Agroecological Transitions Away from Industrial Food and Farming Systems



Dear Friends and Colleagues

Agroecological transitions away from industrial food and farming systems

We are pleased to highlight a new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food): “Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems: Seven case studies of agroecological transition”.

The case studies include a range of different scales (single farm, community, region, country) and a variety of focuses (climate adaptation, income diversification, rural development).  

In the conclusions of the report, the panel identified specific “leverage points” that can drive the shifts in power relations we need to break free from the political and economic lock-ins of industrial agriculture.

The report builds on the growing body of transition case studies, helping to develop understandings of the ways in which agroecology can take hold.

Please find below a press release (Item 1) and see the full reportand executive summary(Item 2).


With best wishes,

Third World Network
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Item 1

NEW REPORT: Seven case studies of agroecological transition

15 October, 2018 (Rome, Italy) – It is possible for communities, regions and whole countries to fundamentally redesign their food and farming systems – but doing so requires changes in the way communities envision their food systems, the way knowledge is shared, the way that food systems are governed, and the values underpinning them.

This was the message from IPES-Food’s new report, ‘Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems: Seven case studies of agroecological transition’, released on October 15th, 2018.

The case studies follow on from IPES-Food’s 2016 report, From Uniformity to Diversity, which identified the vicious cycles locking industrial food and farming systems in place, despite their severe impacts on human health, economic and social well-being, biodiversity, and climate change.

The case studies provide concrete examples of how, in spite of these barriers to change, people around the world have been able to fundamentally rethink and redesign food systems around agroecological principles.

Steve Gliessman, lead author of the report, said: “The case studies show that change doesn’t always start in the field. Transition can be kick-started by community-building activities, farmer-researcher partnerships and even by external shocks that make people question the status quo.”

He added: “Transition really takes off when change happens on various fronts at the same time. That’s when new power relations start to form and the logic of the system starts to shift.”

The report was released at a side event on agroecological transition at the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome. The case studies come as the FAO rolls out its Scaling Up Agroecology initiative, following the 2nd FAO International Symposium on Agroecology (April 2018).

The case studies profiled in the report demonstrate that change is taking hold across the world in California, USA; San Ramón, Nicaragua, and Veracruz, Mexico; Chololo, Tanzania; Shanxi, China; Drôme Valley, France; Andalusia, Spain; and Cuba.

The following leverage points proved particularly important for shifting power relations and driving transition across the cases:

–       Building new community-led governance structures and economic systems
–       Developing hybrid roles for key actors
–       Forging new alliances across disconnected domains
–       Anchoring transitions in counter-narratives and theories of change
–       Relocalizing food and farming systems
–       Promoting farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing
–       and Empowering women and young people to drive transition

The FULL REPORT and EXECUTIVE SUMMARY are available here.

Item 2

Executive summary

Seven case studies of agroecological transition

Food and farming systems around the world are driving environmental degradation, loss of vital ecosystem services, economic hardship for smallholders, socio-economic inequities, and debilitating health impacts and food insecurity for many. The majority of these problems are linked to ‘industrial agriculture’: the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate many farming landscapes.

A new agroecological paradigm is required, rooted in fundamentally different relationships be- tween agriculture and the environment, and between food systems and society. The seven case studies in this report provide concrete examples of how, in spite of the many barriers to change, people around the world have been able to fundamentally rethink and redesign food systems around agroecological principles:

  • Case study 1. Santa Cruz, California, USA: Turning strawberry monocultures into sustainable food and farming systems through a 30-year farmer-researcher partnership
  • Case study 2. San Ramón, Nicaragua, and Veracruz, Mexico: Breaking away from industrial commodity production in Central American coffee-growing communities
  • Case study 3. Chololo, Tanzania: Rethinking food, farming, forestry and resource management to build an ‘Ecovillage’
  • Case study 4. Puhan Rural Community, Shanxi, China: Rebuilding community ties as a pathway to cooperative-led food systems
  • Case study 5. Drôme Valley, France: Making the radical mainstream and the mainstream radical to build Europe’s rst organic region
  • Case study 6. Vega, Andalusia, Spain: Sustaining transition through changing political winds
  • Case study 7. Cuba: Turning economic isolation into an opportunity for agroecological transition

The findings of the seven case studies are summarized in the table below. [See  for the table]

Overall, the case studies show that it is possible for communities, regions, and whole countries to fundamentally redesign their food and farming systems. The change process can be initiated from a variety of entry points, and does not always begin on the farm with input substitution. Transition can also be kick-started by community-building activities, farmer-researcher partnerships, and even by external shocks that make people question the status quo.

However, change must spread to other dimensions in order to drive forward and sustain transitions. Ultimately, changes are required in four key dimensions – in production practices, in knowledge generation and dissemination, in social and economic relations, and in institutional frameworks.

It is when these different types of change combine and reinforce one another that power is reconfigured, and reliance on the existing brokers of inputs, knowledge, and market access is drastically reduced. In other words, the multiple ‘lock-ins’ of industrial food systems can be overcome and new sustainable food systems can start to emerge.

The following leverage points proved particularly important for driving transitions across the case studies:

  1. Building new community-led governance structures and economic systems between the state and the market. Several transitions were driven forward by the emergence of hybrid, informal, community-led institutions, and governance structures – rather than relying on change happening within formal institutional frameworks. In some cases, the transition process was tantamount to a civil society-led rural development strategy, entailing steps to relocalize food systems, to reserve productive capacity and resources for supplying local communities, to provide a range of services to rural populations, and to reinvest profits into the community when selling into formal/distant markets.
  2. Developing hybrid roles for key actors. Change can be unlocked when actors take on hybrid roles, allowing new brokers of knowledge, inputs, and market access to emerge. The cases show that politicized farmer/peasant organizations and cooperatives can be highly in uential, particularly if they combine cooperative marketing functions, farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing, community-building activities, and political advocacy.
  3. Forging new alliances across disconnected domains. In some cases, change was unlocked by creating improbable alliances that brought together farmers, consumers, and environmental groups, and brought institutional actors into contact with more radical actors. Avoiding organic/ agroecology becoming closed niches, facilitating ongoing exchanges with mainstream actors, and keeping the door open for late adopters were key factors in maintaining momentum and building powerful alliances over time.
  4. Anchoring transitions in counter-narratives and theories of change. Narratives and theories of change matter, and can help to root transitions in local identity and culture, as well as allowing people to di erentiate themselves from the previous/ dominant model and to embark on a new course. Examples of this ranged from the emergence of influential opinion-forming media and information sources, to the use of cultural media like song and dance to make sense of the transition, and critical historical reflections to build a basis for transition. Across the cases, agroecology itself provided a unifying narrative to capture the change process underway.
  5. Relocalizing food and farming systems. Some degree of reconnection to local markets, culture, and community proved crucial across the cases. This included a focus on home gardens, farmers’ markets, CSA schemes and other forms of direct sales, local public procurement, as well as steps to source inputs within the farming communities. This did not come at the expense of external trade: actors were able to negotiate better terms on national/international markets on the basis of the new organizational capacities developed through the transition initiatives. With its own infrastructures, extension agents and retail circuits, organic agriculture provided a key focus in many of the cases and helped to secure local and distant markets, as well as political support and funding, as farmers shifted their practices.
  6. Promoting farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing. Farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing, farmer-field schools, and demonstration farms emerged across the case studies as powerful drivers of transition – succeeding where linear extension models have failed. In several cases, they helped to bring a large number of farmers on board and build solidarity between them. As evidenced in the broader literature on agroecological transitions, farmer-based systems allow micro-regional agroecological knowledge to persist in the face of standardized approaches of fruitful interaction between farmer-to-farmer systems and government research centres.
  7. Empowering women and young people to drive transition. In several cases in the global South, dedicated steps were taken to expand women’s livelihood options, and to allow women to play a meaningful role in decision-making regarding their activities. Initial steps in this direction appear to have led to sustained engagement of women in the projects, helping to drive positive impacts for women and for the community more broadly. A focus on youth also helped to spark and sustain transition, particularly where young people were encouraged to remain in the countryside and take up agroecological farming.

While these initiatives benefitted from some form of political support, it did not always endure over time. Prevailing political incentives have continued to support industrial agriculture and to lock out alternatives.

Some of the most impressive impacts of these transitions – greater resource effciency, improvements in community livelihoods and nutrition, increased resilience to shocks, biodiversity enhancement – tend to be overlooked at the political level. Moreover, transition initiatives may be delivering positive impacts simply by keeping land in (sustainable) agricultural production and keeping people in rural communities in the face of unfavourable macro-economic and political conditions.

Globally, the policy environment may now be shifting. The FAO’s increasing receptiveness to agroecology testifies to this policy opening. The risks of dilution and co-optation are nonetheless high, as interest arises in bringing experiments to scale and large-scale actors enter the playing field. Debate must therefore be refocused on ‘scaling out’ agroecology.

Transitions must be designed with local communities – not imposed from the outside based on a one-size-fits-all model, or reduced to a focus on export-oriented value chains.

While different analytical approaches must continue to cross-fertilize, it will be important to converge on common approaches to promote agroecology in the emerging policy spaces. Referring systematically to the different dimensions of change helps to capture the breadth of agroecological transitions, and to focus attention on documenting and measuring what matters – including but not limited to shifts in production practices.

More evidence on transitions occurring at large scales with strong political support will be useful to complement the case studies gathered here. Finding synergies between different bodies of transition literature (e.g. between agroecological transitions and urban food initiatives), and between the different actors underpinning those transitions, is also a major opportunity to be explored.

Moving forward, agroecological transition must increasingly be articulated as part of a broader transformation of society, extending to other facets of environmental and social relationships beyond food, recognizing the limits to growth, and asking what it really means to live sustainably.

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