Why Is Something So Compelling Also So Contentious?

Food & Drink

Agroecology has several definitions, but in essence, it is farming with nature rather than against it. It promotes diversity, resilience, social values, cultural practices, and circularity. Sounds great, right? At a recent event by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, Pierre Ferrand of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization asked an illuminating question:

“Why is something so compelling also so contentious?”

Our current food and agriculture systems are responsible for one-third of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions and are the primary driver of global biodiversity loss. Agroecological approaches could go a long way to fix this, and the evidence supports it—but some folks are still skeptical.

Our friends and partners at the Global Alliance understand the power of agroecology, and they’re working to set things right. They’ve assembled a compendium, called The Politics of Knowledge, designed not only to showcase the global knowledge on agroecology but also to tackle some of the misleading narratives and questions behind the systemic barriers leading people away from adopting these more resilient and nourishing approaches.

Don’t just take our word for it. Using a methodology called Tool for Agroecological Performance Evaluation (TAPE), FAO researchers found that agroecological farms achieve better outcomes on food security, dietary diversity, soil health, family farming benefits, increased biodiversity of pollinators and animals, and more.

I want to highlight just four of the many ways the status quo is broken—and how agroecological approaches could help build more sustainability, resilience, equity, and even knowledge:

1. The status quo is so deeply entrenched in existing systems of power and destructive corporate interests—which agroecology would change, says Emile Frison of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

“We really need a different paradigm—it’s not just about tweaking the current system to make it a bit more effective,” Frison says. Multinational corporations controlling the global seed, fertilizer, pesticide, and grain trades have a heavy influence on agricultural policy, he says, “and they have an interest in maintaining the current system because it’s what serves their needs.” You can read more about the systemic nature of agroecology here.

2. The status quo is hypocritical in the double standards it applies to agriculture at different scales—which agroecology would change, says Ashlesha Khadse, Regional Director at Thousand Currents, a nonprofit supporting community-led initiatives in the Global South.

“The same questions [that are asked of agroecology] are seldom asked of industrial agriculture,” she says. “Where is the evidence that industrial agriculture will feed the world in the face of the looming climate crisis, in the face of a crisis of inequality?”

Nina Moeller, Associate Professor at the Center for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, also notices an imbalance in how certain practices are scrutinized. “This evidence [that agroecology works] is abundant,” she says, “but it is marginalized in decision-making processes. Power dynamics determine much of what is understood and disseminated as evidence.” You can read more about how to scale up agroecology here.

3. The status quo disregards the importance of generational knowledge—which agroecology would change, Moeller says. We have to expand what counts as “evidence” to include not just a eurocentric idea of scientific data but also farmers’ embodied knowledge, agroecological research, Indigenous traditions, social movements, and more, she said.

This is where agroecology fits in, Khadse says. “Agroecology is about dialogue between different forms of knowledge; it’s about dialogue between modern science and also Indigenous knowledge and farmers’ knowledge,” she says.

4. The status quo perpetuates gender inequities and pushes young people away from agriculture—which agroecology would change, says Dario Lucantoni, Agroecology and Livestock Specialist at the FAO.

In areas with more agroecological households, “women are enjoying higher gender parity and they have more voice in the decision-making,” says Lucantoni. In Northern Malawi, for example, this includes equality in ownership of assets, control over income, input in agriculture decisions, workload and leisure, and more. You can read more about how agroecology boosts employment, local economies, and gender parity here.

But how do we make agroecology more widespread? The Global Alliance’s compendium, The Politics of Knowledge, is an important start—which is why I’m taking time to share it with you today. It’s available in several languages and is designed to be informative for folks in all parts of the food system, so feel free to share it.

As I’ve said before, none of us can do it alone. We all have our own unique skills we bring, and we need to break down silos; we need to talk to those who don’t always agree with us; and we need to collaborate. That is what Janet Maro, Executive Director of Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania, tells us as well.

“Farmers alone, scientists alone, or policymakers alone cannot make really big changes and also bring the transformation that we need in the food system,” says Maro. “We need interaction, co-creation, collaboration, and working together.”

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