Agroecology & Justice in Food Systems Are Critical to Empower People to Feed Themselves

"We need to feed 9 billion people" is a common mantra in the media and among many food and agriculture analysts in industrial countries. But this framing, based on projections of aggregate food production, population growth, and consumption trends, oversimplifies the problem and almost inevitably leads to a singular focus on technology-driven solutions.

Lost in the chaff are lessons of history, in which standardized technology-intensive approaches to industrial agriculture have seldom alleviated hunger for those in need. On the contrary, they have caused many adverse ecological and social impacts -- from climate change, biodiversity loss, and negative health effects to loss of land and livelihood for family farmers. A narrow focus on intensifying current agricultural-production patterns, along with rampant globalization of food markets, has ironically, and unfortunately, not solved the so-called "world food problem."

In fact, there is more than enough food produced today at a world aggregate level to meet per capita needs. The primary problem is that a focus on yield alone does not translate neatly into fulfilling the needs of hungry people -- as attested by the fact that nearly one out of six people on the planet suffer from under- and malnutrition. Poverty and socio-economic disparities, not deficient production, prevent nutritious food from reaching all people.

Developing alternatives to predominant systems takes time. The encouraging news is that progress is underway. Around the world, communities are developing effective solutions to global food challenges, experimenting with new farming methods, food marketing, and policies that enable people and societies to feed themselves. They are also working to overcome structural injustices that impede access to food.

Much of this promising activity falls under an umbrella called "agroecology" -- a science that provides ecological principles for the design and management of sustainable food systems. At the farm level, agroecology means developing and using economically viable practices that work with nature rather than against it. This means using practices -- such as cover cropping -- that enhance biodiversity, recycle nutrients, build healthy soils, and help adapt production to local resource conditions. It offers a systems approach to maximize interactions among crops, animals, soils, insects, and microorganisms. Agroecology offers several proven advantages: affordable ways for producers to intensify production while reducing chemical and fossil-fuel inputs; relying more on knowledge and labor as opposed to large capital investments; and ecological benefits for water, soil, natural pest control, and the climate.

In spite of these proven benefits, the question often surfaces: can agroecology feed the coming 9 billion people? Recognizing that production is no proxy for food security, substantial yield gains and livelihood benefits have been proven through agro-ecological methods. These results from agroecological practices have been documented and reported, in hundreds of cases in Latin America, Africa, the U.S., and beyond; and they were recently featured at an international conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (Agroecology was also a central theme of another international summit on the "Future of Food" convened among major foundations in mid-May of this year in Milan, Italy.)

Farmers around the world, particularly in the developing world, have recognized the advantages of agroecology. For example, millions of farmers represented by the international coalition La Vía Campesina are applying agroecology successfully, and are advocating for the rights and needs of peasants and other rural peoples. Urban growers are increasingly a part of this spirited movement.

Policy and politics are vital, too. Policy makers, research institutions, and companies that are influential in the global-food system have a choice to make: they can facilitate the wider uptake of agroecological principles and practices, or thwart this progress by resorting to chemically-intensive, monoculture agriculture. Some countries, including Brazil and Ecuador, have enacted policies to support agroecology, and these offer important lessons for other governments. More research is also needed to demonstrate the impacts of agroecological practices, to develop and adapt them for varying conditions, and to promote their adoption.

Finally, while building up the necessary systems, actions are needed simultaneously to break down barriers to change. The concentration of market power among large agricultural and food companies must be countered, by enforcing antitrust laws, and by restricting corporations from moving production freely to other countries where they avoid tax, labor, and environmental regulations. Equitable access to land, water, and seed must be provided and prioritized. Such changes are possible, and they are taking root in farming landscapes and in promising experiments from California to Peru. Agroecology and justice in food systems are critical to empower people to feed themselves.

Lori Ann Thrupp, PhD is Executive Director of the Berkeley Food Institute, University of California (UC) Berkeley. Also contributing to this piece were Maywa Montenegro and Alastair Iles. Montenegro is a Fellow of the Berkeley Food Institute, UC Berkeley. Iles is Professor of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, and Faculty Co-Director of the Berkeley Food Institute, and UC Berkeley.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the EAT Initiative, in conjunction with the latter's 2nd annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum (Stockholm, June 1-2, 2015). The EAT Stockholm Food Forum aims to convene thought leaders at the intersection of science, business and politics, to develop integrated strategies and synergic solutions toward a healthier and more sustainable global food system. For more information about EAT Stockholm Food Forum, read here.