Dear Friends and Colleagues
Agroecology Shows Full Potential to Deliver Sustainable Food Systems
Alarming rates of food insecurity and malnutrition persistalongside the growing crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. Food systems are at a critical juncture and a dramatic transition to agroecology is urgently needed. Agroecology’s profile in the national and international arena, and amongst researchers, farmers, and movements, is growing.
A recent paper summarizes the results of impact studies about agroecological interventions in semiarid regions in three countries – Brazil, Senegal and India.These provide strong evidence that agroecology can help increase farmers’ economic viability and income, farm productivity and diversity, food and nutritional security, and promote social change and women’s empowerment. This evidence shows the potential of agroecology as a pathway towards more sustainable agriculture and food systemsand a viable way to achieve the main objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To fully realize its potential, it is important for concerned actors, practitioners, and civil society to advocate for agroecology’s full gender-sensitive, political, ecological, pro-small-scale food producer and pro-poor orientation, alongside food sovereignty and food justice. The study provides political recommendations which embody processes to generate and maintain shared values of equality, solidarity and justice as guiding principles for the participatory development of innovations and as part of effective, agroecology-led rural development. To make these interventions more effective, governments and development agencies should substantially increase support for agroecological interventions and shift funds away from “conventional” approaches that are disempowering, synthetic input-intensive, and harmful to the environment.
To continue to realize agroecology’s potential, it will be important to promote and scale-up on- going deliberative, inclusive, cross-sector policy dialogues; promote and secure sociopolitical equality across gender and marginalized groups; enable local institutions for horizontal learning and sharing; recognize and encourage diversified economies; increase participatory approaches for generating and maintaining crop and animal diversity; recognize women’s connections to improved nutrition, diversity, and diets; increase support for agroforestry in particular; and improve rural access to water, water quality, and other elements of basic infrastructure.
We reproduce below the Key Findings, Executive Summary and Political Recommendations of the paper.
With best wishes
AGROECOLOGY AS A PATHWAY TOWARDS SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
Jahi Chappell and Annelie Bernhart et al.
Practically, this has already been demonstrated in previous research with MISEREOR-supported partners in Uganda and the Philippines (see pp.22-25), where agroecological processes have helped farmers increase incomes, resilience, diversity, autonomy, gender empowerment and food sovereignty. Continuing and amplifying this line of work based on partnerships with local NGOs and networks to build capacity and provide a voice for small-scale farmers, this report compiles studies of work on transformative agroecology and rural development in India, Brazil, and Senegal.
To make these interventions more effective, governments and development agencies should substantially increase support for agroecological interventions and shift funds away from “conventional” approaches that are disempowering, synthetic input-intensive, and harmful to the environment.
This report summarizes the results of impact studies about agroecological interventions in semiarid regions in three countries, namely, Pernambuco state in Brazil, Fatick district in Senegal, and Osmanabad district in India. The work was carried out by partner organizations funded and supported by MISEREOR. The results provide strong evidence of the impact and potential of agroecology as a pathway towards more sustainable agriculture and food systems. In line with other contemporary studies, academic literature, and international demands for agroecology, it supports calls for substantially increased support for diversified, agroecological farming and food systems. Agroecology enhances the livelihoods of local communities, including improved economic viability and income, food and nutrition security, and socio- political empowerment, while generating more stable and sufficient yields.
The radical shifts required will entail changing attitudes around conventional rural development approaches in order to promote diversified practices and apply a framework of participation, inclusion, and social, economic and environmental justice. The results in this report present the main strengths of the various initiatives carried out by partners with smallholder family farmers in each region. It concludes with recommendations around the continued and future support needed to secure and expand successful agroecological interventions, grounded in a transformative vision of agroecology that will allow a scaling-out of farming and food systems that put people and nature before profit.
This report takes place in the context of the recognition that food systems are at a critical juncture and a dramatic transition to agroecology is urgently needed.The motivation for this study and publication originates from many conversations and a growing realization of the need for agroecology among academics, civil society, NGOs and international organisations who advocate for a different, more sustainable and just food future. Alarming rates of food insecurity and malnutrition persist, manifested as undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies (“hidden hunger”) and “overnutrition” (overweight and obesity), alongside the growing crises of biodiversity loss and climate change, and concomitant increased risks of disasters, ecosystem collapse, and extreme weather events. These challenges reflect biophysical processes that have emerged from short-term decision-making, power imbalances, and excessive coporate control over seed, fertilizer and food systems, generating lock-in effects and exacerbating problems of democratic accountability and participation in policy, research and development.1
Although the possibilities for changes to democratic processes and policymaking are often hard to envision, particularly as abuse of corporate power and lack of responsive governance continue, social movements around the world continue to organize to demand a different path. Along with researchers, funders, and other allies, they are providing evidence that alternatives are possible and much needed. Civil society participation in intergovernmental processes opens additional doors, raising hope for effective lobbying towards agroecology in the future.
In the work examined in this study, cases of agroecological interventions are presented from three countries, based on work supported by MISEREOR and led by local partner NGOs and farmers. The challenges faced in the cases in India, Brazil and Senegal are brought together by parallel histories of support disproportionately flowing towards cash-crop, export-focused agriculture, while local production, diversity and traditional foodways were passed over or neglected. Current national policies and development funding are largely unfavourable to food systems based on small-scale farming and are much less forthcoming with the kind of additional support needed in difficult environments, such as the semiarid regions in which each of the cases are located. In India, the public procurement systems (PDS) makes little use of locally produced foods, favoring instead wheat and rice from surplus-producing areas in India and processed ingredients. In Senegal, significant subsidies for chemical and industrial inputs corresponded with large-scale rollbacks of state support, leaving small-scale farmers highly vulnerable. And in Brazil, a history of deep inequalities in land and wealth and little support for small-scale producers or rural workers has begun to be addressed over the decades since the end of the Brazilian dictatorship in 1985. However, there is still a long way to go for a predominately agroecological system to be realized, that generates sustainable livelihoods for the majority of small-scale farmers. Recent political events in Brazil have only moved developments further from this ideal, despite previous advancements.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has held a series of recent international symposiums and workshops on agroecology.This and the number of reports by entities like International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, the current and former Special Rapporteurs for the Right to Food, and the second Nyéléni Forum, to mention a few, are making it feel as though agroecology is everywhere. Of course, this poses opportunities for “scaling-up” and “scaling-out” agroecology, and gives rise to threats in terms of co-optation and dilution of the term. It is therefore all the more important for concerned actors, practitioners, and civil society to maintain pressure and support for agroecology’s full gender-sensitive, political, ecological, pro-small-scale food producer and pro-poor orientation, alongside food sovereignty and food justice, so that its full potential can be realized.
MISEREOR’s principles which guide its research and development interventions are therefore aligned with a transformative approach to agroecology.MISEREOR works closely with community-based organizations and researchers who share a vision for action and fundamental shifts to support a sustainable and just food future. MISEREOR and its partner organizations throughout the world strive towards agriculture and food systems that promote agricultural biodiversity and ecological production methods; protect farmers’ rights over seed, land and other resources; and recognise the values of local knowledge, solidarity and diversity, from the levels of production, to markets, and consumption. MISEREOR has contributed to amplifying the voices of peasants, women farmers, indigenous communities and other marginalized groups, through partnering with movements demanding changes from top-down approaches towards those that include all voices in democratized and food-sovereign systems.
In practical terms, this can be seen in MISEREOR’s previous work with partners around the world. But it has been made especially apparent in Uganda and the Philip- pines through extensive research in those cases, in which agroecological processes have helped farmers increase incomes, resilience, diversity, autonomy, gender empowerment and food sovereignty. Continuing and amplifying this line of work based on partnerships and support for local NGOs and networks to build capacity and provide a voice for small-scale farmers, this report compiles three studies of work on transformative agroecology and rural development in India, Brazil, and Senegal.
The three studies provide further evidence that agroecology can help increase farmers’ economic viability and income, farm productivity and diversity, food and nutritional security, and promote social change and women’s empowerment. Farmers in all three case studies showed significant gains in income, specifically greater income from agricultural sales, value of home consumption, and net income. Median income from agricultural sales for agroecological farmers was 79 % higher compared to a “reference group” of farmers in India, 177-284 % higher in Brazil, and 36 % higher in Senegal. In terms of cash equivalents for consumption based on self-supply, agroecological farmers showed an advantage of 67 % in India, 61-74 % in Brazil, and 14 % in Senegal. Importantly, the agroecological interventions were shown to be particularly pro-poor: while cash income from the sale of agricultural products was higher for all agroecological farmers, it in fact rose most sharply amongst the poorest farmers, with the poorest 10% of farmers in Brazil and Senegal increasing their income by US$65650, compared to zero annual sales for reference group farmers. In India, income for agroecological farmers was nearly 500 % higher than the reference group, at ~US$430 per year.
Similarly, increases in livestock and crop productivity and diversity were reported for agroecological farmers in all three countries. Reports of increased productivity for agroecological farmers’ primary crops ranged from 17 % higher than in the reference peer group in Senegal, 32 % higher in India, and 26 % and 49 % higher in the two studied areas within Brazil’s Pernambuco state. Agro-ecological farmers in India produced nearly twice as much food from less-commonly cultivated crops (21,866 kg compared to 11,614 kg) over an area only 20 % larger than reference group farmers (who also grew fewer types of crops). In Senegal, 75% of agroecological farmers were found to have taken up one additional variety, 17% took up two new varieties, and 8 % took up three new varieties of the vitally important crops of cowpea and millet. And in Brazil, agroecological households produced 119 to 133 distinct types of goods, while reference farms produced 105 to 119 distinct types. Livestock-keeping and production also (mostly) increased amongst agroecological farmers in Brazil and India. In Senegal, however, ownership of most kinds of livestock has declined across all types of farms, likely due to high mortality levels owing to insufficient prophylaxis, the reduction of pasture, and insufficient access to appropriate water sources; the decline appears to have been slightly lower on reference farms.
With regards to food security, besides the higher levels of income and self-supply amongst agroecological farmers, qualitative and quantitative data indicate improvements in both the amount and diversity of food consumed in most cases. Focus groups in Brazil generated unanimous feedback that beginning to work with agroecology was a major factor in improving their diets, particularly in terms of increasing variety and consumption of fruits and vegetables, and decreasing health problems. Indian agroecological farmers similarly reported notable increases in the diversity of food groups grown, and improvements in dietary sufficiency for cereals and millets, pulses and non-vegetable foods, and vegetables compared to reference farms. In Senegal, differences between households in these types of measures were minor; the proportion of agroecological households reporting self-sufficiency in millet, rice, and groundnuts was less than 5 % higher than the reference group in each case.
There was also evidence across the cases of greater participation and capacity-building, particularly for women farmers in agroecological households. In India, women in the agroecological households had higher levels of membership in various pertinent organizations, and amongst women who were trained in group leadership, 25 % went on to take up roles as leaders, and 22 % as agroecological trainers. In Brazil, women on agroecological farms participated more in structured organizations (municipal council, cooperatives, fairs, and nonprofits and political parties in particular) and showed higher utilization of public support policies to which they were entitled, such as government purchase programs and income transfer programs. In Senegal, potentially promising trends included the fact that over half of agroecological households received training and information on gender inequality and marginalization, and about the adoption of a national law for gender equality – important work, given that even basic awareness of women’s formal legal rights can be lacking in Senegal’s rural areas. Additionally, women-headed households in the Senegalese agroecological group saw a median 28 % improvement in income (compared a median 12.6 % improvement for men).
Thus, while limitations and on-going challenges must be acknowledged, the cases of work by MISEREOR’s partners and agroecological farmers present compelling evidence that agroecology can compose a solid backbone for transformative and just rural development. From these studies, much can be learned in order to build on current successes and expand the scope of agroecology’s ability to help family farmers in precarious regions, such as in the world’s semiarid regions. Agroecology’s transformative nature and potential to build sustainable, dignified and resilient farmer livelihoods should be embraced. With deliberation and on-going participation from communities in each of the three regions and beyond, the possibilities for continued improvement of the lives and livelihoods of the farmers in India, Brazil and Senegal, and the 1.5 billion other smallholder farmers in the Global South, are immense.
MISEREOR’s studies in the three countries have shown that pro-poor benefits arise not from technological “quick fixes” or silver-bullet solutions, but from an orientation towards changing the processes, capacity, organization, support and practices for farmers and the sociopolitical contexts around them. Based on these experiences, political recommendations stemming from both an ecological understanding of sustainable agriculture (diversification of crops, trees, animals, healthy soils) as well as a socio-political understanding (valuing and supporting women’s and men’s contributions, cultural flourishing, land access, and justice) are proposed. Rather than simply assuming that the latter will automatically be derived from diversifying ecological inputs or other practice changes; or simply by replacing chemically-intensive approaches with agroecological alternatives, these Political Recommendations embody processes to generate and maintain shared values of equality, solidarity and justice as guiding principles for the participatory development of innovations and as part of effective, agroecology-led rural development. We also note that many of them echo FAO (2013)’s Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems.
Governments and other development funders should invest in agroecology for rural development, food security, and sustainability
1.1 The results reviewed in this study make it clear that agroecology offers unique opportunities for holistic, pro-poor development that can lead to increased income, empowerment, diversity, and food security in rural areas. The semiarid setting of these studies reinforces agroecology’s applicability across countries and in challenging environments.
1.2 Agroecology has the potential to be less cost-intensive than conventional, external input-focused agricultural approaches, providing more benefits to society and the farmers themselves at lower cost.
1.3 Agroecology can help address all three elements of the current malnutrition crisis: undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity and overweight, in part through its amplification of dietary diversity and increased ability to avoid processed foods through self-provisioning. Self-provisioning also serves as a buffer (increases resiliency) against economic and environmental variation.
1.4 Appropriate policies should be significantly and specifically directed at helping small- and medium-scale farmers survive and thrive, as these farmers produce most of the world’s food, and can support thriving rural economies without becoming large, export-oriented mega-operations.
Governments should increase provisions for developing and maintaining rural infrastructure, particularly sustainable access to safe, clean water, which will have significant positive “knock-on” effects for agricultural incomes, food security, health, and rural development.
2.1 Water is a crucial resource in semiarid areas, which need special attention from governments and other funders. Work and support for appropriate irrigation systems and water access in general must be expanded, with the provision of more funds, knowledge support and expertise, and attention to local needs and constraints. Where issues like salt infiltration threaten water quality and agriculture, policy and financial support will be necessary for true progress in rural development to occur.
2.2 In addition to providing financial and socio-cultural resources, a holistic approach to water access, including its status as a basic human right, should be emphasized. Water access, sanitation, food and nutrition security, and gender empowerment are often correlated, and advancements in one area can be strengthened, or undermined, based on the level of support for the others.
2.3 Decentralized infrastructure for safe water storage and water-saving can be particularly effective and important in semiarid regions, allowing improved resilience and well-being during dry seasons and droughts. “Living with” (convivência) semiarid environments can be a more effective approach than “battling” drought.
2.4 Other basic infrastructure investments, like fencing to protect agroforestry and control livestock, as well as tools and equipment which facilitate farm work, processing and marketing, are also occasionally lacking, yet have tremendous potential to improve the success of agroecological measures and improve livelihoods.
Governments and funders should create and strengthen empowered, participatory, on-going policy spaces, where input and participation from civil society (such as farmers) directly influences policy decisions and budget allocations
3.1 The positive study results from Brazil demonstrate the importance of promotive public policies which create an enabling environment for agroecological initiatives. Therefore, new governance frameworks should be built up where participatory and cross sector policy dialogues can take place and effective public policies are developed, implemented and monitored in a participatory manner. An example for how such governance frameworks could function are the Food and Nutrition Security Councils (CONSEA) Brazil pioneered over the past three decades. Creating new protected political spaces for civil society participation and strengthening existing ones is particularly important in a time of shrinking participatory spaces.
3.2 In addition to the development of new governance frameworks it is also important to support the capacities of local communities, grassroots organizations and social movements to get organized at all scales (local to international), develop consolidated proposals to national and local governments, international bodies and development agencies, governmental and non-governmental funders and make public demands for inclusive, transformative rural development and an agroecological transition in the spirit of food sovereignty. Examples and information to build on include Baiocchi and Ganuza (2014); Carlson and Chappell (2015); Fung and Wright (2003); and Pimbert et al. (2010).
Build alliances between science, NGOs and social movements
4.1. The development of common messages and the combination of scientific/academic research knowledge, farmers’ knowledge and testimony from lived experiences will strengthen the science, movement, and practice of agroecology. Political demands should be drawn up based on bottom-up processes.
4.2 Collaboration between NGOs and social movements (such as the organic movement in India) could be beneficial to strengthen political voice and increase outreach.
Promote equality across gender and marginalized groups
5.1. The work of MISEREOR partners in India, Senegal and Brazil has demonstrated that agroecology and women’s wellbeing is enhanced when they are enabled to be leaders in practice but also in political decision-making. This type of approach should be continued and strengthened amongst all development funders both governmental and non-governmental. Deliberative discussions and events should be promoted on a regular basis, to further consider and develop what support is needed to expand the roles and capacity of both women and men, with particular attention to exploring the attitudes and policies that hamper women’s agency. In India for instance, women may be more supported in their role as nurturers if men were also tend to cultivation of diverse (non-cash) crops. The work of SSP has already shown how men can value what women do. Keeping up with the same approach, diversification could then move from a women’s practice to a community practice, which in turn could lessen the burden on women.
5.2 Mobilizing collective action is a key precondition for successful development work. The entry points of SHGs and farmers’ groups, for example, have proven themselves to be good starting points. It remains to be explored how even the poorest in the villages (the landless, very small-scale landholders, the jobless, etc.) can be better integrated. Furthermore, dialogues and support for collective action will need to accommodate the fact that (for example) the interests of a family with even one or two hectares of land can be quite different from the interests of a landless family. Additional spaces or groups for these very vulnerable people should be created through participatory, deliberative processes. Appropriate processes of this type could help identify the undervalued knowledge and skills of the marginalized and better include them in viable pathways for inclusive and transformational rural development, increasing the pro-poor character of agroecology.
Enable local institutions for agroecological horizontal learning and sharing through public support
6.1 Non-profit and state-led agricultural extension services must be reinvigorated, properly funded, and work in synergy with horizontal knowledge-sharing and informal training and learning. The work of MISEREOR’s partners has been successful because they operated on the principles of co-learning and co-design of practices. Problem statements and visions were proposed at the grassroots level and technical assistance followed local demands. This approach should be extended into other agricultural extension programs to transform current top-down extension services. Awareness of agroecology could be raised by including it in school curricula.
Encourage diversified and inclusive economies
7.1 It is a simple fact that farmers’ livelihoods depend on both off-farm and on-farm income. The studies here have shown how participatory capacity building in production, marketing and processing is important and may contribute to both. The study results also showed that agroecology can be labor-intensive, as well as economically beneficial, and therefore has the potential to create positive employment opportunities in rural areas. But underlying requirements for continued progress include labor conditions that are fair in terms of reward and social conditions; and have increased recognition and valuation of self-supply of food in development policy. Farmers must be able to secure appropriate and sufficient prices for their production, allowing them room to operate and engage in larger social change and cultural activities. Diversified production and self-supply can also increase their resilience, providing food security even in the face of market and environmental fluctuations. Together, these factors can make off-farm income a valuable contribution while decreasing its centrality to survival. At the same time, landlessness is a key factor for reluctance or inability to engage in agriculture. Therefore, policies should address the historical root causes of landlessness as well as the current challenges of land-grabbing and accordingly engage in appropriately pro-poor agrarian reform and redistribution.
7.2 A variety of markets for agricultural producers should be supported, including local and regional markets, as well as links to public procurement systems and markets where agroecological farmers can receive premiums for their products. Sustainable inclusive economies will require the dismantling of existing policy barriers and implementation of appropriate supports – for example, most agencies and governments provide close to zero support for community-driven innovation for small-scale farming and circular economies. Yet the positive results seen in Brazil, and their connection to Brazil’s national policies, show the high value and viability of doing so.
7.3 Import policies should protect local farmers against cheap imports that disrupt local markets and discourage local production. The kind of improvements in economic viability, food security, resilience and sustainability seen in the studied cases is not well-served by a prioritization of international markets or commodity crops. And the negative effects of cheap imports, particularly those that are “dumped” on international markets at prices below the cost of production, are visible and well-documented (e.g., in the case of rice imports in Senegal, or the presence of cheap milk powder across many parts of Africa).
Promote participatory breeding and maintenance of crop and animal diversity
8.1 Diversity (particularly at varietal level) continues to be a largely untapped potential in agriculture. Enhanced varietal diversity can contribute to pest and disease mitigation, nutrition, resilience and adaptation to drought. Where women, youth, or other marginalized groups continue to show particular interest in or knowledge of diversification of crops, development programs can respond to these motivations as a starting point. They can further encourage farmers to manage and maintain diversity, starting from documentation, through to saving and participatory breeding in farmer field schools, and building capacity for South-South exchanges. Seed diversity sourced through informal networks should be better documented, understood, and supported in cooperation with the worlds’ many small-scale farmers preferentially over the promotion of external hybrid varieties.
8.2 Animal diversity is important culturally, socioeconomically, and for enhancing soil quality. Starting from small animals such as goats and chicken, and slowly progressing to larger animals can yield benefits both in terms of economic assets, food, and building up proper manuring practices to enhance fertility. Here too, participatory documentation and participatory action research that values and seeks to understand and support local breeds is an important process to allow equal access, benefits and sharing across different groups.
Encourage diversified diets for improved nutrition
9.1 The well-established role of women in improving nutrition has been confirmed in the case studies here. Diversification in production systems and diets should be strengthened through inclusive interventions that support women’s voices, knowledge, and agency. Further, improved nutrition and diets can be linked to agroecological markets and related niches, including food fairs, regional markets, community-to-community cooking workshops and collaboration with restaurants. It will also be important to encourage diverse diets and nutritional knowledge in both rural and urban spaces to enable equal appreciation and access to such foods, and avoid phenomena such as “elite superfoods” and dietary “fads” that are trendy but inaccessible and not truly grounded in new or old traditions, knowledge, and practice.
Promote agroforestry and green manure
10.1 Agroforestry and generally increasing the presence of trees in agricultural systems is an effective climate change adaptation measure. Particular priority should be placed on fruit trees, fodder and leguminous (“green manure”) trees. Training should include highlighted information on the proper pruning of trees to maximise their benefits, as farmers often fear shade competition. Community collaboration on fodder and green manure planting should be piloted.
10.2 The promotion of agroecological methods to manage fertility has contributed significantly to the improvements of soils, and helped towards more stable and increased yields. Development efforts should focus on methods such as green manuring, which can minimize the need for external inputs (organic or conventional) and reduce run-off. Leguminous crops can be used in versatile ways and generate multiple benefits besides fertility (pest control, fodder, etc.).
10.3 In many cases, strategies for soil fertility for farmers without their own livestock is required. In addition to green manure, such strategies could include further expanding agroforestry, and purchasing organic manure from other farmers. The best approach will vary contextually, but a large number of under-utilized possibilities lack significant support for research and application.