Looking beyond the pandemic: Agroecology, and the need to rethink our food system

Helena Paul

Covid19 is confronting us with our deepest contradictions: the vast majority of the more prosperous among us depend on an economic system based on the ever-greater extraction, exploitation and over-consumption of what the planet provides. At the same time this system is destroying our life support: resilient ecosystems with flourishing biodiversity, clean water and good soil, the basis for healthy food, lives, livelihoods and a stable climate.  It also drives exploitation, injustice and inequality in society, and Covid19 is, in fact, further widening the gap between rich and poor.

All over the world, it is the poorest in society who are suffering the most, as the pandemic increases existing pressures and adds new ones, striking hardest at those whose health is already compromised by poverty, and exposing weaknesses in health systems. Millions have lost their jobs, while food is more expensive due to the pandemic. Others continue in jobs that expose them to high risk at low pay. The families of millions of migrant workers around the world depend on the money they send home, which makes up more than 20% of the national income of some states, e.g.: Yemen[i], but is now slashed due to the pandemic. The absence of migrant farm workers means farmers are losing harvests in many regions, including India and Europe. Thus the pandemic reveals how much we rely on migrant farm workers for secure food supplies, yet they are too often poorly paid, and live and work in highly insecure conditions.

Hunger is now increasing in many countries. Indeed, several war-torn regions were already close to famine conditions before the pandemic, Syria and Yemen being two examples. Oxfam says that by the end of 2020, hunger could be killing many more than the pandemic.[ii] Clearly, the virus is most seriously impacting people who were already negatively affected by conflict, climate change and precarious food systems, while also being used by companies to further extend their hold on food and agribusiness.[iii] How should we respond to these interconnected challenges?

Industrial food systems have created an enormous distance between producers and consumers.

The industrial food system

Humans can live well without many of the trappings of modern ‘development’, but not without food. The neoliberal economy, however, has foisted a dangerous industrial food system on society, particularly in the industrialized west. Long food chains separate producers from consumers, and are increasingly dominated by corporations, while digital technologies are now creating automated systems of ‘just-in-time’ deliveries that are not transparent or equitable but depend on exploiting poorly paid workers and are vulnerable to disruption as Covid19 has shown.  Since poorer countries are also likely to become increasingly dependent on imported food, this makes millions of people extremely food insecure. [iv]

In many parts of the global north, the consumer (e.g.: eater) is sheltered from the imperative to understand the problems faced by the producer (e.g.: grower), while the inequality between them is increasing.  The land rights of many small-scale farmers are not recognised and some see no alternative but to become mere ‘out-growers’ for corporations, receiving minimum prices for their products, often close to or even below the cost of production.  This is a problem for farmers, worldwide.  Supermarkets also help to drive this inequality while extending their reach: ‘The market share of supermarkets has risen from 5 per cent of all retail sales to 50 per cent in less than 20 years in Latin America and Southeast Asia for example.’[v]:

The market share of supermarkets has steadily increased over the last two decades.

Industrial (large-scale) livestock production is a central player. It involves cruelty to animals, and exploitation of people from farmers right along the chain to slaughterhouse and meatpacking staff (frequent victims of covid19), plus high levels of climate–forcing emissions. It also involves massive production of animal feed, a leading cause of biodiversity destruction and more climate-forcing emissions. Crops such as soy and maize, often genetically modified, are produced (for example) throughout the Americas, displacing indigenous peoples, peasant farmers and diverse agriculture. Consumers often have no idea of the real price of cheap, mass-produced, anonymous meat that actually comes with great cost to people, animals, climate and biodiversity. Fed by the growing demand for animal protein, intensive industrial livestock production is also a source of diseases passed from animal to human. Increasingly, close contact between wild animals and humans, often related to the consumption of wild meat, adds to the risk of viruses spreading to humans, such as Ebola, HIV and emerging coronaviruses like covid19. [vi]

The frequency of zoonotic diseases has gone up with the increase in close contact between wild animals and humans, often related to the consumption of wild meats.

The mantra that food should be cheap, heavily promoted in the global north, particularly by the US government, and seized on by supermarkets, creates many health problems, since many of the cheapest foods are highly processed and full of sugar and salt to make them addictive. At the same time changing ways of life and long working hours mean people have less time and energy for preparing food while instant meals are readily available on supermarket shelves, strongly promoted by advertising. Finally, as a direct result of the industrial system, millions of tonnes of food is discarded as waste every year, most of which could still be safely eaten.

What is the true purpose of this destructive food system?

Applying systems thinking to the dominant food system is a revealing exercise. Systems theory as described by Donella Meadows in her book, “Thinking in Systems, A Primer”[vii], requires that we look at the functions and purposes of a system in order to understand it:

A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily spoken, written, or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system. The best way to deduce the system’s purpose is to watch for a while to see how the system behaves. (Page 14)

So, is the purpose of the industrial food system (as often stated) to provide everyone with nutritious food they can afford, while rewarding the producers sufficiently for them to continue to produce diverse and nutritious food without destroying biodiversity, soils and the environment? Or, is their true purpose to maintain current systems while increasing profits for an ever-smaller number of corporations and their shareholders, with the connivance of governments? And, if it’s the latter, how shall we change this? So, asking the question about the purpose of the system helps to reveal its true drivers.

Towards food system sovereignty

Food is a great potential starting point for creating the real and lasting change that we need.  Yet, simultaneously, corporate interests are using the pandemic to further consolidate their power, gaining ever-tighter controls over land, agriculture and food systems, generally, while new digital technologies such as ‘big data’[viii] and block-chain[ix] are likely to accelerate this development.[x] We need strong action for change – where should we start?

Peasant farmers andindigenous peoples still feed millions of us

It is vital to remember that in spite of the enormous pressures they face, small farmers, or peasant farmers as many of them prefer to be known, are still feeding millions of people. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES):

Small land holdings still supply 30% of the global food caloric supply.

Small landholdings (less than 2 hectares) contribute approximately 30 per cent of global crop production and 30 per cent of the global food caloric supply, using around a quarter of agricultural land and usually maintaining rich agro-biodiversity. [xi]

Over the centuries they have observed, developed, nurtured and passed on seeds and knowledge about many of the varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains, as well as domesticated animals, on which we still rely for our food.  They have developed many different farming systems, such as the Milpa or ‘three sisters’ in Mexico, where beans, squash and maize are grown together in a system that benefits each plant and the soil, while providing a balance of vital nutrients to people. They have also bred drought, flood and salt tolerant varieties vital for the years to come with climate change and sea-level rise. We need to remember this when fed industry stories about developing genetically modified varieties of such crops for the same purposes.

Rich stocks of varieties now undermined by industrial agriculture

Indigenous peoples have developed potatoes and maize into hundreds of different varieties adapted to different ecosystems and contexts.[xii] The story of maize reveals highly sophisticated systems of exchange of knowledge and seed between different regions in a continuous process of experimentation and development. Yet, in Asia for example, thousands of rice varieties developed over the centuries for different ecosystem and climate types, different tastes and cooking practices, were largely replaced during the so-called green revolution of the 1960s by a handful of industrial varieties often planted in monocultures with the resulting displacement of many of those diverse varieties.[xiii]   Plants growing with the rice that were traditional sources of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) were considered weeds and destroyed with herbicides. However, resilient local systems supported, for example, by the Deccan Development Society[xiv] that works with the poorest women in their communities in south India, are autonomously keeping many varieties of different key grains and associated knowledge alive, viable and available – and again encouraging those ‘weeds’ to grow amongst the rice.

Women led initiatives in India are keeping traditional grains alive.

The pressures on indigenous peoples

According to IPBES: ‘At least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by indigenous peoples.’ [xv] In addition, considerable areas are managed by diverse local communities with different regimes of access and ownership.  The knowledge held within indigenous cultures and languages[xvi] of their territories is detailed, profound and often very different in nature from conventional modern science.  However, the pressures on indigenous peoples, their territories, languages and cultures is immense, worldwide, as the machines of economic growth, extraction and exploitation begin to penetrate the last centres of biological and cultural diversity. In Brazil, for example, the government of Jair Bolsonaro wishes to annul the indigenous territories recognised under the constitution of 1988 and open them to mining and industrial agriculture. Covid19 has added to these pressures, threatening indigenous communities, while at the same time distracting attention from their predicament. They are experiencing high levels of invasion of their territories and violence, yet satellite photographs show clearly that within those territories rainforest vital to the whole planet and to our collective wellbeing is better protected than elsewhere in the Amazon.

The indigenous communities have shown that they are the best custodians of their forests.

The vital and still undervalued roles of women

Amongst peasant farmers and indigenous peoples, women play a central but still undervalued role. They often lack land rights and input into decision-making. In some cultures, quite frequently, patriarchal practices and national laws still privilege men. Yet, women are often the guardians of seed for their communities, breeding and selecting it, passing their knowledge from generation to generation, creating and maintaining in situ community seed banks that are essential for the continued evolution of varieties and the maintenance of genetic diversity within the seed, critical for food security and sovereignty.[xvii]

Women also practice community forest management including reforestation and watershed management, while providing food for their families and communities. In some regions indigenous women have been feeding neighboring communities lacking food due to the pandemic. They are also the keepers of medicinal plants and healers.[xviii] Considering that ‘an estimated 4 billion people rely primarily on natural medicines for their health care and some 70 per cent of drugs used for cancer are natural or are synthetic products inspired by nature’[xix]their insight and role here is crucial.  Furthermore, they can help us change our attitudes to both food and medicine by reminding us that health is more than just the absence of disease (the main focus of western medicine) and includes how we live with the biosphere. Undue human pressure on ecosystems everywhere means that in that sense we are dangerously ill.

Indigenous women have been the keepers of traditional medicinal plants and knowledge.

Empower the grassroots for food sovereignty and security

In view of all the points made so far, it is vital that indigenous peoples, local communities and peasant farmers, especially women, are properly included in policy development and decision-making on food systems. This goes far beyond merely being consulted.  Many indigenous peoples and local communities have their own processes of deliberative democracy and decision-making and these must be respected and allowed to inform the development of policy. The way to proceed is essentially local, and involves interaction with local biodiversity and cultures and conditions, but it must be empowered at every level from the local to the international.  Finally, land rights, especially collective land rights must be recognised and respected.

Agroecology, not industrial monocultures

It is possible to see many of the changes we need in terms of a shift from industrial agriculture to the practice of agroecology, which applies ecological principles to agriculture. Unlike industrial agriculture, agroecology does not see crop yield as the main issue, but considers each farmer and their farm as an interwoven system embedded in broader ecosystems, where all elements are important – seed, soil, water, animal, human and biodiversity health as well as yield.

Much of agroecology has its roots in the practices of indigenous peoples[xx] and peasant farmers. They include agroforestry and forest gardens, for example, with multilevel planting, crop rotations, intercropping or mixed cropping, polyculture or growing plants in such a way as to emulate the diversity of a natural ecosystem. This can greatly help to address the problem of pests, by encouraging beneficial predators and avoiding the likelihood of major pest attacks that rampage through monocultures.  Care for soil and water supply is also fundamental as is the careful selection of seed and varieties, seed keeping and the selective evolution of food plants in the care of the farmer (in which women are often the main ones responsible as touched on above).

Agroecological systems are therefore multifunctional; they provide good food and livelihoods, while caring for soils and water, maintaining biodiversity including agricultural biodiversity and addressing climate change, using traditional knowledge and appropriate modern science.

Agroecology cares for the health of soil and water while providing nutritious food and livelihoods.

Referring back to systems thinking, what is the purpose of agroecology? Quotes from Michel Pimbert, Director of the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, UK reveal two main purposes:

  • At the heart of agroecology is the idea that agro-ecosystems should mimic the biodiversity levels and functioning of natural ecosystems. Such agricultural mimics, like their natural models, can be productive, pest resistant, nutrient conserving, and resilient to shocks and stresses. [xxi]
  • As an integral part of food sovereignty, agroecology is perhaps best understood as a process that aims to expand the realm of democracy and freedom, by regenerating a diversity of locally autonomous and socially just food systems[xxii]

Yet, in spite of all this, agroecology is still much neglected in the global north: in the UK for example, only 1.5% of the agriculture budget is spent on it.

Addressing dominant research priorities

The food systems of indigenous peoples, local communities and peasant farmers are often agroecological in nature and have real potential to be extended to feed us all, but this means intervening in the current industrial food systems based on large-scale industrial monocultures of crops and livestock, with low diversity and high inputs. In order to enable such a transformation, we must also address the priorities of northern research establishments. In the UK, these are ‘growth and innovation’, especially in genomics and industrial agriculture, with a focus on large farms, corporate agribusiness and the industrial food sector. The UK also aims to export its research to other regions, especially Africa. The linear focus is mainly on increasing yields and eliminating ‘pests’. The science laboratory rather than the farmer is the central player, and innovation resides largely in transferring technology from laboratory to farmer. In fact, the underlying purpose of such research is to maintain the current system. A good illustration of this is the proposal that weeds that have become tolerant to the herbicides used in industrial monocultures of genetically modified soy, maize or canola, could be rendered sensitive to herbicides again through using the new techniques of genome editing and gene drives.

Agroecology connects with the needs and aspirations of small farmers.

Changes needed in the global north

Clearly major change is needed in the global north if we are to move to new food systems based on agroecology. So, where to start? The concept of the ‘consumer’ has been created by industry public relations to persuade us that our most important role is to consume their products and we (collectively) have allowed this to happen. We must reverse that process and try to become citizens instead – with regards to the food chain as well as the food system, and wider. That means taking responsibility for our own decisions and the impacts of our lives on other people, as well as on climate and biodiversity; so we also need to stop simply delegating nearly all responsibilities and decision-making to governments. This means shifting from representative or delegated democracy, with a vote every few years, to direct democracy. But that requires active engagement with the issues, which in turn requires energy and time, which many do not currently have.

Many agricultural communities are advocating for direct democracy so that the decision making process is responsive to their needs.

It also means questioning the alluring concept of ‘convenience’ food that requires minimal preparation or is delivered to the door. However, this would now require profound changes in the economic model shaping the personal lives of many, especially urban dwellers in the global north, who often live deeply isolated, fragmented lives, caught in a vicious circle of rising costs, low wages and the need to work more hours in order to have enough money to pay for basic needs at the lowest possible price.  Research shows that an increasing number of families rarely eat together, while some would like to do so more often, but do not have the time to spend on cooking.[xxiii] Addressing these intertwined issues will be a major challenge.

New shoots – even in the UK

However, there are promising signs, even in the UK, where there the network of farmers markets is growing, steadily.  The farmers are able to sell more directly at these markets with many participating in person, and buyers are able to to learn something about seasonality, the work and dedication of producers, as well as the problems they face.  Farmers markets also help to create a sense of community in cities where people are often isolated from each other and connections are hard to make. There are also a growing number of grassroots community garden and food projects directed at the most marginalized, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects where a local group of people commits to contributing a regular sum to a farmer in exchange for a box of seasonal food each week.

The network of farmers markets is growing steadily in the U.K.

The situation is complex. As already noted, ways of life in many parts of the world have adapted to and become dependent on the model of endless economic growth, so change is difficult. In order to begin to address this in food systems, we must shorten food chains, and take them back under the control of our communities and the wider society. At the same time, agricultural research must be democratized to involve farmers and citizens as well as scientists.  A strong focus on agroecologyand food sovereignty could help society build sustainable and just farming, thereby serving the wider population as well. However, the challenges posed by covid19 mean there is a danger that the crisis could instead enable further corporate consolidation, with the connivance of governments, due to the many pressures they currently face from the pandemic. At present things could go both ways, and the outcome would depend on all of us taking action.

Plenty of excellent examples worldwide to draw upon

Evidently, enormous shifts are required globally and particularly in the global north, at every level. The good news is that there are many inspiring projects and organisations seeking to make the changes we need, such as those working on agroecology and peasant farming organisations, e.g.: La Via Campesina (The Peasant’s Way). These should be central to making policy for food systems that deliver nutritious food for all, do not destroy ecosystems, are rich in biodiversity and help address climate change. To make these changes will be challenging, but full of exciting new opportunities.

If we are prepared to embark on this journey and make the profound changes required, there is still a slim possibility that we may be able to save enough biodiversity including agrobiodiversity, prevent the worst impacts of climate change, sustain and build livelihoods around food, and feed ourselves in ways that can be maintained into the future, for the wellbeing of humanity and the planet as a whole. However, in order to have any hope at all of doing this, we must act now.

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Helena Paul is co-director of EcoNexus. She has worked on land rights, forests, oil exploitation in the tropics, biodiversity including agricultural biodiversity; impacts of industrial agriculture; bioenergy, patents on life, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, geoengineering, food sovereignty and corporate power.  

This article has sparked a lot of interest, including from a prominent Chicago based Radio Program “This is Hell” hosted by the well known Radio personality, Chuck Mertz on WNUR Chicago. Here’s the link:

https://thisishell.com/episodes/1227


[i] https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/remittances-yemen-plummet-needs-surge-amid-war-and-coronavirus

[ii] https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/12000-people-day-could-die-covid-19-linked-hunger-end-year-potentially-more-disease

[iii]Agro-imperialism in the time of Covid-19:https://grain.org/e/6502

[iv] https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/07/1013872

[v] https://hoffmanncentre.chathamhouse.org/article/the-global-food-value-chain-a-snapshot/

[vi] https://www.who.int/zoonoses/diseases/en/

[vii] https://wtf.tw/ref/meadows.pdf 

[viii] very large sets of information that when analysed with computers can reveal patterns, trends, and associations, eg in human behaviour and interactions.

[ix] Digital records of transactions held in a decentralized, anonymised manner inaccessible to outsiders.

[x] https://inthesetimes.com/rural-america/entry/20611/agribusiness-mega-mergers-corporate-consolidation-sustainable-food-systems

[xi] https://ipbes.net/news/global-assessment-summary-policymakers-final-version-now-available

[xii]https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org/webinars:08;

[xiii] The impact of the Green Revolution on indigenous crops of India; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s42779-019-0011-9

[xiv] http://www.ddshyd.com/

[xv] https://ipbes.net/news/global-assessment-summary-policymakers-final-version-now-available

[xvi] eg: https://works.swarthmore.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1049&context=fac-linguistics

[xvii] https://www.gaiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Celebrating-African-Rural-Women.pdf

[xviii] For example: Are_women_reservoirs_of_traditional_plant knowledge? Gender, ethnobotany and globalization in northeast Brazil https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9493.2006.00273.x ; Traditional knowledge on medicinal plants among rural women of the Garhwal Himalaya, Uttaranchal http://nopr.niscair.res.in/handle/123456789/8516  

[xix] https://ipbes.net/news/global-assessment-summary-policymakers-final-version-now-available

[xx] https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-08-14/five-indigenous-farming-practices-enhancing-food-security/; https://www.agroecologynow.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/EPW-Agroecology-Michel_P_Pimbert2.pdf

[xxi] https://www.pan-uk.org/agroecology-threatens-the-existence-of-a-toxic-pesticide-industry/

[xxii] https://www.agroecologynow.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/EPW-Agroecology-Michel_P_Pimbert2.pdf

[xxiii] https://www.fcconline.org/the-importance-of-family-mealtime/

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