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The United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) will launch its report Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition next week in Rome. The summary and recommendations of this latest report by the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the UN Committee on Food Security are already available online at the CFS-HLPE site (Disclosure: I am a member of the current (4th) Steering Committee of the HLPE). The July 3 launch is the penultimate step in an almost two-year process that included two open consultations and attracted extraordinary attention, as is evident from the public record on engagement from academics, civil society, private sector and governments. The report will be presented to CFS 46 in October 2019.

This much-awaited UN report comes out at a time when public awareness of the connection between the climate crisis and unsustainable development is at an all-time high, raising global concerns.  According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018, hunger continued to rise for the third consecutive year, reaching 821 million in 2017 (now affecting one in every nine people), returning to levels of a decade ago. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in October 2018 warns that we have just 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5˚C, and advises that “compared to current conditions, 1.5°C of global warming would ... pose heightened risks to eradicating poverty, reducing inequalities and ensuring human and ecosystem well-being.” At the same time, the recent IPBES Global Assessment has revealed that nearly a million species are on the verge of disappearance at an unprecedented rate of extinction.

Agroecology as a solution to climate, biodiversity and food crises

Unsustainable development and associated land use changes, including though national and international policy support for unsustainable agriculture and food systems, have become a primary cause of biodiversity loss and water, climate and biodiversity crises. Both the IPCC and IPBES call for “transformative” change that can still reverse these catastrophic trends. It is in this context that the report from the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition, and specifically its recommendations warrants the attention of all stakeholders—and that means all of us who eat food!

These recommendations will likely not come as a surprise to proponents of sustainable agriculture who have been calling for policy support to help more communities adopt such practices, nor to communities who have already been practicing agroecological approaches in an attempt to survive the vagaries of climate change and market failures. In fact, many advantages of agroecological approaches were conclusively demonstrated in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a multi-year study involving hundreds of experts and several U.N. agencies a decade ago. These findings were re-substantiated by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food in a 2010 report to the UN Human Rights Council, which showed also the additional value of agroecology for fast progress in the realization of the right to food and for economic development.

As scientific enquiry into the close connection between agroecology and food sovereignty began shaping the agroecology discourse, and the multiple ecological crises became ever more pressing, there has been a slightly increased openness in global policy spaces to considering the potential of agroecological approaches in addressing these challenges.

The decision in 2017 by the UN Committee on Food Security to learn more about agroecological and other innovative approaches showed an increased willingness on the part of many governments to look at the potential of agroecological approaches to help solve the many problems plaguing agriculture and food systems in twenty-first century. This also followed a series of agroecology-related initiatives at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), especially its first international symposium on agroecology in 2014, followed by further discussions at regional levels carried out in a series of regional symposia in 2015 and 2016. As a scientists’ letter coordinated by IATP pointed out early on, agroecology’s broad base in science and society makes it uniquely suited to address today’s challenges in food and agricultural systems, including but not limited to continued food insecurity, rural poverty, climate change, drought and water scarcity. All these processes contributed to the FAO’s development of its 10 elements of agroecology, based on seminal scientific literature on agroecology.

At the same time, civil society groups and academics have further stepped up their efforts in support of agroecology: For example in the United States, we have worked with a U.S.-based scholars network,  Agroecology Research Action Collective, on a letter calling on Green New Deal advocates to include a robust, sustainable and just food and agriculture platform as part of the proposal. This platform should be rooted in agroecology, food justice and food sovereignty. In Europe, 59 German NGOs (including IATP Europe) released a position paper, Strengthening Agroecology for a Fundamental Transformation of Agri-Food Systems, directed at the German Federal Government. In South Africa, Biowatch shared its work with smallholder farmers in their book Agroecology Is Best Practice, while at the continental level, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) wrote Agroecology: The bold future of farming in Africa, showing how agroecology benefits Africa in terms of food and nutrition, livelihoods, restoration of biodiversity, knowledge and innovation, and climate change resilience. These calls are similar to those In Asia and Latin America, Europe and Australia.

The HLPE Report #14, on Agroecological and other innovative approaches, and its recommendations, thus, comes out at a time when the world is ready for an agroecological transition process.

Agency as the fifth pillar of Food Security and Nutrition

According to the summary, “This report starts from the recognition of human rights as the basis for ensuring sustainable food systems. It also considers that the seven PANTHER principles of Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Transparency, Human dignity, Empowerment and the Rule of law should guide individual and collective actions to address the four dimensions of FSN at different scales.” All too often, definitions of agroecology are reduced to a set of technologies, rather than also considering the vital role of people’s decisions and rights: Their agency. Thus, the first recommendation stems from the grounding of this report in the human rights framework and PANTHER principles, and requests the CFS to “consider the emerging importance of the concept of ‘agency’ and the opportunity to add it as a fifth pillar of FSN (the other four being: ‘availability’, ‘access’, ‘utilization’ and ‘stability’) with the view to progress towards the realization of the right to adequate food.” Having agency as a fifth pillar would ensure that ordinary people have the power to define and secure their own food security in their everyday lives. This would be key to the progressive realization of right to food.

The summary goes on to define the agroecological approach to Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) as, “one that favours the use of natural processes, limits the use of external inputs, promotes closed cycles with minimal negative externalities and stresses the importance of local knowledge and participatory processes that develop knowledge and practice through experience, as well as scientific methods, and the need to address social inequalities.”  Such an approach recognizes that agri-food systems are coupled with social-ecological systems, right from the production of food through its consumption with all that goes on in between.

Ecological footprint as a fourth operational principle for SFSs

Building on previous HLPE reports, especially the three operational principles identified in the 2016 HLPE report as shaping transition pathways towards SFSs for FSN (improving resource efficiency; strengthening resilience; and securing social equity/responsibility), the report identified the potential “utility of adding ecological footprint as a fourth operational principle for SFSs to adequately capture how consumption patterns affect what is produced, and how ecologically degradative and regenerative practices have impacts beyond those that occur through resource efficiency, since resource-efficient practices can still be degradative.”

The summary further adds that a “key reason for distinguishing ecological footprint from resource efficiency, as operational principles, lies at the heart of the differences between agroecological and sustainable intensification approaches to transitions to SFS, because it is possible to have high resource use efficiency at the same time as having a negative ecological footprint.” Unlike carbon footprint, ecological footprint is a more holistic concept that expresses “the impact of food consumed by a defined group of people measured in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water required for production and to assimilate the wastes generated.” Tracking the ecological footprint contributes to assessing sustainability; its trend over time indicates to what extent transitions towards SFSs are occurring.”

The way forward

Following the second international symposium of the FAO, which discussed policies and actions that can support agroecology to help the SDGs, in particular SDG 2 on hunger and food security, the FAO’s Committee on Agriculture made the decision to support agroecology as a key approach for sustainable agriculture and food systems (FAO 2018 COAG/2018/5). A number of national and regional governments are already moving forward with policies and funding support to institutionalize and operationalize agroecology, including under FAO’s Scaling up Agroecology Initiative.

If the CFS delegates adopt these recommendations, it can help advance Sustainable Food Systems that enhance Food and Nutrition Security globally. But for a transdisciplinary approach such as agroecology to flourish, these recommendations should also be adopted by their counterparts in other fora making decisions on climate crisis (UNFCCC), biodiversity loss (UNCBD), soil health (UNCCD) and especially on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals on poverty and food security.