

Recommendation 9. Finally, we reiterate our recommendation that future conversations draw from and embrace the conclusions, recommendations, and demands of existing civil society documents and declarations, including but not limited to the 2007 Nyéléni Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, and the 2015 Nyéléni Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology; and building on and substantively supporting spaces such as the Civil Society Mechanism of the Committee on World Food Security.


1. Loos, J., Abson, D. J., Chappell, M. J., et al. (2014). Putting meaning back into “sustainable intensification”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(6), 356-361; Smith, L. C., & Haddad, L. (2015). Reducing Child Undernutrition: Past Drivers and Priorities for the Post-MDG Era. World Development, 68(0), 180-204; Ribot, J. (2014). Cause and response: vulnerability and climate in the Anthropocene. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 41(5), 667-705; Duryog Nivaran. (2014). Towards Post-2015 Agenda for DRR (HFA2): Women as a force in resilience building, gender equality in DRR: Report of the consultations in Asia Pacific.

2. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). (2009). Agriculture at a crossroads: International assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development, Volume 3: East & South Asia & the Pacific. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. Although we agree with the claim, we note here that the financializing and potentially dehumanizing rhetoric of “investing” and “yielding dividends” is problematic and not adequate to the nuances of empowering people towards food sovereignty, food security, resilience and sustainability.

3. Loos et al. 2014.

4. Ribot (2014).

5. Smith and Haddad (2015).

6. This section contains excerpts from the IATP report, Varghese, S. (2011). Women at the Center of Climate-friendly Approaches to Agriculture and Water Use. Minneapolis: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Retrieved from: http://www.iatp.org/files/451_2_107914.pdf.

7. IAASTD (2009).

8. von Grebmer, K., Bernstein, J., de Waal, A., Prasai, N., Yin, S., & Yohannes, Y. (2015). Global hunger index: Armed conflict and the challenge of hunger. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.2499/9780896299641.

9. According to the FAO’s State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015, Africa has a total of 232 million malnourished people (220 of whom are in Sub-Saharan Africa); Southern Asia has 281 million and South-eastern Asia has 60 million, for a total of approximately 341 million malnourished people.

10. Fitzpatrick, I. (2015). From the roots up: How agroecology can feed Africa. London: Global Justice Now.

11. Chappell, M. J. (2013). Global Movements for Food Justice. In R. J. Herring (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Food, Politics, and Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

12. Desmarais, A. A. (2007). La Vía Campesina: Globalization and the power of peasants. London: Pluto Press; La Via Campesina. (2015a). Annual Report 2014 of La Via Campesina, The International Peasants’ Movement. Harare: La Via Campesina.

13. E.g., Bezner-Kerr, R. (2008). Gender and agrarian inequality at the local scale. In S. S. Snapp & B. Pound (Eds.), Agricultural systems: Agroecology and rural innovation for development (pp. 281-308). Burlington: Elsevier.

14. Rawe, T., Deering, K., Echols, W. et al. (2015). Cultivating equality: Delivering just and sustainable food systems in a changing climate. Atlanta: CARE.

15. Ibid.

16. E.g. Varghese (2011), especially the section “The Tamilnadu Women’s Collective’s Focus on violence against women”; La Via Campesina (2015b); Aboud, G., Ballara, M., Brody, A., & Dand, S. (2015). Gender and Food Security In Brief. Brighton: IDS.

17. Numerous case studies and examples can be found in the peer-reviewed and gray literature, including FAO (2011). The State of Food and Agriculture: Women in agriculture: Closing the gender gap for development. Rome: FAO; Behrman, J., Meinzen-Dick, R., & Quisumbing, A. (2012). The gender implications of large-scale land deals. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(1), 49-79; Meinzen-Dick, R., Johnson, N., Quisumbing, A. et al. (2011). Gender, Assets, and Agricultural Development Programs: A Conceptual Framework (CAPRi Working Paper No. 99). Washington, D.C.: CAPRi; Agarwal, B. (1997). Gender, environment, and poverty interlinks: Regional variations and temporal shifts in rural India, 1971-91. World Development, 25(1), 23; Agarwal, B. (2009). Gender and forest conservation: The impact of women’s participation in community forest governance. Ecological Economics, 68(11), 2785-2799; Agarwal, B. (2015). Food Security, Productivity, and Gender Inequality. In R. J. Herring (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Food, Politics, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.; Rawe et al. 2015; Varghese 2011; Global Donor Platform for Rural Development. (2015). Gender equity and youth. Retrieved from https://www.donorplatform.org/gender-equity-and-youth/key-publications; Skinner, E., Brody, A., & Aboud, G. (2011). Gender and Development In Brief: Gender and Climate Change. Retrieved from Brighton: IDS; Aboud et al. 2015.

18. Sandhu, H., Wratten, S., Costanza et al. (2015). Significance and value of non-traded ecosystem services on farmland. PeerJ, e762.

19. Increased diversity is one of the key elements of many agroecological approaches—examples can be seen in Liebman, M., & Schulte, L. A. (2015). Enhancing agroecosystem performance and resilience through increased diversification of landscapes and cropping systems. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, 3, 000041; Snapp, S. S., Blackie, M. J., Gilbert et al. (2010). Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(48), 20840-20845; and Kremen, C., & Miles, A. F. (2012). Ecosystem Services in Biologically Diversified versus Conventional Farming Systems: Benefits, Externalities, and Trade-Offs. Ecology and Society, 17(4), 40.

20. Varghese 2011; Skinner et al. 2011; Aboud et al. 2015.

21. E.g., Pacini, C., Wossink, A., Giesen, G., Vazzana, C., & Huirne, R. (2003). Evaluation of sustainability of organic, integrated and conventional farming systems: a farm and field-scale analysis. Agriculture Ecosystems & Environment, 95(1), 273-288.; Liebman and Schulte-Moore 2015.

22. E.g. Pimentel, D., Hepperly, P., Hanson, J., Douds, D., & Seidel, R. (2005). Environmental, energetic, and economic comparisons of organic and conventional farming systems. BioScience, 55(7), 573-582; Forster, D., Andres, C., Verma, R., Zundel, C., Messmer, M. M., & Mäder, P. (2013). Yield and Economic Performance of Organic and Conventional Cotton-Based Farming Systems – Results from a Field Trial in India. PLoS ONE, 8(12), e81039; Di Falco, S., & Chavas, J.-P. (2006). Crop genetic diversity, farm productivity and the management of environmental risk in rainfed agriculture. European Review of Agricultural Economics, 33(3), 289-314.

23. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2015). Natural Capital Impacts in Agriculture: Supporting Better Business Decision-Making. Retrieved from Rome: FAO; see also Sandhu et al. 2015.

24. Skinner, C., Gattinger, A., Muller et al. (2014). Greenhouse gas fluxes from agricultural soils under organic and non-organic management — A global meta-analysis. Science of the Total Environment, 468–469, 553-563; Kremen and Miles (2012).

25. Snapp et al. (2010); Altieri, M. A., & Nicholls, C. I. (2013). The adaptation and mitigation potential of traditional agriculture in a changing climate. Climatic Change, 1-13.

26. Ponisio, L. C., Gonigle, L. K., Mace, K. C. et al. (2014). Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282(1799).

27. Smith and Haddad (2015).

28. Ghosh, J. (2010 ). Poverty reduction in China and India: Policy implications of recent trends? DESA Working Paper No. 92. New York: United Nations; Agarwal (2015).

29. Loos et al. (2014).

30. Rocha (2007). Food insecurity as market failure: a contribution from economics. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 1(4), 5-22.

31. Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York: Cambridge University Press; Poteete, A. R., Janssen, M. A., & Ostrom, E. (2010). Working together: collective action, the commons, and multiple methods in practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

32. Fung, A., & Wright, E. O. (Eds.). (2003). Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance. London: Verso; Herbick, M., & Isham, J. (2010). The promise of deliberative democracy. Solutions, 1(5), 25-27; Prugh, T., Costanza, R., & Daly, H. E. (2000). The local politics of global sustainability. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

33. Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond markets and states: polycentric governance of complex economic systems. American Economic Review, 100(3), 641

34. Harwood, J. (2013). Has the Green Revolution been a Cumulative Learning Process? Third World Quarterly, 34(3), 397-404.

35. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2013). Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems. Rome: FAO.

36. Porter-Bolland, L., Ellis, E. A., Guariguata, M. R. et al. (2012). Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics. Forest Ecology And Management, 268, 6-17; Lund, J. F., Burgess, N. D., Chamshama, S. A. O. et al. (2015). Mixed method approaches to evaluate conservation impact: evidence from decentralized forest management in Tanzania. Environmental Conservation, 42(02), 162-170; Oldekop, J. A., Holmes, G., Harris, W. E., & Evans, K. L. (in press). A global assessment of the social and conservation outcomes of protected areas. Conservation Biology.

37. Scheba, A., & Mustalahti, I. (In press). Rethinking ‘expert’ knowledge in community forest management in Tanzania. Forest Policy and Economics.

38. Agarwal (2009).

39. Smith and Haddad (2015).

40. Ostrom (1990); Poteete et al. (2010); Borras, S. M. (2007). Pro-poor land reform: a critique. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

41. Ribot (2014).

42. Karnani, A. (2010). The case against corporate social responsibility. Wall Street Journal, 23, 1-5; see also Karnani, A. (2011). “Doing Well by Doing Good”: The Grand Illusion. California Management Review, 53(2), 69-86.

43. Farrell, H., & Shalizi, C. R. (2015). Pursuing Cognitive Democracy. In D. Allen & J. Light (Eds.), From Voice to Influence: Understanding citizenship in a digital age. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

44. Carlson, J., & Chappell, M. J. (2015). Deepening food democracy. Minneapolis: Institute for Agriculture and trade Policy; Fung and Wright (2003); Herbick and Isham 2010.

45. Chappell (2013); Chappell, M. J., Wittman, H. K., Bacon, C. M. et al. (2013). Food sovereignty for poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation in Latin America [v1; ref status: indexed, http://f1000r.es/23s]. F1000Research, 2(235).

46. Akram-Lodhi, A. H. (2015). Accelerating towards food sovereignty. Third World Quarterly, 36(3), 563-583.

47. http://soilandfood.org/approach-organization/. See also the excellent TedMed talk by Raj Patel: http://tedmed.com/talks/show?id=529961.

48. Quoted from Watts, M., & Williamson, S. (2015). Replacing Chemicals with Biology: Phasing out highly hazardous pesticides with agroecology. Penang: Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific.

49. Ibid.

50. MASIPAG’s network extends to 35,000 farmers, with MASIPAG conducting work in 62 of the country’s 79 provinces; 40 regular staff; cooperation with 60 NGOs and 15 scientists from various universities (Watts and Williamson 2015).

51. Nakashima, D., & Roue, M. (2002). Indigenous Knowledge, Peoples and Sustainable Practice. In P. Timmerman (Ed.),Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change, Volume 5: Social and economic dimensions of global environmental change (pp. 314–324). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons; Northern Development Foundation (NDF) and the Huay Hin Lad community. (n.d.). Climate Change, Trees and Livelihood: A Case Study on the Carbon Footprint of a Karen Community in Northern Thailand. Retrieved from Chiang Mai: AIPP. http://ccmin.aippnet.org/attachments/article/350/English.pdf; Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research. (2009). Coping with Climate Change: The Use of Agrobiodiversity by Indigenous and Rural Communities. Retrieved from Rome: PAR. http://www.agrobiodiversityplatform.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/PAR_briefing_final.pdf.

52. http://asianfarmers.org/afaresearches0876dlsj/2011-10-14-agroecology.pdf

53. Yoon, B.-S., Song, W.-K., & Lee, H.-j. (2013). The Struggle for food sovereignty in South Korea. Monthly Review, 65(1), 56.

54. Watts and Williamson (2015); see also note 17.

55. See also overviews in IAASTD (2009), and National Academy of Science [USA]. (2010). Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

56. In addition to previously mentioned sources, see the broad review and specific case study of India in FAO (2015).

57. A further example of these principles can be seen in the case of Australian farmers: Marshall, G. R. (2009). Polycentricity, reciprocity, and farmer adoption of conservation practices under community-based governance. Ecological Economics, 68(5), 1507-1520.

58. Pretty, J. N., Toulmin, C., & Williams, S. (2011). Sustainable intensification in African agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 9, 5-24.

59. Oldekop et al. 2015.

60. Lefcheck, J. S., Byrnes, J. E. K., Isbell, F. et al. (2015). Biodiversity enhances ecosystem multifunctionality across trophic levels and habitats. Nature Communications, 6(6936); Lundgren, J. G., & Fausti, S. W. (2015). Trading biodiversity for pest problems. Science Advances, 1(6).

61. Peasant Economies and Agroecology: Social Movements, Knowledge Exchange, and Public Policies: Conference and Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the Mexican National Association of Producers’ Enterprises—information and final statements available at http://www.iatp.org/blog/201509/globalizing-resistance-resilience-and-hope-through-agroecology.

62. Chappell 2013.

63. Ivanic, M., & Martin, W. (2014). Short-and long-run impacts of food price changes on poverty. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper(7011); Headey, D. (2014). Food prices and poverty reduction in the long run (1331). Retrieved from Washington, D.C.: http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/128056.

64. FAO 2015.

65. Forsyth, M., & Farran, S. (2013). Intellectual Property and Food Security in Least Developed Countries. Third World Quarterly, 34(3), 516-533; Stiglitz, J. E. (2014). Intellectual property rights, the pool of knowledge, and innovation. Cambridge, MA: NBER.

66. Quoted from Borras (2009).

67. Suppan, S. (2012). Submission in response to the request for comments by the Chair of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC/AWLCA/2011/L.4). Retrieved from Minneapolis: The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2012/smsn/ngo/167.pdf

– See more at: http://www.iatp.org/documents/contribution-to-asia-regional-meeting-on-agroecology#sthash.aONrxkqL.dpuf

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Nutrition and Food Systems: Comments to the HLPE for their forthcoming report

Cross-posted from IATP’s Think Forward blog:

Posted April 21, 2016 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. The current version of the CFS emerged following the food crises of 2008 as a result of a reform process that sought to increase stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. Its High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) mechanism was created in 2010 as part of the reform to be “the science-policy interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS),” and “aims to improve the robustness of policy making by providing independent, evidence-based analysis and advice at the request of CFS.”

Since its establishment, the HLPE has taken on issues related to food security and nutrition, including last year’s report “Water for food security and nutrition,” which was co-authored by IATP senior policy analyst Shiney Varghese.

At its recent October 2015 session, the CFS decided that the HLPE will prepare a report on Nutrition and Food Systems, which is expected to be presented at CFS 44 in October 2017. As an initial step in this process, there was an “e-consultation” to seek feedbacks, views and comments on the relevant issues. Comments contributed by IATP’s Senior Staff Scientist, Jahi Chappell, were posted to their e-consultation website, and are reprinted below:

  1. The large and very influential role of corporate concentration, commercial marketing and processed food development must be analyzed head on. There may in fact be unavoidable trade-offs between current systems and profits and improved nutrition (see note on Smith et al. 2013). The literature on these issues is extensive. See Hendrickson (2015); Howard (2016); Lang et al. (2009); Moss (2013); Nestle (2013); and Smith et al. (2013). The power of commercials and corporate influence (for instance, on what is served in schools) are obviously important influences on how diets change, yet is rarely addressed directly in many analyses and scenario projections.
    • Smith et al.’s conclusions are of especial note, particularly with regards to profit and regulatory capture (albeit in a US context): “[…]We ask whether the current state of affairs represents a market failure, and—if so—what might be done about it. We argue that while today’s industrial food system has its advantages, the asymmetric information problems inherent to this system have resulted in a ‘lemons-style’ breakdown in the market for processed foods. The appropriate policy response to such situations (namely, verifiable quality standards) is well known, but such policies are likely (in the short run) to reduce profits for existing large industrial producers of food. In light of the food industry’s long history of success at regulatory capture, we propose the formation of a new independent food standards agency devoted to protecting the interests of the American consumer.”
  2. The fact of persistent and large negative externalities—particularly health externalities, both direct and indirect—must be taken into account when evaluating current and alternative food systems. It makes no sense, for example, to refer to current systems as “efficient” in the presence of large externalities that have not been internalized. (FAO 2015; Pretty et al. 2001). Further, the possibility of raising food prices to send appropriate signals about the costs of different foods and production systems, while politically unpopular, should be considered. It is, in fact, one way that “diets change,” and the many projections of future demand, for example, for meat from ruminants appears to me to be economically and ecologically incoherent and untenable without envisioning the internalization of known costs and risks into prices. See also point 8 on possible effects of (higher) food prices.
  3. The fact that, with few exceptions, plant breeding has not focused on nutrition, and there is some evidence of nutritional losses in cultivars over time, should be addressed. (e.g. Davis 2009)
  4. As acknowledged in multiple sources, gender equality and women’s rights should be a central feature of the analysis on nutrition, e.g. Agarwal (2015); Bezner Kerr et al. (2007); Bezner Kerr et al. (2011); Bezner Kerr et al. (2013); Jones et al. (2014); Smith et al. (2003); and Smith and Haddad (2015); see also the FAO Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems, which includes the point for programs and investments to “Empower women” and the point for policies to “Include measures that protect and empower the poor and women.”
  5. The constraints placed on many countries with regards to providing food and nutrition security for their own populations must be addressed and, in fact, prioritized above simple economic returns and trade considerations for corporations—which was not done during the formation of the FAO, as McKeon (2014) elaborates. See also Weis (2007) for a discussion of the impacts of the Agreement on Agriculture.
  6. The growing literature on connections between crop diversity and dietary diversity should be amply explored; e.g. Burlingame and Dernini (2012); with the contexts of food sovereignty and autonomy considered alongside.
  7. The growing realization of the importance of dietary diversity per se should be addressed, e.g. Smith and Haddad 2015; Heady and Ecker (2013).
  8. A sophisticated analysis of nutrition, production, productivity, and prices must be undertaken. While there has long been an assumption that increasing productivity for farmers will increase their well-being, nutrition and income, the possibility that higher prices is equally or more important or effective is seldom seriously addressed. But contemporary analyses and re-analyses of earlier data have solidly (though arguably not yet conclusively) shown that higher food prices may in fact be better for farmers, and indeed, may drive up urban and rural wages (and therefore improve the possibilities for food and nutrition security); Headey (2014); Ivanic and Will (2014). Therefore, the typical assumption of productivity à increased farmer income à lower food prices à improved nutrition outcomes should be interrogated, questioned and likely revised in the face of current evidence.
  9. The significant contribution to dietary diversity and food security from urban agriculture should be acknowledged and carefully examined; Thebo et al. 2014; Zezza and Tasciotti 2014.
  10. Cultural and ethical values, and their interaction with nutrition, food sovereignty and autonomy (not autarky) should also be explicitly considered and their significance allowed due weight. This includes, but is not limited to, the importance of participation and empowerment, as recognized in the Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems, which is based on a consensus process among nutritionists and related experts.

References Cited

Agarwal, B. (2015). Food Security, Productivity, and Gender Inequality. In R. J. Herring (Ed.),The Oxford Handbook of Food, Politics, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bezner Kerr, R., Berti, P. R., & Shumba, L. (2011). Effects of a participatory agriculture and nutrition education project on child growth in northern Malawi. Public Health Nutrition, 14(08), 1466-1472.

Bezner Kerr, R., Snapp, S., Chirwa, M., Shumba, L., & Msachi, R. (2007). Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility. Experimental Agriculture, 43(04), 437-453.

Bezner-Kerr, R., Lupafya, E., & Shumba, L. (2013). Food Sovereignty, Gender and Nutrition: Perspectives from Malawi: Conference Paper #68. Paper presented at the Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, Yale University, New Haven, CT. http://www.iss.nl/fileadmin/ASSETS/iss/Research_and_projects/Research_networks/ICAS/68_BeznerKerr_2013.pdf

Burlingame, B., & Dernini, S. (Eds.). (2012). Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and solutions for policy, research and action. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Davis, D. R. (2009). Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence? HortScience, 44(1), 15-19.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2013). Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems. Retrieved from Rome: http://unscn.org/files/Agriculture-Nutrition-CoP/Agriculture-Nutrition_Key_recommendations.pdf

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2015). Natural Capital Impacts in Agriculture: Supporting Better Business Decision-Making. Retrieved from Rome: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/nr/sustainability_pathways/docs/Final_Natural_Capital_Impacts_in_Agriculture_-_Supporting_Better_Business_Descision-Making_v5.0.pdf

Headey, D. (2014). Food prices and poverty reduction in the long run (1331). Retrieved from Washington, D.C.: http://ebrary.ifpri.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15738coll2/id/128056

Headey, D., & Ecker, O. (2013). Rethinking the measurement of food security: from first principles to best practice. Food Security, 5(3), 327-343. doi:10.1007/s12571-013-0253-0

Hendrickson, M. K. (2015). Resilience in a concentrated and consolidated food system. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 5(3), 418-431. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0292-2

Howard, P. H. (2016). Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat? London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.

Ivanic, M., & Martin, W. (2014). Short-and long-run impacts of food price changes on poverty.World Bank Policy Research Working Paper(7011).

Jones, A. D., Shrinivas, A., & Bezner-Kerr, R. (2014). Farm production diversity is associated with greater household dietary diversity in Malawi: Findings from nationally representative data. Food Policy, 46(0), 1-12. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2014.02.001

Lang, T., Barling, D., & Caraher, M. (2009). Food policy: Integrating health, environment & society. Oxford, UK; New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

McKeon, N. (2014). Food Security Governance: Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations: Routledge.

Moss, M. (2013). Salt, sugar, fat: how the food giants hooked us: Random House.

Nestle, M. (2013). Food politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health: University of California Press.

Pretty, J., Brett, C., Gee, D., Hine, R., Mason, C., Morison, J., . . . Dobbs, T. (2001). Policy Challenges and Priorities for Internalizing the Externalities of Modern Agriculture. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 44(2), 263-283. doi:10.1080/09640560123782

Smith, L. C., & Haddad, L. (2015). Reducing Child Undernutrition: Past Drivers and Priorities for the Post-MDG Era. World Development, 68(0), 180-204. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2014.11.014

Smith, L. C., Ramakrishnan, U., Ndiaye, A., Haddad, L., & Martorell, R. (2003). The importance of women’s status for child nutrition in developing countries (131). Retrieved from Washington, D.C.: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/importance-womens-status-child-nutrition-developing-countries

Smith, T. G., Chouinard, H. H., & Wandschneider, P. R. (2011). Waiting for the invisible hand: Novel products and the role of information in the modern market for food. Food Policy, 36(2), 239-249.

Thebo, A. L., Drechsel, P., & Lambin, E. F. (2014). Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplands. Environmental Research Letters, 9(11), 114002.

Weis, T. (2007). The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Blackpoint, NS. Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Zezza, A., & Tasciotti, L. (2010). Urban agriculture, poverty, and food security: Empirical evidence from a sample of developing countries. Food Policy, 35(4), 265-273.

– Original post: http://www.iatp.org/blog/201604/nutrition-and-food-systems-comments-to-the-hlpe-for-their-forthcoming-report#sthash.nVTjhgQj.dpuf

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A synthesis for everyone: 5 years of work in Romania

Wow! Synthesis of 5 years of work by my colleagues at Leuphana University, based on some fantastic socioecological work in Southern Romania. Check it out!

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

After five years of work in Southern Transylvania, our first main project there has now officially finished. Our project website provides an overview of all of our research outputs as well as outreach materials. In an effort to provide an accessible overview of the various things we did, we have just completed a small book that tries to bring everything together. This book could be useful for NGOs in Romania, for engaged citizens and community leaders; but it might also be useful for researchers working on similar issues elsewhere to get a sense for how others go about this kind of work.

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Like our booklet on scenario planning, this new book is published by Pensoft, and is open access. This means you are free to download it and share it with whoever you think may be interested in it.

With this project coming to an end (there are still three or so papers…

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Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe

Ideas for Sustainability

By Andra Horcea-Milcu

This new paper is part of recent efforts (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014) to widen the ecosystem service metaphor in order to encompass the multiple ways in which nature supports human well-being. As I tried to illustrate in more detail here, the evolution of the ecosystem service discourse has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards the beneficiaries’ end: their capabilities, agency, interest, power, preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade (e.g. the management of the ecosystem services flow). The question of how is human well-being connected to ecosystem services gave rise to new research agendas including issues of co-production by social-ecological systems, equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as gender or location (e.g. Daw 2011). Disaggregation enables studying in more depth patterns of ecosystem services flows, similarly…

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Drinking water and Democracy: Tale of Two Cities (cross-post from IATP)

An excellent piece by my IATP colleague, Shiney Varghese, cross-posted from IATP’s blog


Originally posted February 25, 2016, on IATP’s Think Forward

by Shiney Varghese

Image used under creative commons license from YouTube user TruthSecAnons: bit.ly/1LyPzOP

The tragic situation in Flint is in many ways a cautionary tale of democracy subverted, one that ties directly to the United States’ refusal to recognize basic human rights such as the right to water. These rights are enshrined in international law, including in the 2010 United Nations General Assembly declaration that all nations have a duty to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation.

The U.S. contributed to laying the groundwork for recognition of this right when it passed the Safe Water Drinking Act in 1974, which put in motion a new national program to ensure the purity of the drinking water supply in the United States. That law was enacted after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that “the old assumptions about the quality of drinking water were no longer valid,” and also in response to reports from around the country about water contamination in local water supply systems, including lead being found in the drinking water supply in Boston. The Act places the primary responsibility for enforcement and supervision of public drinking water supply systems and sources of drinking water clearly upon the state as a safeguard. It also requires that states to demonstrate their ability to enforce standards at least as stringent as the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, including procedures for monitoring and inspection and that they adopt plans for the provision of safe drinking water should an emergency arise. Moreover, with the Public Notification Rule (PN), “the consumer becomes an enforcer and can exert pressure on the utility, the local government, and the State, demanding water that complies with the Federal and State regulations. The Safe Drinking Water Act has real ‘teeth’ from the Federal level down to each of us as consumers,” wrote James L. Agee, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water and Hazardous Materials, in 1975.

In essence, the Safe Drinking Water Act assumes a vibrant democracy, with public officials and local authorities being accountable. This assumption seems to have failed in Flint’s case. In fact, the State of Michigan failed not only in fulfilling its primary responsibility but even the test of safeguards. For a number of reasons, Flint residents were unable to enforce or make use of the provisions under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The story really begins in the summer of 2014, if not before, long before Flint residents began trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to draw attention to their problems. Flint is the fourth largest metropolitan area in Michigan. For most of 20th century its economy was closely tied to General Motors and jobs in the auto industry. A number of factors, including trade agreements that resulted in the export of manufacturing jobs and closing of factories, saw the city becoming one of the poorest in the country in the first decade of 21st century, as captured in this somber photo-essay. A similar fate awaited Detroit as well. The flight of manufacturing, combined with corrupt leadership, saw Detroit filing for a historic $18 billion bankruptcy in mid-2013.

Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, who assumed office on January 1, 2011, signed Public Act 4 into law less than three months later, giving him the authority to intervene early on in local affairs by appointing emergency managers with powers to break or modify agreements with workers. When, in a state-wide referendum in 2012, Michigan voters rejected this law, Gov. Snyder and other lawmakers responded by enacting Public Act 436; the new law was very similar but included a provision ensuring that it could not be repealed through a referendum! These laws have their basis in a law known as Local Government Responsibility Act, 1990, or Public Act 72, which allowed the appointment of Emergency Financial Managers (EFM) to help local government manage their finances.[i] The law had rarely been used in the ensuing two decades, according to experts at the Michigan State University,but was amended several times.

Under this law, all existing Emergency Financial Managers were to transition to Emergency Managers (EM), with additional powers. Governor Snyder used the provisions of these laws to appoint emergency managers to take financial control of struggling cities such as Flint (effective as of December 1, 2011, under PA 4) and Detroit (effective as of March 25, 2013, under PA 436)[ii]

Clearly these laws, as they stand today, subvert democracy: they strip local elected officials of power. Appointed by the governor, emergency managers are not answerable to citizens; yet, these emergency managers are granted immense power to rewrite city’s contracts and to liquidate city assets to help pay off debts, regardless of how residents feel about these actions. In fact, residents have limited or no power to question the law itself.

Detroit made international headlines when the water utility cut off drinking water and sanitation services to thousands of Detroit residents—crews were shutting off about 3,000 delinquent accounts per week at one point in the summer of 2014. (The initial cutoff was in March 2014.) According to reports, while residents who were said to be indebted to the water utility had their service cut off, large scale water consumers who owed millions of dollars in arrears were not cut off. In October 2014, the UN human rights experts who visited Detroit in response to civil society requests said: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”

One of the early proposals from Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr was to create a regional water authority, the Metropolitan Area Water and Sewer Authority (MAWSA). This was perceived by water activists as opening a “clear path for privatization,”as the city was to permit MAWSA to operate the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD)through a concession agreement or via a lease of water department assets.” The counties that were to join MAWSA balked at the hefty price they were to be charged, and some of them decided to develop their own regional water authority. Flint, which was under another Emergency Manager reporting to Snyder, was one of them. As the two cities, Detroit and Flint, could not find a mutually satisfactory solution, in April 2013 Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would source its water from Lake Huron (and expects to be operational at the earliest by the summer of 2016), at the advice of the state. Flint’s final year-to-year contract with Detroit expired in April 2014. To cut costs, Flint’s officials turned to the Flint River as a temporary source of water until the new pipeline was complete. On April 25, 2014, Flint shut off the water intake from Detroit, and connecting instead to the Flint River, despite years of missed warnings about the dangers of doing so.

Over the ensuing 18 months, the residents of Flint were consuming lead-contaminated water (a result also from yet another cost-cutting measure, that of avoiding corrosion control treatments despite Flint’s aged water infrastructure), and the rest of the story is well known.

As the calamity in Flint was unfolding in early 2016, I came across an announcement from the Chief Minister of Delhi, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, that the Delhi Water Board (DJB) earned the equivalent of $25 million more in the last financial year than the year before, despite providing 20,000 litres of water without charge to Delhi households every month. DJB is the public agency responsible for supply of potable water to the National Capital Territory region of Delhi. For a city of Delhi’s size (Delhi is one of the most populated cities in the world, with more than 16.68 million people in 2011), in a developing country, this is no mean feat.

Arvind Kejriwal’s Party, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), came to power exactly a year ago, promising better services for Delhiites, especially for its poor. A career public official, Arvind left civil service to fight corruption in public services, and when Delhi, with the support of the World Bank, sought to privatize its water services (2001-2005), his organization was key to defeating those efforts. This required holding the then chief minister of Delhi accountable and exposing the unnecessary loans that India took that increased its debt to the World Bank, as well as showing World Bank’s own role in pushing for privatization. AAP emerged from the embers of the anti-corruption movement that swept through India in early 2011, around the same time as Governor Snyder’s Public Act was becoming effective in Michigan. For AAP and its supporters, “a system of governance that gives power to officials without providing transparency in their public dealings and societal supervision of their actions breed corruption.”

AAP responded to political corruption, and the dysfunctional public delivery system, by building democracy from the ground up. A newcomer to politics, it debuted in the 2013 state elections and won 27 out of 70 seats. It formed a minority government, which survived only briefly before being brought down by the two other opposition parties. But when AAP went back to the hustings in the next election in early 2015, it won an unprecedented 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly.  Within weeks of assuming power, AAP sought to fulfill its promise of the right to water—20,000 liters of free water, and a steep progressive pricing if consumption goes above 20,000—for every family. A year later, Delhiites are happier with their water services. They do not have to pay for water, and they can get water even if they are not connected to a piped water supply yet. Ordinary families also tend to conserve water to keep their total monthly use below 20,000 liters, since they know that the price rises steeply if the consumption goes above 20,000 liters.

A similar idea had been floated in Detroit. “Make those with higher incomes pay more for their water,” said Gloria House of the Detroit People’s Water Board, an activist group that essentially wants those who owe for their water to get it for free, “[t]he only humane course of action in a city with the highest poverty rate in the nation is to have people pay for water based on income.” Unfortunately, her argument fell on deaf ears in Detroit. Not only that, many businesses in fact did not have their water shut off, despite being in arrears.

Of course, despite the efficiency improvements, conservation measures and effective provision of free basic water services by DJB, by no means is the situation rosy. An important challenge for Delhi is ensuring the reliability and sustainability of its water sources, as has been pointed out during water crises in previous years. As the crisis over last weekend, February 20-21 shows, Delhi’s access to water is precarious, even if it was resolved quickly this time. In addition, the AAP faces many challenges as it addresses historic liabilities of various kinds— economic, social and cultural. The majority of its sanitation workers belong to the Balmiki community, the lowest of the low castes, working in inhumane conditions. One of AAP’s promises was to regularize these sanitation workers who tend to be contractual workers with very low pay and  a large number of dependents. AAP has yet to make good on that promise. Most of Delhi’s water delivery and sanitation infrastructure is in dire need of repairs. Moreover, many settlements have so far been considered illegal, and are not yet connected to water services. Delhi, too, will need infrastructure assistance, both to make it safer for sanitation workers and to extend pipelines to unconnected areas that are currently served through water tankers.

It is heartening to see that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed its first piece of legislation to require the EPA to alert residents of high lead levels in circumstances where state officials or a local utility does not, clearly a positive fall-out of the Flint water crisis. No matter what happens in the Senate, it sends a strong political signal to EPA.

However, I cannot stop comparing Michigan, a state in the oldest democracy, and Delhi,   capital of the largest democracy. In Michigan, under Snyder’s leadership, we see how democracy was subverted, mostly to the detriment of disadvantaged sections of society. In Delhi, under Kejriwals’ leadership, we see baby steps being taken to build accountability to people, benefiting the middle class and the poorer sections of the society. Most importantly, even as the right to safe water in adequate quantity is being violated in Michigan’s cities, in Delhi, AAP is able to not only recognize citizens’ right to free water, but also fulfill that obligation in a cost effective manner.

[i] Public Act No. 101 of 1988 for the first time allowed direct state intervention in the affairs of local units of government other than school districts. Public Act 72 of 1990 replaced Act 101 and extended its provisions to school districts.

[ii] Flint was under an EFM from 2004-2006, when they had limited powers

– See more at: http://www.iatp.org/blog/201602/drinking-water-and-democracy-tale-of-two-cities#sthash.2COXad8T.dpuf

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Natural Capital Day

a new nature blog

IMG_0421 can natural capitalism help reduce flooding? (c) Miles King

Monday was Natural Capital day at the Green Alliance. They produced a report called Natural Partners, in which they sought to explain that Natural Capitalists and Nature Conservationists could get along fine, instead of bickering. On the same day, they held a Natural Capital debate in London, which I went along to. There was a very good turnout.

I read the report on the train to London. At first I was not sure about it; was it entirely sensible to frame the debate as either traditional nature conservation, or natural capital? Other options are available – for example a broader environmental stance, or indeed the new kid on the block – rewilding.

A deeper problem for me was that the report failed to mention the vital importance of education and raising awareness. Education and raising awareness drives societal change at…

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From counting carbon to commodifying nature: the per-analytical ties that bind

Ideas for Sustainability

Recently I read an article in the Guardian with the headline “The solution for the melting polar ice caps may be hiding in the rainforest”. It was written by Dr Paul Salaman, the CEO of Rainforest Trust. The article was, at least tangentially, about a recent paper by Houghton et al. in Nature Climate Change about the carbon stored in the tropical forests (which can be found here). The Houghton et al. paper is purely a biophysical assessment of net primary productivity in rainforests. Dr Salaman used that scientific paper as a starting point to argue:

“Rainforest conservation is also incredibly economical. One acre of Amazon rainforest in Peru, which stores up to 180 metric tonnes of CO2, can be protected for just a few dollars; the same is true elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. The implications here are astounding and should give us pause: for…

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Looking back from Paris to Senegal: What the FAO Regional Agroecology Meeting had to say on Climate-Smart Agriculture

Used under creative commons license from wdm: http://flickr.com/photos/wdm


Cross-posted from IATP, December 22, 2015

With the recent conclusion of climate talks in Paris (see Ben Lilliston’s coverage here, here, here, and here), which included strong pushes for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA) by a variety of government, NGO and corporate actors, it’s worth returning to the recent conversations about agriculture at the FAO’s second Regional Agroecology Meeting. This meeting, which I attended in Dakar, Senegal from November 4-6 of this year, once again united scientists, civil society and members of government to discuss agroecology and its potential to improve small-scale food producers’ lives, support their extensive existing knowledge and improve environmental impacts from the agrifood system, from climate change to biodiversity.

One clear message voiced by civil society (which included groups representing pastoralists, fisherfolk and smallholder farmers from throughout the continent of Africa) was a desire to keep climate-smart agriculture distinct from agroecology. There has been interest from various actors in comparing or even combining agroecology—proposing to take “the best of both.” As we have written at IATP, we are skeptical of such an approach, not least because its “clever ambiguity” opens the door for practically anything to be called climate-smart. During conversations and consultation in Dakar, it seemed clear that, by and large, the civil society participants did not see what value “climate-smart” was bringing to the conversation or their efforts. They saw it as unambiguously different than what many of them were practicing in terms of agroecology, a term that spoke to many of their groups and their traditions. The concepts of agroecology also align with the efforts of Africa-wide organizations such as the Alliance for Food Security in Africa, which launched a series of agroecology case studies at the meeting, and intercontinental organizations such as La Vía Campesina, the smallholder family farmers’ movement which is currently headquartered in Zimbabwe and led by General Coordinator Elizabeth Mpofu. It was interesting seeing so many stakeholders expressing the fact that agroecology, along with food sovereignty, had already been identified as the path they see to a better, more sustainable future for both food producers and the climate. The message was clear that, whatever others’ interest was in climate-smart agriculture, what most of the farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk (and no small amount of the scientists and government representatives) there wanted to focus on was support for agroecology. In fact, several participants pointed out an international convening in Nyéléni, Mali earlier this year had already brought together “small-scale food producers and consumers, including peasants, indigenous peoples, communities, hunters and gatherers, family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people” to affirm the importance and centrality of agroecology.

The fact that these voices from small-scale food producers in Africa already reflect the positions of many of IATP’s allies on climate-smart as a “false solution” seems all the more reason to believe that we are on the right track with our critiques of climate-smart agriculture. Indeed, one participant (and proponent of CSA) at the FAO Regional Meeting did say, “Well, perhaps climate-smart agriculture is more of a slogan, but you know, slogans are important to politicians.” I think this may in fact be the case, and the root of the discomfort many of us feel about climate-smart agriculture. Frankly, I feel this old saw encapsulates CSA pretty spot-on: “What’s good is not new, and what is new is not good.” CSA does not, that I can see, add anything of substance to the science, practices and movement of agroecology. What it does add appears to be buy-in from some governments, NGOs and corporations. But what is this supposed “buy-in” worth when there are no firm commitments to what counts as CSA and what doesn’t, and no firm commitments to provide new funds to support good, participatory research and implementation? And even if there were such funds, what reason is there that they should be classified for “climate-smart” rather than for agroecology? One of those two terms has been around for 85 years and is based on a combination of modern science and thousands of years of farmer knowledge (hint: it’s agroecology). The other is based on a catchy phrase that entered the international lexicon five years ago or so, based on political jockeying. Now, I understand as well as the next guy that compromise is a necessary part of every effort, but the politics of this situation seem to simply be that some powerful players like the term CSA, but don’t know what it means, exactly; don’t know what new ideas it brings; don’t necessarily have new funding committed for it; and don’t have a distinct reason for using it instead of agroecology (except maybe it doesn’t ‘scare’ some people like agroecology does.) This may be the stubborn scientist in me coming out, but accepting a new term that involves so many “I don’t knows,” no additional resources and makes some powerful people less nervous does not seem a reasonable way to go.

An (unfunny) thing happened on the way from the FAO Agroecology Forum

It is worth noting a couple of other significant points from the meeting in Dakar. One is the interest by many groups in the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). OSSI (which IATP has helped develop) seeks to keep the world’s heritage embodied in seeds and other germplasm[i] open for all to use, in perpetuity, rather than keeping it locked up behind intrusive and exploitative intellectual property regimes.[ii] Many African farmers fear, with good reason, that their traditional and indigenous seeds and varieties might be used to develop patented or otherwise restricted varieties by companies like Monsanto; or, that such traditions and heritage might otherwise be lost. This would be a grave shame as not only is the world’s plant and animal genetic diversity important for its own sake, our present and our future, but also because many traditional varieties have much to offer us[iii]

A case in point comes from the representatives of the Malawian Farmer-to-Farmer Project (http://soilandfood.org/). Nutritionist Dr. Mangani Chilala Katundu, along with farmers Anita Chtiaya, Alice Gubudu and Edwin Nyati Kasamba, attended the meeting in Dakar (representing this incredible project) told me that they were worried that international corporations or government pressure might lead the loss or co-optation of a local landrace of orange maize. This landrace, they told me, actually provided as much or more Vitamin A as attempts at “biofortified” varieties. It turns out, in fact, that this was recently confirmed in a study (co-authored by Dr. Katundu) published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Chemistry. I told them about OSSI, which ended up interesting a variety of farmers in Dakar; although, so far, OSSI does not have a branch or chapter in Africa. Additionally, the main power OSSI has brought so far is the ability to name and shame any companies or people who might try to take advantage of OSSI-pledged materials by locking them away behind patents. Nevertheless, despite the fact that OSSI does not create a legal barrier to taking traditional varieties out of the realm of the common good, Monsanto scientists have already made the Orwellian argument that keeping plant materials in the realm of the public domain may be “one of the most restrictive forms of access” of all.[iv] Because as a result, no company or individual could then demand everyone who ever uses a seed to pay them—the fact that seed sharing and diversification have happened for thousands of years before patenting apparently does not count.

To many of the farmer groups who attended the Dakar meeting with me, this idea—that protecting open accessibility of their common heritage to all is in fact more restrictive than a regime where farmers have to pay for their seeds each year, even if their ancestors helped breed those seeds—would have been funny, were the perverse corporate logic not so tragic.

[i] Germplasm is “the living genetic resources such as seeds or tissue that is maintained for the purpose of animal and plant breeding, preservation, and other research uses.”

[ii] “Today, only a handful of companies account for most of the world’s commercial breeding and seed sales. Increasingly, patenting is used to enhance the power and control of these companies over the seeds and the farmers that feed the world. Patented seeds cannot be saved, replanted or shared by farmers and gardeners. And because there is no research exemption for patented material, plant breeders at universities and small seed companies cannot use patented seed to create the new crop varieties that should be the foundation of a just and sustainable agriculture. Inspired by the free and open source software movement that has provided alternatives to proprietary software, OSSI was created to free the seed—to make sure that the genes in at least some seed can never be locked away from use by intellectual property rights. Through our Pledge, OSSI asks breeders and stewards of crop varieties to pledge to make their seeds available without restrictions on use, and to ask recipients of those seeds to make the same commitment. OSSI is working to create a pool of open source varieties, to connect farmers and gardeners to suppliers of open source seed, and to inform and educate citizens about seed issues.” (From http://www.osseeds.org.)

[iii] Altieri, Miguel Angel, Laura C. Merrick, and M. K. Anderson. “Peasant Agriculture and the Conservation of Crop and Wild Plant Resources.” Conservation Biology1 (1987): 49-58; Chappell, Michael Jahi, Hannah K. Wittman, Christopher M. Bacon et al. “Food Sovereignty for Poverty Reduction and Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America [V1; Ref Status: Indexed, http://F1000r.Es/23s].” F1000Research 2, no. 235 (2013); Pautasso, Marco, Guntra Aistara, Adeline Barnaud et al. “Seed Exchange Networks for Agrobiodiversity Conservation. A Review.” Agronomy for Sustainable Development (2012): 1-25. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13593-012-0089-6.

[iv] See https://www.facebook.com/opensourceseedinitiative/posts/867384963330803. The (access-restricted) article referred to is Butruille, David V., Fufa H. Birru, Marv L. Boerboom et al. “Maize Breeding in the United States: Views from within Monsanto.” In Plant Breeding Reviews: Volume 39, edited by Jules Janick, 199-282: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.

Posted in Agriculture, Agroecology/Organic agriculture, food justice, Food Movement(s), food sovereignty, Uncategorized | Leave a comment