Opening a Window for Agroecology at the FAO

Food First | 08.12.2015

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by Eric Holt-Giménez

Agroecology—the science of sustainable agriculture—is finding more support within the United Nations. In an effort to bring agroecology into its international programs for food security and nutrition, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has carried out two public consultations on agroecology, one in Rome in September 2014 and another in Brasilia in June 2015. More consultations in Africa and Asia are planned for October and November of 2015, as well. The idea is to get a better sense of the best practices, social networks, and public policies that can help “scale up” agroecology.

Agroecology emerged as a science a half-century ago from the careful observations of scientists—ecologists, entomologists, biologists, soil scientists, anthropologists, and others—about traditional agricultural systems. They found these farming practices were highly productive, resilient, and complex, not only technically but also socially and culturally. Farmers managed complex ecosystem functions to produce food, fodder, fiber, and fuel. Scientists realized they were studying a vast, millennial reservoir of knowledge that went beyond empiricism and that travelled “farmer to farmer.” They called this knowledge “agroecology” and began identifying the principles of management that are used to design agroecological farming systems today.

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Agribusiness opposes agroecology because it is a direct challenge to the power of the corporate food regime: it is an essential tool in the global movement for food sovereignty.

But agroecology also has its detractors—primarily conventional, Green Revolution, and GMO-based industrial agriculture. Why? Primarily because agroecology has found ways to raise yields sustainably without using the commercial chemical products pushed by agro-industry. Agroecology is knowledge-intensive rather than capital-intensive, which is why it is practiced by hundreds of thousands of small farmers around the world. Agribusiness also opposes agroecology because it is a direct challenge to the power of the corporate food regime: it is an essential tool in the global movement for food sovereignty— people’s right to control their own food systems. In other words, agroecology is political as well as practical.

Because of this, the FAO’s agroecological initiative has run up against fierce resistance from Big Ag interests within the FAO, coming primarily from the United States. In order to keep from antagonizing these powerful actors, the pro-agroecology factions in the FAO have tried to keep food sovereignty out of the conversation—to no avail. In Rome, farmers, scientists and representatives from social movements insisted that agroecology was not just a technology but part of a deeper social and political project to transform agriculture. In Brazil, La Vía Campesina and the Latin American Scientific Society for Agroecology (SOCLA) asserted the peasant and indigenous origins of agroecology and its scientific rigor. Agroecologists also warned against “climate smart agriculture” and “sustainable intensification” as false solutions that do not address problems of rural poverty and equity, but rather are designed to maintain plantation agriculture.

In his final remarks to the agroecology symposium in Rome, FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva celebrated the fact that the organization had “opened a window” to agroecology, but insisted that agroecology was just one more technique (along with GMOs) in the fight against hunger. This “we need all solutions” approach, while popular among some in halls of power, ignores the ways that Big Ag destroys the livelihoods of small farmers around the world—the very farmers who practice agroecology!

Despite the political tensions at the agroecology symposia, in both Rome and Brazil, most participants agreed that the “window” opened by the FAO is an important opportunity to identify the public policies needed to develop agroecology on a regional and country basis. Once developed, agroecology policies will depend on the power of social movements to create the political will to get these policies put into practice.

Also in this issue of News & Views:

  • “Etxalde: Bridging Theory and Practice for Liberation” by Zoe Brent
  • “Walking Together: Reflections on Food First’s 40 Years” by Alexandra Toledo

Download the Summer 2015 issue of Food First News & Views