IUCN Congress dispatch: A paradigm shift for the food system

In the face of climate change, biodiversity loss, and growing global food insecurity, conservationists, farmers, and policymakers called for a “paradigm shift” in global food production at the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Tuesday.

To get there, they urged the expansion of agroecology as a way to build a food system that can help protect and restore the environment while feeding the world.

“We believe agroecology offers the way to support healthy diets and provide sustainable and just food systems to meet the needs of a growing planet — without sacrificing the planet,” said Doreen Robinson, head of biodiversity land management at the UN Environment Programme, speaking at the congress, which runs through Saturday in Marseille, France. As policymakers gear up for a series of high-level international environmental and biodiversity summits over the coming year, Robinson said, agroecology and food system change must be central to these discussions.

Agroecology — a set of practices that takes an ecological approach to farming, emphasizing soil health, plant and landscape diversity, and limited reliance on synthetic inputs — is already well underway across the world, said Julien Denormandie, France’s minister of agriculture and food. France spent hundreds of thousands of euros of its post-Covid-19 recovery fund helping farmers adopt agroecological practices and sustainably grow more soy to decrease the country’s reliance on Brazilian soy, which is linked to deforestation in the Amazon. “This is not just a theoretical notion,” Denormandie said. “It is something that’s being applied in the field.”

One of the best examples of agroecology in action is in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India, where what is perhaps the largest agroecological project in the world is underway. Andhra Pradesh has a population of 54 million people, with 8 million farmers and farmworkers cultivating almost 20 million acres. The state government plans to help farmers transition to natural farming methods (which are comparable to agroecology) by 2030.

The effort started six years ago. So far, 750,000 farmers and farmworkers are taking part, said Vijay Kumar, who leads the project. Its core practices include keeping soil covered with plant matter year round, planting trees, integrating livestock into farming systems, and strictly avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Already, farmers’ costs are down and their incomes are up, Kumar said. Net incomes have risen by between 50 percent and 300 percent for six major crops, he said. Soil is healthier and better able to retain water, and populations of earthworms, beneficial insects, and birds are growing. “Now we see birds’ nests even in cotton and chili fields,” he said.

Natural farming is key to Andhra Pradesh’s broader conservation strategy. If farmers can sustainably increase their yields, it will free up land for reforestation and rewilding.

Moussa Baldé, Senegal’s minister for agriculture and rural infrastructure, reminded the audience that in some parts of the world, it may be more accurate to speak of “reverting” to agroecology rather than “transitioning” to it. In Senegal, many farmers have retained traditional practices like fertilizing fields with manure, leaving parcels fallow, and avoiding chemical inputs, he said. “I don’t think it is a huge transition, because we never moved that far away from agroecology.”

Sara Singla, a grain grower and agronomist in southern France, said farmers are increasingly turning to agroecology not because of top-down directives but because they see the advantages in the field. “You can earn more while spending less,” she said. “It’s a virtuous cycle.”

The industrialization of farming has stripped away a great deal of agronomic knowledge, Singla said, turning farmers into what one panelist called “tractor drivers” who follow a prescribed schedule of planting and applying chemicals. Agroecology, in contrast, depends on problem-solving and engagement with the land. Many farmers working within the industrial model no longer find meaning in their work, Singla said. “There’s the sense, with agroecology, that that meaning is being regained.”