A Paradigm Shift From Industrial Agriculture to Diversified Agroecological Systems

Lead Author: Emile A. Frison

The following excepts were obtained from a report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).The complete 96 page report can be acquired at www.ipes-food.org/images/Reports/UniformityToDiversity_FullReport.pdf.

Key Messages
• Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.

 Many of these problems are linked specifically to ‘industrial agriculture:’ the input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes. The uniformity at the heart of these systems, and their reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preventive use of antibiotics, leads systematically to nega-tive outcomes and vulnerabilities.

 Industrial agriculture and the ‘industrial food systems’ that have developed around it are locked in place by a series of vicious cycles. For example, the way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems.

 Tweaking practices can improve some of the specific outcomes of industrial agriculture, but will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates.

What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods, i.e. “diversified agroecological systems.”

 There is growing evidence that these systems keep carbon in the ground, support biodiversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for secure farm livelihoods.

 Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.

 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.

 Political incentives must be shifted in order for these alternatives to emerge beyond the margins. A series of modest steps can collectively shift the centre of gravity in food systems.

The Challenge
The evidence in favour of a major transformation of our food systems is now overwhelming. Many influential studies have helped shape our understanding of the perilous situation our food systems are in, from the degradation of ecosystems to the fragility of farmer livelihoods in many parts of the world; from the persistence of hunger and under-nutrition to the rampant growth of obesity and diet-related diseases.

However, few studies have yet to provide a comprehensive view of how alternative food systems, based around fundamentally different agricultural models, perform against the same criteria. Even fewer have mapped out the pathways of transition towards the sustainable food systems of the future.

It is no coincidence that one of the key recommendations arising from this report is to develop new ways of measuring success in food systems.

Making the case for changing course is crucial, but so too is mapping out a pathway of transition. Encouragingly, the foundations of this transition are already being laid by farmers, consumers, civil society groups and the many others taking bold and innovative steps to transform food systems around the world. However, the odds are still stacked against those seeking alternatives. As this report describes, industrial agriculture is locked in place by a series of powerful feedback loops extending well beyond the world of farming. Industrial agriculture and in- dustrial food systems have shaped and been shaped by each other. Farmers cannot simply be expected to rethink their production model, nor consumers to radically reorient their purchasing patterns, without a major shift in the incentives running through food systems.

It is a transition that is applicable to all farming contexts and scales, whether the starting point is highly specialized industrial agriculture, or forms of subsistence farming in poor developing countries. Specialized industrial agriculture and diversified agroecological farming stand at two ends of a wide spectrum. Agroecology is not a niche for small-scale artisanal farmers in given sectors, nor is it a label to be attained on the basis of specific practices. It is a universal logic for redesigning agricultural systems in ways that maximize biodiversity and stimulate interactions between different plants and species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Put simply, it is the opposite of monocultures and their reliance on chemical inputs.

The majority of farmers currently find themselves somewhere in between the two poles. Many farmers are diversifying their outputs and activities, experimenting with natural pest management, aiming for nutritious, high-quality production and seeking alternative retail circuits, even as they continue to farm primarily on the basis of specialized commodity crops. Rather than encouraging farmers to go a step further, the current incentives in food systems keep farmers locked into the structures and logics of industrial agriculture. The transition envisaged in this report would shift these incentives, thereby empowering farmers to step firmly off the treadmill of industrial agriculture. Only then will the true benefits of diversified agroecological systems be realized.

The type of change considered here would lead to the emergence of what are essentially new food systems with new infrastructures and new sets of power relations, implying the coexistence of two more or less distinct systems for some time to come. Incremental change must not be allowed to divert political attention and political capital away from the more fundamental shift that is urgently needed, and can now be delivered, through a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems.

Today, food systems contribute between 19 percent and 29 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Vermeulen et al., 2012). Upstream of agriculture, major contributions are made by the fossil fuel-intensive production of chemical fertilizer and pesticides (Gilbert, 2012). Downstream, emissions arise from food processing and retail sectors that rely increasingly on abundant synthetic packaging (Murphy-Bokern, 2010) and soaring ‘food miles’ in order to deliver the highly processed and unseasonal products to which consumers have become accustomed (Schnell, 2013).

Meanwhile, the livelihoods of many food producers are being pushed to breaking point by climate change and environmental degradation. In other words, modern agriculture is failing to sustain the people and resources on which it relies, and has come to represent an existential threat to itself.

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