Op-Ed: There Is Ample Evidence That Agroecology Can Transform the Food System | Civil Eats

Op-Ed: There Is Ample Evidence That Agroecology Can Transform the Food System

“If we only see evidence provided by scientists in academic and corporate laboratories as credible, we miss the opportunity to learn from lived experience, storytelling, and cultural histories.”

Smallholder potato farmer harvesting in Kenya on an agroecology focused farm

In 1981, Enda Tiers Monde, an NGO based in Dakar, Senegal, initiated a study on the risks of pesticides to human and environmental health in the region. The group observed that agricultural production techniques in Senegal relied on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and had greatly contributed to the degradation of African peasant agriculture and the environment. In response, they created ENDA Pronat, a group that helps farmers in the region learn agroecological practices and gain autonomy over their own land.

In the 1980s, the group worked with scientists to focus on raising awareness about the destructive consequences of pesticides on the environment and encouraged alternative ways of growing food. While the men who participated in the group’s workshops decided against getting involved because the risk of breaking away from pesticides was too great, a group of 10 women came together and volunteered with ENDA Pronat to run a series of experiments over a number of years. By replacing the chemical fertilizers and pesticides they were using with compost, neem, and other natural solutions, they embraced the elements of agroecology to transform the way food was grown in their community.

“Proponents of industrialized agriculture and practices have long utilized a narrative that positions agroecology as marginal.”

Agroecology is a science, practice and social movement that applies ecological concepts to agriculture and food systems and couples traditional and Indigenous practises and knowledge systems with transdisciplinary sciences. It is a direct response and counterpoint to the dominant, industrial food system; which is one of the biggest stressors on planetary health, contributing almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and a leading driver of biodiversity loss and species extinction.

ENDA Pronat’s experiments ultimately led to the agroecological transition of over 24,000 acres of arable land for the people of northern Senegal and resulted in more diversified crop production for local and regional markets.

The women recognized that the evidence they had gathered would not be enough to convince many farmers and food producers to embrace agroecological ways of growing: Agricultural research is typically very narrow in focus, measuring a limited number of indicators, like yield—or the amount of crops grown per acre—and it has a strong bias toward easily quantifiable data and indicators. By contrast, many of the rich benefits of agroecological and regenerative food and farming approaches cannot be quantified in this way; they take account of environmental impacts, inclusive decision-making, quality of life, health and well-being, mental health, and sustainable livelihoods.

These positive impacts are also slower to see than farming that relies heavily on synthetic chemicals to improve yields but leaves the soil depleted; instead, the impacts unfold as longer-term processes rooted in regeneration. ENDA Pronat therefore set out to bring together farmers and respected research institutions, including L’Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles, CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development), and French National Research Institute, to evaluate and scale agroecological approaches in the nation, and used internationally recognized tools such as a set of guidelines developed by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They have also hosted agroecology fairs that demonstrate proof of concept where “seeing is believing” and farmers can share practices and strategies.

With this diversity of on-the-ground evidence in hand, the women of ENDA Pronat have been able to work in partnership with other farmer organizations, civil society organizations, and research institutions to advocate for Senegal’s full transition to agroecology over the last few decades. Today, the government of Senegal has included agroecology as one of five major initiatives in the Emerging Senegal Plan and is the leading country in the newly-formed Agroecology Coalition that includes 26 countries and many supporting partners from around the world.

Why tell this story? It’s the type of story not often told in agriculture circles. And it’s proof that working outside the industrial model is not only possible, but it is having an incredible impact.

That’s because proponents of industrialized agriculture and practices have long utilized a narrative that positions agroecology as marginal; groups like the Alliance for Science at Cornell University and others argue it is effective only at small scales and incapable of performing at the larger scale required to “feed the world.” The notion of scale dominates the global dialogue about the future of food is rooted in industrialized production that promotes high yields and more calories per acre at all costs—regardless of the impact it has on the soil, ecosystems, and community livelihoods.

In this realm, “scalability” can be code for profitability. It asks: Can a method of production maximize product yield? When the pandemic began, the dominant narrative became a story about food shortages and great imbalances. That was true for food that had to be shipped halfway across the world. Yet, many communities have resorted to alternative approaches over the last two years showed that resilient, creative, healthy, and yes, even profitable efforts could thrive by doubling down on agroecological principles such as diversity, synergy, and the co-creation of knowledge.

In the U.S, for example, the Common Market launched its Farm-Fresh Box initiative, which ultimately tackled two challenges: meeting the immediate food needs of vulnerable families while at the same time strengthening shorter and more local supply chains. In Fiji, the Ministry of Agriculture has increased its focus on production and consumption of locally grown food, promoting agroecological, organic production.

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“The evidence that industrial food systems are causing harm to people and the planet is clear.”

Ultimately, the evidence in support of agroecology from farmers, research, science, social movements, and policy arenas is extensive and exists in abundance. In use by millions of people worldwide, agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous food and farming practices sustain health and well-being, are economically viable, culturally appropriate, protect nature, and respect the planet. And yet the fact that this wealth of knowledge is not acted upon on a larger scale boils down to what type of evidence is considered valid, and by whom.

I get asked for evidence for these approaches every day: Can agroecology feed the world? Can it be scaled? Can it provide meaningful livelihoods? Of course, we need a continuous flow of information, research, and evidence to inform food systems decision-making. But the evidence that industrial food systems are causing harm to people and the planet is clear. And, the evidence that agroecology and regenerative approaches are resulting in more sustainable, equitable, and just food systems is overflowing.

The sustained insinuations about evidence that come with the questions—that it is clear or lacking, the amount and types of evidence available, whether the data is statistically valid or not—are often used to sow seeds of doubt about agroecology and undermine transformative action. This premise set the tone for our latest report on the politics of knowledge.

As a global community that cares about the future of food, and our planet, it is time we commit ourselves to “evidence advocacy.” This involves pressing ourselves, our colleagues, our funders, and the researchers and scholars we work with to widen the lens on what “counts” when it comes to evidence informing food systems transformation.

If we only see analyses conducted by scientists in academic and corporate laboratories, and peer-reviewed literature by those same scientists as credible, we miss the opportunity to learn from lived experience, storytelling, and cultural histories. We must also reckon with the reality that entrenched histories—shaped by colonial and Western ways of thinking—continue to devalue certain forms of evidence about food systems.

This is what is so instructive about ENDA Pronat’s experience, as well as those of groups practicing and studying agroecology in the U.S., including: Ecdysis Foundation, Mad Agriculture, Funders for Regenerative Agriculture, and the University of Vermont Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative. These groups use an approach that deliberately connects farmers and researchers to ensure the relevance of the research to those on the ground.

Further, this approach means that farmer organizations, civil society organizations, and researchers are able to mobilize the evidence in ways that are compelling for a range of decision-makers, including both farmers and lawmakers.

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We need to decolonize and democratize knowledge systems. This is paramount to better informing our education, research, and innovation systems, and decisions about the future of food. Indeed, unless we embrace diverse evidence as the heart of action, from policy to grants to advocacy campaigns, we will continue to see solutions to hunger and environmental degradation that will have potentially harmful and unintended consequences.

To accelerate systemic transformation that will build equitable, sustainable food systems, we don’t just need to farm differently; we also need to think differently—and courageously.

Lauren Baker is senior director of programs at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. Read more >

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  1. Bodil Nissen
    Great article with great points 👍😊
    I think that in any evaluation the food system - or production line - should be held up against the SDGs. That way industrial agriculture would fall short I believe. Keep on the good fight 🍀🙏❤️
  2. Everlyne Nairesiae
    Great 👍content by Lauren. I cannot agree more with you that agroecology is the way to go. However, there is so much to be done to influence policy makers, the private sector and also change attitudes of smallholder farmers and other stakeholder. Gender inequality is also a real challenge in leveling the ground for both men and women to equally participate e.g. involvement in decision making, access land, credit and certified seeds and other inputs. Thanks for sharing.

    Everlyne
  3. William Sparks
    Great points. Will use in my global food security class in Agroecology Module!

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