Starting on July 26, United Nations delegates and other stakeholders met in Rome for a Pre-Summit leading up to the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) scheduled to take place this September in New York. This could have been an opportunity for a step towards putting global food systems on a more sustainable and equitable path. Instead, it turns out to be “an effort by a powerful alliance of multinational corporations, philanthropies, and export-oriented countries to subvert multilateral institutions of food governance and capture the global narrative of ‘food systems transformation.’”

In the lead up to this Pre-Summit, the U.N. Committee on World Food Security (CFS) rushed through the approval of a set of watered down policy recommendations on “agroecology and other innovations for sustainable food systems”. These negotiations were fraught from the beginning, with delegates from industrialized countries like the United States seeking to defend large-scale, chemical-intensive, corporate-led agriculture. In the end, the CFS recommendations are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they add to a rising chorus of support for agroecology as an alternative to business-as-usual approaches. On the other hand, they undermine/d some key tenets of agroecological practices.

IATP’s Shiney Varghese served on the High-Level Panel of Experts (CFS-HLPE) that the U.N. CFS had tasked with gathering evidence to guide the policy formulation. The HLPE commissioned and oversaw the agroecology study, and Shiney was a member of the team overseeing the report. On behalf of IATP, she also participated in the CFS agroecology negotiations. I spoke with her about the strengths and weaknesses of the final policy recommendations and how these may affect the UNFSS outcomes.

Q. Why is agroecology so important to global agriculture right now?

Shiney: We are facing multiple, mutually reinforcing challenges across the world. The number of people affected by hunger in the world has been on the rise since 2014, but it became much worse with the pandemic last year. About 9.9% of the world’s population does not get enough food to meet their normal energy needs. What is even worse is that those directly involved in food production and/or processing and selling food account for a large majority of them. Global agriculture today is not delivering on its promise.

The pandemic also revealed the fault lines of the food system like never before. In its early months, with lockdowns in place everywhere, farming communities and mutual help groups across the world became the backbone for local food security. In the same period, food producers tied into global or long value chain operations had to dump their milk and mulch their produce, while food system workers in exploitative working conditions were exposed to COVID-19 at higher frequencies. All this drew attention to the need to strengthen short value chains with a focus on regional food systems and to improving working conditions.

The HLPE report convincingly showed that these ills are the direct results of how we farm our lands and manage our food and agriculture systems. Over the last 70 years or so, the focus has been on the productivity of a single crop, be it corn, rice or wheat, at the cost of holistic benefits of the agroecosystem in which crops are grown, animals are reared, and food is produced and consumed. While such agriculture helps agri-businesses profit from expansive monocultures, those profits come at a huge cost to rural communities, their wellbeing, food security and health, as well as their local environment (through soil degradation, biodiversity loss and polluted waters). In any case, neoliberal economic solutions, be it the farm laws (that Indian farmers have been resisting since last fall) or the under net zero and  “nature positive” solutions of the UNFSS, will only exacerbate the problem.

This is where agroecological approaches emerge as the clear winner. They have their roots in multiple (indigenous, gender-differentiated and experiential) knowledge bases. They help us pay attention to parity, dignity of work, community resilience and most crucially to justice, as well as offer an alternate pathway, a systems approach, that is good for the health of people and planet. Thus, agroecological approaches offer the most beneficial approach to global agriculture.

Q. As part of the HLPE, you helped direct the research for the report that laid the groundwork for the agroecology negotiations. What were that report’s most important contributions?

Shiney: Earlier HLPE reports had already identified many of the problems with the current food systems and had called for “transforming the global food systems.” Building on these findings, this report started by asserting the importance of the human right to food. It suggested a concise and consolidated set of 13 agroecological principles related to the following: recycling; reducing the use of inputs; soil health; animal health and welfare; biodiversity; synergy (managing interactions); economic diversification; co-creation of knowledge (embracing local knowledge and global science); social values and diets; fairness; connectivity; land and natural resource governance; and participation. This is something I hope the civil society and other interested actors will use as we seek to build support for agroecology worldwide.

Second, it stressed the potential “utility of adding ecological footprint as a fourth operating principle underlying Sustainable Food Systems.” Often those advocating new technologies point to the efficiency of resource use (more crops per drop of water, for example) than the overall impact on local ecosystems. This focus on ecological footprint is one key difference between agroecological and sustainable intensification approaches, the other being its focus on rights. The report draws out this distinction, emphasizing the importance of holistic approaches.

Third, the report strongly highlighted the important role of agroecology for smallholder farmers. For smallholder food producers, a large majority of who have less than two hectares of land, building resilience through diversified farming systems and locally focused food processing and distribution systems is key to their food security, enabling them rebuild their economies and livelihood options. The report recognized the need for incentivizing such transitions through public support to help address food security needs of smallholder producers who are vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition. It recognized that agroecological transitions are possible for all farmers, albeit in an incremental way if not in a transformational way.

Finally, the HLPE report highlighted the importance of “the concept of ‘agency.’” The report recommended adding agency as a fifth pillar of FSN (the other four being availability, access, utilization and stability) to ensure that ordinary people will have the power to define and secure their own food security in their everyday lives. This would be key to the progressive realization of the right to food.

Q. Even in the report process, there would have been some members of the HLPE supporting and others resisting agroecology. How did that impact the final report?

Shiney: The steering committee members of the HLPE are selected by the U.N. CFS Bureau for their knowledge and experience of working on food systems from diverse perspectives. Some members of the HLPE (2017-2019), while experts in their own fields, for example, agricultural economics, were not familiar with the transdisciplinary field of agroecology, which spans not just the biophysical aspects of the agroecosystem, but also socioeconomic and biocultural aspects, as well as human interactions with each other and nature. The project team directly involved in gathering and presenting the evidence had been selected for their expertise in “agroecological and other innovative approaches,” and this is what HLPE used for bringing out the Report.

In fact, a few key distinguishing aspects of HLPE (compared to other similar bodies) helps the HLPE come to a consensus, especially when dealing with challenging or controversial topics: its openness to a wide range of different knowledge systems, open consultation and ability to treat controversies from a range of different perspectives. This meant that the evidence presented by the project team on ‘agroecological and other innovative approaches’ was extensively examined, interrogated, discussed and debated before the report was finalized by the entire HLPE. I was pleased that the final report clearly identifies agroecological approaches as the most effective and just pathway for food system transformation (and showed how anyone can be part of agroecological transitions, irrespective of the kind of food systems you are part of, from traditional agriculture to industrial monocultures), and I am pleased that it serves as an important document to further advance agroecology internationally.

Q. Did the final HLPE report offer a solid foundation for the policy negotiations?

Shiney: Yes, it did. Unfortunately, some of the recommendations from the report were ignored or watered down during the negotiations.

For example, neither the recommendation about ecological footprint nor that about the concept of agency were considered after the initial stages of the CFS negotiations. This was extremely unfortunate, since the two main challenges faced by global agricultural systems are that often farmers and food system workers have no real say over their options for their wellbeing or food security, and that the environmental footprint of our food and agriculture is currently not counted. Its cost is externalized, effectively incentivizing producers to undertake ecologically destructive practices.

Still, the evidence gathered in the report helps us recognize that approaches starting from a premise of asserting rights are likely to produce a different set of outcomes compared to those with a central focus on productivity. Specifically, it distinguished between two types of innovative approaches: agroecology and sustainable intensification, unequivocally recognizing agroecological approaches as the transformative pathway.

Now, it is internationally recognized that agroecological approaches, which help smallholder farmers more, helping them gain a foothold towards improving their food security, do not receive as much institutional support as sustainable intensification.

Q. How can the CFS recommendations help promote the kind of transition we need away from industrialized agriculture and towards agroecology and climate-resilient food systems?

Shiney: The CFS recommendations are policy guidelines that member states can use to help transform their food systems. The preamble of these policy recommendations takes note of the HLPE finding that “agroecological approaches, which have shown promising results, tend to be under-researched and underfunded worldwide,” compared to other approaches. Thus, these recommendations can also help guide other international processes and investment flows towards agroecology and climate-resilient food systems.

Q. What position did the U.S. delegates take in the negotiations? I know that President Trump’s delegate castigated the FAO for falling under the influence of a “cabal” of environmentalists and radical peasants.

Shiney: At the time of agroecology negotiations, the Biden administration had not yet appointed a replacement for former Ambassador Kip Tom (a farmer with extensive industrial farm operations in Indiana and South America). Irrespective of the party in power, U.S. negotiators in international spaces have usually promoted policies conducive to export-oriented industrial monocultures.

During the last rounds of negotiations, the U.S. negotiator led the efforts along with Brazil and Russia to keep the recommendations as close to the status quo as possible, insisting that they could endorse only those that had been internationally agreed already (such as the FAO’s 10 elements of agroecology). Yet, at other times when it was inconvenient to do so, such as on the issue of pesticides, they refused to abide by internationally agreed upon precedents.

This is despite negotiators from some countries (such as Mexico, which recently approved a ban on glyphosate) pointing out that to transition fully to agroecology, it is necessary to move away from harmful chemical dependencies. Interestingly, the lead U.S. negotiator indicated that he had not read the HLPE report fully. He took strong positions that had no basis in the HLPE report, but rather advanced U.S. positions in support of industrial monoculture. Clearly, for the entire exercise of gathering evidence on innovative approaches and formulating the recommendations towards sustainable food systems (SFS) transitions to be meaningful, the largest exporter of food products needs to lead by example, demonstrating a strong  commitment to multilateralism and basic human rights of food producers.

Q. What were the main reservations about the final policy recommendations?

Shiney: Civil society organizations engaged in the negotiations unanimously agreed that these recommendations could only be supported with strong reservations, if at all, given that their negotiators (represented by the Civil Society Mechanism, or CSM) had to struggle for inclusion of any language on human rights, women’s rights and the rights of peasant and people working in rural areas. Despite all efforts and despite the rights of farmers being lifted up in the HLPE report and recommendations, member states shockingly refused to recognize farmers’ rights, an internationally recognized right, in these recommendations! In a similar vein, one of the cornerstones of innovative agroecological approaches, the “ancestral” and “traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and experiential knowledge of communities,” was repeatedly marginalized in the name of “scientific” evidence.

Similarly, civil society organizations engaged in agroecological approaches see agroecology as a way out from dependence on external inputs, and they were pleased to see evidence in support of that in the HLPE report. Yet, the final document’s language on pesticides is not based on HLPE report. In fact, the CSM has taken issue with the fact that these recommendations contradict existing U.N. agreements and guidelines, and instead of reducing the use of pesticides, encourage optimization of pesticides. This could disincentivize states from wanting to transition fully to agroecology and move away from the chemical dependencies that impact human and environmental health.

The HLPE offered a policy assessment framework for evaluating agroecological approaches along with other innovative approaches — in response to a challenging request to assess these, from the CFS. The CSM found this helpful because the evidence presented by the HLPE unequivocally recognized agroecological approaches as the transformative pathway. The CSM was disappointed that these nuanced approaches to food system transformation were completely ignored throughout the negotiations.

By not endorsing adoption of HLPE’s 13 agroecological principles, CFS missed out an opportunity to build on FAO’s 10 elements of agroecology (endorsed by its governance committee in 2018).  On a positive note, these policy recommendations endorse FAO’s 10 elements, making it especially relevant for other Rome-based agencies, such as the International Fund for Agriculture development (IFAD) and the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

As far as the process goes, the CSM was also concerned that the negotiations were rushed, thereby forcing compromises on positions clearly supporting agroecological approaches. The process was not inclusive, with limited translations and time constraints given it was conducted in the European time zone. At the same time, CSM members appreciated that, within these limitations, the rapporteur of the policy convergence process did his best.

Civil Society advocates of agroecological approaches also appreciate that the policy recommendations clearly recognized the need for public policies in support of agroecological approaches, and for strengthening agroecological education from the farm level onwards.

Despite the weakened policy recommendations, it is a step forward. But to advance civil society goals around transforming our food systems, much work remains. In conclusion, these policy recommendations have recognized the skewed nature of public investments when it comes to investments in agroecological transitions. Working with our partners, IATP is committed to contributing to increasing public investments, both nationally and internationally, towards fair, sustainable and healthy food, farm and trade systems.

Q. Will the CFS recommendations have a positive influence on the U.N. Food Systems Summit (UNFSS)?

Shiney: The increasing international scientific consensus around agroecological approaches as the key transition pathway likely has meant that UNFSS cannot ignore agroecology. However, the way the Summit has tried to address it is by focusing on what they call “nature-positive production.” For many who are advocating to advance agroecology, such talk about “nature positive production” strips agroecology of its transdisciplinary nature and politics and reduces it from a systems approach to one that simply emphasizes resource efficient crop production. Agroecology is a systems approach, and FAO’s 10 elements (and HLPE’s 13 agroecological principles) are foundational to address the concerns of all aspects of the food systems.

This week, the civil society countermobilizations (July 25-28) around the pre-summit in Rome from July 26-28 draw attention to these concerns. Yet, the civil society critique of the summit goes far beyond this attempt to co-opt agroecological approaches as “nature-positive solutions.” During the Peoples’ Counter-Mobilization to Transform Corporate Food Systems, CSM constituencies will share experiences of both agroecological and industrial approaches. In the U.S., we are in a unique position to share the socioeconomic and ecological consequences of our industrial food system, and how antithetical it is to the very transformation we need across global food systems. The counter summit draws connections between struggles across continents. For example, those engaged in grassroots struggles such as the organizers of the historic farmers strike in India see a national level attempt at corporatization (through the introduction of three farm bills) echoed internationally in UNFSS efforts.

Food Systems For People

Another civil society initiative that we are part of is a call for governments, private companies and civil society to adopt the 13 key principles, titled “A unifying framework for food systems transformation,” to help meet the Sustainable Development Goals, the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, and to uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. It stresses that the full set of 13 principles must be respected and cautions against cooptation and greenwashing that use terms such as agroecology or regenerative agriculture but do not intend to implement all 13 principles. Nature positive solutions from UNFSS certainly do not fit the bill.

Throughout the CFS process and now leading up to these events, we are building deeper conversations among farmers, NGOs and scientists about the kind of agriculture we want to ensure that food is a human right. Already, many countries are initiating pilot projects to adopt agroecological approaches. Whatever happens at the UNFSS, those advances can start to take us in a new direction.

Teaser photo credit: By Patrick Gruban, cropped and downsampled by Pine – originally posted to Flickr as UN General Assembly, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4806869