Agroecology: An innovative solution to food security in times of crises

“Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together.“

We are living in unprecedented times. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) calls for anything but ordinary action as we commemorate this year’s World Food Day.

2020 will remain entrenched in our collective memory as the year the pandemic changed our world. COVID-19 has severely impacted the lives and health of people on all continents, showed the weaknesses of our health systems, and demonstrated how interconnected the vulnerabilities of our world are. For some, “working-from-home” has provided a welcome moment of peace and reflection, for many it has brought new challenges of combining work, home schooling of children while living in small apartments. But for billions of people without a secure safety net, especially in the Global South and in industrialized countries without strong social safety nets, it has brought mounting fear and uncertainty, lost livelihood opportunities, and the very real prospect of mounting hunger.

Even before the pandemic, our food systems were already facing severe stress due to the impacts of accelerated climate change, and the lack of will to fundamentally transform economic systems that continue to undermine the very basis of our survival. In this sense, this World Food Day 2020 could come to be remembered as a test of our resolve to truly safeguard the human right to food.

Hunger is on the rise

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 reported that 690 million people — close to 9% of the global population — were chronically undernourished in 2019. These numbers are in stark contrast to the significant increase in food production in most parts of the world over the past five decades. What this tells us is that increased food production has not translated into food security for all. The Global Report on Food Crises 2020 reported the highest number of acutely food-insecure people on record in 2019. 135 million people in 55 countries and territories needed urgent food assistance as a result of conflict, weather extremes, pest outbreaks or economic shocks. The September 2020 update analysis on food security in times of COVID-19 highlights that the pandemic has had an aggravating effect on pre-existing drivers of food insecurity, primarily due to declining economic activity. It further reveals that many measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 caused a sudden onset shock to livelihoods in urban areas. Whereas the effects for farming households have been less immediate, the full impact is likely to continue to manifest as a slow onset disaster in coming agricultural seasons, depending on further disruptions to supply chains and food systems.

Our food systems: facing multiple crises

Our food systems are not equipped to face the increasing challenges that climate change poses to them; much less to face multiple crises at a time. In fact, current food systems are undermining the very basis of their own resilience. While agricultural modernisation has helped to raise yields, it is also recognised as a major contributor to the degradation of natural ecosystems, and the diverse ecosystem services that they provide. There is overwhelming evidence that current agricultural production models accelerate biodiversity loss and are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions from land use change, land degradation, and unsustainable use of freshwater resources.

Climate change, in turn, further adds to the risks to our food systems. More erratic rainfall patterns, more frequent extreme weather events, rising temperatures all impact on the ability of our food systems to continue to produce sufficient crops to feed the world. If the current rates of greenhouse gas emissions continue, it is estimated that, by 2050, there will be an average decline of 17% in the production of four major cereal crops that provide the staple food for billions of people (coarse grains, oil seeds, wheat and rice).

Business as usual is no longer an option. The urgency and complexity of the challenges we face call for bold and innovative solutions. We must overcome the old understanding that narrow technological innovations addressing only small segments of the complex eco-agri-food-systems provide the necessary solutions. Climate change affects all parts of our food system and requires a systemic response. Otherwise, the negative externalities of action in one sector might adversely impact another. We propose to combine agroecological principles with social innovation and appropriate technologies to tackle the challenges ahead of us in a systemic way.

Agroecology: an innovative solution to complex challenges

The impacts of climate change on food systems are complex and they pose challenges to the system as a whole. An unprecedented global health crisis has revealed further vulnerabilities of our food systems by drastically restricting access to food, both as a result of the lockdown and loss of income sources for many (see here and here).

Photo by wilsan u on Unsplash

Ensuring a fitting response to a deepening food crisis, that disproportionally affects already vulnerable population groups (see here and here), calls for determined action on climate change. This means that our climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes must embrace the complexity of the underlying challenges. At the heart of this systemic response is an urgent need to strengthen the resilience of small-scale farmers, the landless, migrants, the urban poor, and other vulnerable groups, to withstand the multiple crises we are facing today. Agroecology offers a systemic adaptation response that goes beyond technological solutions to tackle the underlying social and economic drivers that contribute to food insecurity.

Innovating adaptation through agroecology

In order to explore the promise of agroecology for these uncertain times, TMG Research and its partners convened a broad consultation process that reviewed available evidence on agroecology’s contribution to climate change adaptation, and resilience.¹ The consultation process revealed that the fundamental contribution of agroecology is the link that it makes between food production and the underlying natural and social capital that underpins resilient food systems. The consultations concluded that agroecology therefore offers a concrete solution for today’s adaptation needs by fostering local solutions for enhanced resilience. Participants further emphasised that, given the complex and context-specific dynamics between climate change and food systems, there is a need to adapt both research and investments to different contexts. This also requires acknowledging the contribution of different knowledge systems in finding appropriate solutions, especially at the local level.

Published today, the resulting working paper “Systemic Challenges, Systemic Responses: Innovating adaptation to climate change through agroecology” presents a set of key messages that emerged from these consultations:

  1. To be innovative, adaptation efforts must respond to the systemic challenges posed by climate change to our food systems.
  2. Diverse agricultural systems are less vulnerable to extreme climatic events, climate variability, and cumulative agro-climatic changes.
  3. To strengthen the adaptive capacity of rural livelihoods, it is necessary to pair technological innovations, and improvements in agricultural practices, with investments in social capital, the co-creation of knowledge with farmers, new marketing networks, and the responsible governance of land and natural resources.
  4. Integrated measurement approaches, such as true cost accounting, are necessary to capture all the factors that contribute to climate-resilient food systems.
  5. Innovating adaptation to climate change calls for nothing less than transforming our food systems.

These messages highlight the urgent need to invest in systemic responses to transform our food systems, including investments in an enabling environment that allow technological and social innovations to benefit food-insecure communities.

¹The consultation process was funded by and implemented on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).

To learn more about the issues highlighted during the consultations, as well as the underlying evidence for these messages, check out the full paper here. We have also published a series of case studies on successful initiatives here.

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TMG-Think Tank for Sustainability

TMG-Think Tank for Sustainability

TMG is an applied research group focusing on climate and energy, land and food systems, Agenda 2030 governance, and innovations for sustainable transformations.