The over-reliance on chemicals, fertilizers and mono-cropping is the primary driver of environmental degradation on the planet—it’s agriculture’s dirty secret. The evidence for this is now overwhelming: today’s agricultural practices are a key contributor to rampant biodiversity losses, degradation of some 20 percent of global land, and 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
To reverse these trends, there is a critical and urgent need to alter our expectations of agriculture and food systems. We must shift our focus away from simplified and uniform systems based on high chemical inputs to diversified agroecological systems and landscapes that yield multiple goods and services.
According to a high-level report recently released by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), data and evidence are not what is limiting us in this transition. Rather, a number of vicious cycles, vested interests and entrenched thinking are the main barriers.
Rethinking use and management of natural resources
CGIAR, as the world’s largest institution for development-focused agricultural research, has a responsibility to reorient its focus and guide such a change, which can only be achieved through the collaborative efforts of its centers. Central to this endeavor is placing value on agricultural and food systems for the central role that only they can play in achieving sustainability targets.
Improving the ways that we value, use, and manage land, water, and biodiversity is a prerequisite to this transformation:
Land: In industrial systems, increasing production on existing farmland is considered to have the benefit of ‘sparing’ other land. But, the crux of the issue is not how much land is farmed: it is how it is farmed. Globally, 20 percent of land is considered degraded, limiting its productive capacity and resilience to environmental change. Land sharing, by integrating a diversity of crops and uses—rather than ‘sparing’—recognizes that ecosystem services are provided by biodiversity and diversified agroecological farming systems or landscapes. WLE’s and Bioversity’s work on seeds for restoration needs in Ethiopia, for example, has included integrating specific crops for land restoration.
How land is farmed also has potential to reduce the share of greenhouse gasses emitted from global food systems. A major initiative, “4 pour 1000”, led by France, is focused on how changed agricultural practices can contribute to climate change mitigation. WLE’s program on restoring degraded ecosystems is a partner in the initiative. The initiative echoes mounting evidence that shifting what we produce can convert agriculture from a major source of greenhouse gases to a net carbon sink, while reducing the amount of cropland in production and providing the core ingredients of sustainable diets.
Water: Industrial agriculture’s excessive application of fertilizers and pesticides as well as waste generation have resulted in severe water pollution and contributed to ‘dead zones’ at the mouths of many rivers. Improving soil management practices through diversified cropping systems—combined with soil conservation practices—have impacts that extend beyond the farm gate, such as improving water quality. Such impacts have been demonstrated by CIAT’s and Bioversity International’s work on payments for ecosystem services in Latin America, which recognize and reward farmers’ contributions to improving water quality through soil conservation.
Biodiversity: The worldwide loss of pollinators now occurring is closely linked to agricultural intensification, habitat fragmentation and the abuse of agrochemicals. Industrial agriculture is putting itself and the future of food production at risk. As a recent IPBES pollination assessment has highlighted, more than 75 percent of global food crops rely to some extent on animal pollination for yield, quality, or both. Pollinator-dependent crops contribute to 35 percent of global crop production volume. WLE partners at Stanford University link the importance of pollinators to human well-being by demonstrating that as much as 50 percent of the production of plant-derived sources of vitamin A are fully dependent on pollination.
Redefining successful agriculture
Recognizing the multifunctionality of agroecological systems is key to the transformation of agriculture and to revising its current singular focus on calorie production. Embarking on such a transformation emphasizes the need to measure the sustainability of food and agricultural systems through indicators that reach beyond biophysical domains.
New indicators must better guide our understanding of agriculture and food systems’ impacts on income, labor, food security, nutrition, and health risks. Diversified production systems have the capacity to reduce wage inequalities in agriculture and can facilitate an increase in desirable employment opportunities—impacts that new indicators should also be able to capture.
Therefore, we must revisit how we define success in agriculture and food systems, which requires measuring what really matters for building sustainable food systems. Traditional indicators, such as specific crop yields or productivity per worker, under-value the benefits of sustainable systems, which often include higher total outputs, greater resilience to shocks, more diversity resulting in improved nutritional quality, the provision of ecosystem services on and off the farm, and better employment opportunities for farmers and farming communities.
IPES-Food makes seven recommendations for fostering transitions in agricultural sustainability: (1) Develop new indicators for sustainable food systems; (2) Shift public support towards diversified agroecological production systems; (3) Support short supply chains and alternative retail infrastructures, (4) Use public procurement to support local agroecological produce; (5) Strengthen movements that unify diverse constituencies around agroecology; (6) Mainstream agroecology and holistic food systems approaches into education and research agendas; (7) Develop food planning processes and ‘joined-up food policies’ (i.e., ones that are complementary, rather than contradictory) at multiple levels.
There is no single script to be followed: the pathways to sustainable food systems will take a variety of forms, adjusted to the diverse contexts that are the wealth of agricultural systems. What’s clear is that this transition will require better integration of multiple domains of agricultural research and greater collaboration among all stakeholders. To rise to this challenge, it is urgent for CGIAR to significantly reorient its work and become a global leader in designing diversified agroecological systems that can deliver the multiple benefits described in the IPES-Food report and that can contribute to the achievement of virtually all of the Sustainable Development Goals.
IPES-Food’s first major report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’ was released June 2nd – see the executive summary and full report.