The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is an intergovernmental organisation with three main goals: to eradicate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; to eliminate poverty; and to sustainably manage natural resources, including land, water, air, and genetic resources for agricultural production for the present and future generations.

FAO’s mandate is defined by its 194 member states and the EU, which are responsible for the governance of the organisation. It also partners with civil society, including farmers’ organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), foundations and the private sector.

Under the FAO’s new strategic objectives developed in 2014, a distinct position has been taken with respect to agricultural production. The FAO recognises that production systems generate not just goods (such as food crops, meat, fish and timber) but also multiple services: for example, clean water, cultural values and the ecosystem services that regenerate life, including soil fertility, natural pest control and pollination. It is committed to assisting member countries and partners to increase and improve the provision of goods and services from agriculture, forestry and fisheries in a sustainable manner.

This strategic objective within the work of the FAO opens the door more widely to ecological approaches to agriculture. It explicitly recognises that sustainability is as much a goal as production, and the two must be attained together. Ecosystem services – the multitude of benefits that nature provides to society – underpin agricultural production. Understanding the important functions of these services – from maintaining soil health to natural pest control and pollination – is vital. Indeed, FAO is focused on ‘Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture’ as one of its 11 corporate priorities.

What is currently underway with respect to this new focus?

At the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a number of international conventions were agreed that remain at the centre of global concerns for the environment 20 years later. Of these, the Convention on Biological Diversity has been key in generating agreement on the need for sustainable, ecologically sensitive management of land and agriculture. When the Convention was first adopted, it was most strongly focused on protected areas and endangered wildlife; but over time, sustainable use of farmland and agricultural biodiversity have become increasingly important as well. In 2000, the Convention adopted the International Pollinators Initiative, focused on the conservation and sustainable use of pollinators, which is coordinated by the FAO. For the past six years, FAO has coordinated a global project in Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan and South Africa on the conservation and use of pollinators for sustainable agriculture. Within this project, FAO and its partners developed a relatively simple method for detecting when a cropping system is suffering from a loss of crop yield through a lack of pollinators, by comparing cropping systems with optimal pollinator visits to those without a strong pollinator presence.

More recently, the project was supported by the government of Norway to extend this protocol to additional countries: China, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Norway, Argentina and Colombia, and indigenous groups in southern India. The results of this truly global exercise, which was largely led by developing countries, are striking: it has found that small-scale, diverse farming systems can increase their yields by a remarkable amount just by carrying out measures that support and favour pollinators, whether wild bees or managed honey bees. This tremendous yield gain is not a response seen in large-scale intensive agriculture.

In the vast fields of intensive farms, pollinators have more difficulty visiting the crops uniformly and at the rate that is possible in small, diverse farms.

As FAO has worked to identify what measures are favourable for pollinators, it also acknowledges that no farmer manages pollination in isolation. It is important for land managers, farmers and practitioners to focus on whole farming systems that accomplish multiple aims. For example, farming systems that minimise those agricultural chemicals that may be toxic to beneficial insects and build healthy soils through cover cropping, intercropping and policultures, will also be very friendly to pollinators.

In 2014 the FAO, recognising that the principles of agroecology are an important foundation for a transition to more holistic and sustainable food systems, organised the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition in Rome. The Symposium brought together 400 scientists, food producers, policy makers, NGOs and representatives from the private sector. During this event, Director-General José Graziano da Silva announced that the FAO would organise regional meetings on agroecology in Latin America, Africa and Asia in order to develop more specific strategies and policies for different ecologies. This decision arose from discussions at the international symposium, and highlighted that effective work in agroecology must be based on regional and local realities, which reflect different economic, social and environmental conditions. The first of these meetings was held in June 2015 in Brasilia, and the two other meetings will be convened in Dakar, Senegal, in early November, and in Bangkok, Thailand, in late November of this year. The FAO anticipates many strong outcomes for the multiple stakeholders in these regions as they move forward with agroecological approaches in their farming and food production. For example, the Latin American meeting has reinforced the strong connections between family farming and agroecology, and the need for regional institutions to strengthen these links.

Under this new focal area, we have also been engaged with the TEEBAgFood (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food), which is arguably, and hopefully, one of the tools that can promote a true cost accounting for agriculture. A pilot study for the TEEBAgFood initiative on rice production systems found that with agroecological practices, it is often possible to sustain yields while generating ecosystem services such as cleaner water.

With this work the FAO hopes to help reconfigure the way holistic agricultural systems are treated in TEEB and true cost accounting. It will be important to ensure a robust understanding of the different forms of agriculture in the TEEB studies. Right now, around the world, agriculture is often viewed as the problem, not the solution. For example, in the recent Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 report, agriculture is considered the driver for around 70% of the projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity. Equally, agriculture is increasingly perceived as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, estimated at variable ranges, from the official IPCC estimates of 10%–12% of total global anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development assessment of 40%–45% of global totals. Since agriculture contributes a relatively minor share to Global Gross Domestic Product, the sector is therefore identified as being highly greenhouse gas intensive, emitting large shares of pollutants throughout the production to consumption chain that are not commensurate with its economic contribution. This overall analysis, of course, has many problematic aspects, particularly ignoring the strong livelihood dependence of local communities on agriculture and the reality of globally depressed and volatile prices for agricultural goods. Nonetheless, multiple initiatives to mitigate the environmental costs of agriculture and valorize the role of agriculture to support communities to adapt to climate change have emerged from the climate change discussions.

It is certainly true that conventional agriculture has many negative externalities that are not reflected in the price we pay for food, but it is also true that many cropping systems, managed in holistic ways, are capable of generating impressive positive externalities. Rice ecosystems, for example, that do not have heavy external inputs are capable not only of sustaining their own means of soil fertility replenishment (in part through all the biodiverse organisms attracted to water bodies) and natural pest control, but also of supporting diversified, integrated systems, incorporating fish and other aquatic organisms. The negative costs of agriculture are not factored into the prices that we generally pay for food, but similarly the positive externalities remain invisible, unaccounted for and underinvested. With an analysis that shines light on these invisible costs and benefits, governments of rice-producing countries might better appreciate that the cost of importing, regulating and selling inputs and pesticides for rice (often leading not to effective control but to the outbreak and increasing resistance of rice pests) outweigh the benefits. Investment in farmer training on natural pest control, soil fertility maintenance and sustainable management of water including the integration of fish, and ducks into rice production, on the other hand, has benefits not only to food production but also to building an ecological infrastructure for the long term.

Thus, through its engagement with the TEEB framework, the FAO aims to help articulate the critical importance of investing in and building the many positive externalities from agroecological approaches to production, while identifying the costs of negative externalities that will arise if we continue on a ‘business-as-usual’ path. More sustainable choices and alternative pathways are options that can, and should, be available to farming communities and policy makers worldwide.

Written by Barbara Herren and Caterina Batello 

Photograph: Sasastro

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