A New Milestone Towards a Sustainable Food System – FAO Agroecology Symposium

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

ROME, Italy—April 3-5, 2018, hallways of the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) buzzed with over 700 representatives from government, civil society, private sector, and the UN agencies at the second agroecology symposium. Picking up momentum from the first symposium in 2014, and the subsequent regional meetings held in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Central Asia and Asia and the Pacific, the three-day Symposium grappled with the "scaling up" of agroecology.

Moving from a Set of Techniques to a Transformative Social and Political Ambition

For years, FAO, was seen as the cathedral of the Green Revolution, as per the words of its own Director-General Graziano da Silva. Today FAO recognizes agroecology as the central way forward for agricultural development.

High Level Panel on the Future of Agroecology. Second International Symposium on Agroecology. Credit: ©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto. Editorial use only. Copyright ©FAO
High Level Panel on the Future of Agroecology. Second International Symposium on Agroecology. Credit: © FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto.

Kickstarting the meeting, Graziano da Silva made it clear that the post-war Green Revolution had run its limits and reinforced the role agroecology will play in the transition to sustainable agricultural systems. “We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology offers several contributions to this process.”

Gilbert F. Houngbo, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Stéphane Le Foll, Member of the French Parliament, also recognized agroecology as one of the best pathways toward sustainable food production. Praising farming practices which produce enough to feed the world while using less external inputs, they both called for a paradigm shift towards a more diverse and resilient agriculture.

Although FAO's and governments’ statements explored the potential of agroecology in promoting a more sustainable food system and eradicating hunger, they fell short of acknowledging the powerful role of agroecology in dismantling the corporate hold over our food system which is exploitative of the farmers, biodiversity, and the natural resources.

In contrast, civil society organizations' (CSOs) made it clear that agroecology is the way to democratize the food system by putting food producers at the forefront of decision making and recognizing the central role of women. "For us agroecology is not only a way of life which promotes social justice and strengthens rural economies—it is also a solution to the political, economic, and environmental crises ravaging our communities," said Rilma Roman Nogueirasof ANAP, Cuba. Paulo Peterson of ASPTA, Brazil, described agroecology as a social struggle, which stands in opposition to industrial or climate smart agriculture. Commenting on the question guiding the symposium, Paulo affirmed, "well we will not have answers from the institutions designed to support the green revolution as to how we scale agroecology."

"Agroecology and Industrial Agriculture Cannot Coexist"

“If we agree agroecology is the way forward, then why not subsidize agroecological practices of family farmers instead of continued support of the industrial food chains?” drove the debate around funding for agroecology versus industrial agriculture.

Panelist Maria Heubuch, a farmer and member of the EU Parliament, highlighted, "We cannot be paying into the industrial system on one hand and want agroecology to move forward. If I have one hectare of land, I cannot do both at the same time. In every single hectare we have to do the right thing. It will require political will and good governance to make agroecology our political agenda." Along the same line, in the plenary session of the second day, the Oakland Institute called on governments and international institutions to eliminate policy incentives such as tax exemptions and other business-friendly regulations that support the industrial food system and multinational corporations.

The Oakland Institute's report on World Bank's Enabling the Business of Agriculture (EBA) Index provides a good illustration of how these incentives are at play. It shows how western donors’ aid programs—powerful instruments to impose a market-based, pro-corporate vision of agriculture—foster the expansion of industrial food system to the detriment of agroecology. Ranking countries according to policy reforms on seed laws, land and property regulations, trade, and taxes, the 'enabling business' ideology equates agricultural development with investments by agribusiness corporations. Unfortunately, this distorted vision dominates western agenda for aid and international cooperation. Recent findings disclosed that despite overwhelming evidence in favor of agroecology as a model for agricultural development, UK development aid barely supports it.

No Agroecology Without Access to Land, Water, Seeds and Means of Production

Advocacy and mobilization by the civil society had some impact on the official discourse of the symposium. The final version of the Chair's Summary, called on governments to develop policy and legal frameworks to promote and support agroecology and sustainable food systems, and to remove "perverse incentives" for unsustainable agriculture. The summary also recognized the much-needed protection and fulfillment of farmers' rights. "It is critical that legal and regulatory frameworks are implemented in a way that ensures transformative change towards sustainable agriculture and food systems based on agroecology, and respects, protects and fulfills farmers' rights and access to productive resources such as land, water and seeds."

Mariam Sow delivering the Declaration of Small Scale Food Producers' and Civil Society Organizations. Credit: ©FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto. Editorial use only. Copyright ©FAO
Mariam Sow delivering the Declaration of Small Scale Food Producers' and Civil Society Organizations. Credit: © FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto.

CSOs’ joint statement at the last plenary called for autonomy and political participation, of women in particular, and rejected top-down development models. "Agroecology implies our full participation in the social and political life of our communities, ensuring our access to land, water, seeds and means of production with autonomy and freedom. Our equal participation in decision-making spaces is essential."

Next Steps

A summary of the outcome of the symposium will be presented to the FAO Committee on Agriculture (COAG), one of FAO's governing bodies, in October 2018. It will then move to the FAO Conference in July 2019 when member nations review and vote on the FAO Director General's proposed program of work and budget. This political process is aimed at integrating agroecology in FAO's work and political agenda of the member countries. But a lot can happen to the chair's summary before, during, and after these meetings. A number of member states are unlikely to support a strong statement in favor of agroecology given their unfailing support to industrial agriculture.

Therefore, much work lies ahead to advocate for the Chair’s summary to be endorsed by member nations during the COAG and FAO Conference. Since FAO is funded by member countries, their endorsement alone can integrate agroecology in its work, and more important, be translated into country programs and policies.

Now that we have moved far beyond the need to prove that agroecology can feed the world in a sustainable way, the main remaining challenge is to overcome the influence of agri-chemical corporations over the economic, environmental, and agricultural policies of governments. The fight is on.