Shifting from Uniformity to Diversity in Agriculture


Dear Friends and Colleagues

Shifting from uniformity to diversity in agriculture

The International Panel of Expert on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) released its first major report on 2 June 2016: ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems‘.

A key message of the report is that input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts and must be consigned to the past in order to put global food systems onto a sustainable footing. Instead, the solution is to diversify agriculture and reorient it around ecological practices, whether the starting point is highly-industrialized agriculture or subsistence farming in the world’s poorest countries.

IPES-Food identified a set of powerful feedback loops extending well beyond the world of farming that serve as ‘lock-ins’;vicious cycles that act to lock in the dominant industrial model of agriculture. So while food systems can be reformed and refocused around diversified agroecological systems, if these initiatives are to emerge beyond the margins, the vicious cycles keeping industrial agriculture in place must be broken.

IPES-Food has identified what some of those steps might look like, envisaging a systemic transition that would lead to the emergence of alternative food systems that are based around fundamentally different logics, with more equitable power relations.

With best wishes,

Third World Network
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Item 1
2 June 2016

How to Leave Industrial Agriculture Behind
by Olivier De Schutter and Emile Frison

Contrary to what we often hear, it is not a lack of evidence holding back ecological alternatives in food systems. It is the mismatch between their huge potential to remedy the problems caused by industrial agriculture, and their much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms.

Many of the key problems in food systems are linked specifically to industrial agriculture: uniform crop monocultures relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and industrial feedlots (the infamous ‘CAFOs’) that use preventive antibiotics and generate major pollution problems.

The evidence is now overwhelming: industrial agriculture is a key contributor to the rampant biodiversity losses now threatening the 35 percent of global crops dependent on pollination, the degradation of some 20 percent of global land, the 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions arising from food and farming, and many other negative outcomes in food systems.

Thanks to the work of campaigning groups and scientists, these problems are now increasingly understood. However, we are much less familiar with a set of equally important facts and figures about the potential of ecological farming to remedy these problems.

The report just released by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food)synthesizes the growing evidence on this front, for example:

•         A 30-year study shows that average organic yields are generally equivalent to conventional agriculture, and 30 percent higher in drought years;

•         Total outputs in diversified grassland systems are 15-79 percent higher than in monocultures;

•         Resource efficiency is 2 to 4 times higher on small-scale agroecological farms;

•         15 percent more biodiversity has been found in diversified agriculture, and 30 percent more wild species on organic farms;

•         Organic meat and milk provide around 50 percent more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional equivalents.

To suggest that agroecological farming can improve on the outcomes of industrial agriculture is to understate the case. Agroecological systems are showing major potential to keep carbon in the ground and to restore degraded land – questions to which industrial agriculture has failed to provide any sort of answer. Nor is there a trade-off with food security, as has often been assumed.

In other words, claiming that there is no alternative to industrial agriculture is no longer viable in 2016.

However, as indicated at the outset, the facts alone will not suffice. The way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political dominance, and thus their ability to set priorities in food systems.

Power imbalances can no longer be a footnote in discussions about food systems reform. Identifying these power imbalances and how they lock industrial agriculture in place is just as important as showing the positive impacts of agroecology. 

For example, the way we define food security and the way we measure success in food systems tends to reflect what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver – not what really matters in terms of building sustainable food systems. Measuring the yields of specific crops, or productivity per worker, tends to favour large-scale industrial monocultures and to under-value the benefits of alternative systems. These include higher total outputs taking all crops cultivated in combination; greater resilience to shocks; more diversity resulting in improved nutritional quality; and the provision of ecosystem services on and off the farm.

Other barriers arise from the way decision-making takes place. For example, agricultural ministries, committees, and lobbies retain a privileged position relative to other constituencies (e.g. environment, health) in setting the priorities – and allocating the budgets – for policies affecting food systems more broadly. Meanwhile, increasingly privatized agricultural R&D programs remain focused on the handful of crop commodities for which there is a large enough market to secure significant returns.

In other words, the solutions offered by industrial agriculture have been able to remain at center stage, even as the need to reconcile productivity growth with other concerns has been increasingly recognized.

Food systems can be reformed and refocused around diversified agroecological systems. Indeed, change is already happening. Industrial food systems are being challenged on multiple fronts, from new forms of cooperation and knowledge-creation to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits.

However, if these initiatives are to emerge beyond the margins, the vicious cycles keeping industrial agriculture in place must be broken. IPES-Food has identified what some of those steps might look like. In particular, we must address the political economy of food systems: who decides, on the basis of which information, and under which set of influences.

There is no single script to be followed: the pathways to agroecological farming and sustainable food systems will take a variety of forms. That, after all, is inevitable, once we recognize that the steps towards diversified agroecological farming are steps to democratize decision-making and to rebalance power in food systems.

IPES-Food’s first major report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’ was released today – see the executive summaryand full report. Olivier De Schutter is the co-chair of IPES-Food and former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. Emile Frison, former Director General of Bioversity International, is a member of IPES-Food and the lead author of this report.

Item 2

A switch to ecological farming will benefit health and environment – report

The world needs to move away from industrial agriculture to avoid ecological, social and human health crises, say scientists

John Vidal
Thursday 2 June 2016

A new approach to farming is needed to safeguard human health and avoid rising air and water pollution, high greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, a group of 20 leading agronomists, health, nutrition and social scientists has concluded.

Rather than the giant feedlots used to rear animals or the uniform crop monocultures that now dominate farming worldwide, the solution is to diversify agriculture and re-orient it around ecological practices, says the report (pdf) by the International panel of experts on sustainable food systems(IPES-Food).

The benefits of a switch to a more ecologically oriented farming system would be seen in human and animal health, and improvements in soil and water quality, the report says.

The new group, which is co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on food, and includes winners of the World Food prize and the heads of bio-science research groups, accepts that industrial agriculture and the global food system that has grown around it supplies large volumes of food to global markets.

But it argues that food supplies would not be greatly affected by a change to a more diverse farming system.

The group’s members, drawn from rich and poor countries with no affiliations to industry, say that industrial agriculture’s dependence on chemical fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics to manage animals and agro-ecosystems, has led to ecological, social and human health crises.

“Today’s food and farming systems led systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities. Many of these problems can be linked specifically to the industrial-scale feedlots and uniform crop monocultures that dominate agricultural landscapes, and rely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides as a means of managing agro-ecosystems,” the group says.

In place of an intensive global food system they propose that agriculture diversifies production and optimises biodiversity to build fertile, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods.

De Schutter said: “Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.” He said that simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions and a fundamentally different model was needed.

“It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agro-ecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms.”

“There is growing evidence that these [agro-ecological] systems keep carbon in the ground, support biodiversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for secure farm livelihoods,” says the report.

Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.

The panel argues that industrial agriculture locks in farmers, subsidies, supermarkets, governments and consumers to the point where food systems are in the hands of very few companies and people.

“Food systems in which uniform crop commodities can be produced and traded on a massive scale are in the economic interests of crop breeders, pesticide manufacturers, grain traders and supermarkets alike,” says the report.

“Industrial agriculture has occupied a privileged position for decades and has failed to provide a recipe for sustainable food systems. There is enough evidence now to suggest that a shift towards diversified agro-ecological systems can dramatically improve these outcomes.”

The panel identifies three disastrous consequences of intensive farming. These include the fact that global food systems linked to industrial modes of farming or deforestation generate one-third of all greenhouse gasses.

In addition, the excessive application of fertilisers and pesticides in crop monocultures, and the waste generated by industrial animal feedlots, have resulted in severe water pollution.

Pesticide exposurein industrial farming systems has been linked to a possible range of human health problemssuch as Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects, cancers and developmental disorders. Additionally, the preventative use of antibiotics in industrial animal production systems has exacerbated the problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, creating health risks for human populations.

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