In February, at the International Forum for Agroecology in Nyeleni, Mali, a turning point came in the dissemination of ideas and practices of what is called ‘agroecology’. Agroecology is a holistic approach to farming and food production that could shape how we feed the world in the 21st century. It offers, at last, a means through which sustainable food sovereignty can be achieved across the globe.

The conference followed last year’s International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition, organised in Rome by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN). It further built on the momentum created by the 2014 International Year of Family Farming, another UN initiative. Both of these events made important contributions to the thinking around agroecology but, as Patrick Mulvany of the UK Food Group said, further discussion was still needed. He felt that:

“The outcomes were not clearly articulated in favour of a locally-controlled, ecological and biodiverse model of production and harvesting that is more nutritious and better for the planet, especially as a response to climate change. Nor were key issues on territory, gender equity and the role of consumers fully considered. It was also felt to be the right time to recapture the term ‘agroecology’ as an essential component of food sovereignty, preventing its co-optation by the industrial agribusiness lobby.”

As Mulvany infers, agroecology goes far beyond the dichotomy of organic versus non-organic methods of farming. Its holistic approach puts ecology at the centre of the food system. For Alfonso Schneider of the Small Farmers Movement of Brazil (MPA), “Agroecology is not merely a set of techniques or agricultural practices, nor a science. It incorporates political, social, economic and cultural dimensions.” 

Agroecology builds soil fertility using compost or manure. It uses traditional family farming techniques such as intercropping, arboriculture and seed saving, and minimises the use of external inputs. It fosters biodiversity and supports ecosystem health. Socially and economically, it aims to support a fair wage for the producer, provide access to affordable, local produce for communities and encourages a sense of place through cultural traditions. Politically, agroecology aims to ensure that the production of food is supported and safeguarded at all policy levels, and that the voices of producers and consumers are heard.

In order to prevent its co-optation, a diverse mix of pastoralists, peasants, fisher folk, indigenous leaders and young people came to Mali to make sure that agroecology was defined clearly but also more broadly. As Peter Rosset of La Via Campesina said, it is a “genuine alternative to industrial agriculture and not a way to make industrial agriculture more sustainable”. I was at the conference representing Urgenci, the global network of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Agroecology forumThe task of those attending the February conference was to draw up a declaration of shared values. The range of experiences represented by such a diverse group made for fertile discussions. Sipping tea made by a Uruguayan alongside an activist from Ghana while listening to a speech by an Iranian, I was excited to see that people from every corner of the world could see the potential for this new approach. The declaration provides clarity of intent and truly defines the meaning of agroecology by and for the small-scale producers who grow 70% of the world’s food.

The conference, organised by the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) and hosted by the Confédération Nationale des Organisations Paysannes (CNOP), was a powerful opportunity to show how agroecology can help realise the six pillars of food sovereignty outlined by the IPC in the same village of Nyeleni, back in 2007.

A representative of ROPPA (Network of Farmers’ and Agricultural Producers’ Organisations of West Africa) set the tone for the conference in his opening speech: “People are struggling every day, all over the world, but we must not struggle alone, we must work together.” One farmer’s voice is inconsequential in the face of the interests of financial profit, but together we can be heard.

The declaration drafted at the conference emphasises the political aspect of agroecology and the need for the grassroots to unite to be sure of effective representation. It states:

“Agroecology is political; it requires us to challenge and transform structures of power in society. We need to put the control of seeds, biodiversity, land and territories, waters, knowledge, culture and the commons in the hands of the people who feed the world.”

One delegate spoke about how our feelings are as important as the techniques we use in agroecology: “Without feeling,” he said, “I cannot be a farmer.” We feel connected to the natural environment in a spiritual way – not one quantifiable by financial returns. Agroecology is not just a technique or a system, it’s a way of living that gives people a strong cultural connection to the land.

The FAO was a key supporter of the February conference, and this new declaration defining agroecology more clearly has the power to influence FAO recommendations for the future of food production. With the UN following suit, we hope that nation states will, in turn, begin to look to agroecology to achieve genuine food security.

However, co-optation is a continuing threat, diluting the power of agroecology’s ethos. The French government, for instance, has created a central role for agroecology through the 2014 Loi d’Avenir (law for the future of agriculture, food and the forest). This is ostensibly driven by agroecological principles, but in its essence, it does not uphold the expanded definition of agroecology. Reducing the use of pesticides and antibiotics, and encouraging organic farming and the use of agroforestry, are steps in the right direction but they do not, on their own, represent the holistic approach mapped out in the new declaration.

Peter Crosskey has commented in the Sustainable Food Trust’s coverage of the Loi d’Avenir, that:

“The members of the small-scale farmer’s union, Confédération paysanne (Conf’), constantly accused Stéphane Le Foll of using new catchphrases to embellish an old system – for example, exhorting farmers to ‘Produisons autrement’ (produce differently) but allowing the same industrial production alongside.”

The declaration was borne out of sentiments such as these, showing the will of people across the planet to work in ways that are healthy for us and the ecosystems on which we depend. The document weaves together many strands. It emphasises the importance of women as primary food producers, and the rights of indigenous peoples to access their traditional territories. The declaration also recognises our dependence on the health of ecosystems so that species extinction can be slowed and climate change halted.

In order to maintain and develop agroecological production, practical face-to-face exchanges and training between producers is essential. Engagement between producers and consumers, also, needs to be prioritised and traditional markets have a key role in this. The market is, again, the ‘agora’ – a place to come and buy staples from the producers we know and trust, but also the place we come for community exchange and cultural sustenance.

Out of these strong local networks, grassroots producers and consumers can make sure they are also represented in local policy-making decisions. Once these local networks work together they can link into national and international networks to ensure they are represented at higher levels of policy making too. This is well demonstrated through the West African networks of CNOP, which are members of ROPPA, which in turn works with Via Campesina, which is represented on the IPC.

Perhaps most significantly, the declaration,

“recognise[s] that as humans we are but a part of nature and the cosmos. We share a spiritual connection with our lands and with the web of life. We love our lands and our peoples, and without that, we cannot defend our agroecology, fight for our rights, or feed the world. We reject the commodification of all forms of life.”

This declaration can lead us into a happier, more harmonious future, and towards viable food sovereignty. People deserve to be able to live with dignity, pursuing time-honoured practices that nurture the planet as well as their own lives.

To read the full declaration please click here.

Photographs: Ali Jafri and Rupert Dunn

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  • John Leahy

    Upon reading interesting article, I thought a mention has to be made for Professor Miguel Altieri, for many years a leading advocate of Agroecology in Latin America. He and others have supported sustainable agriculture in the ever presence of Big Agra (Industrial Agriculture). Professor Altieri & Dr Clara Nicholls will be visiting your country from 27 April 2015:

    https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/courses/short-courses/agroecology:-food-for-the-future

    • Rupert Dunn

      Thanks John, thats good to know