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Food Governance

Interventions that facilitate equitable, coherent, coordinated and transparent design, implementation and monitoring of food system measures.

Mainstreaming agroecology principles for food governance

Overview

A third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food systems. Most food produced today uses significant amounts of chemicals and resources (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, energy, land and water), is produced via unsustainable practices like monocropping and heavy tilling, and drives the destruction of vital ecosystems like forests and peatlands. Simultaneously, more than 800 million people still suffer from hunger. Two billion have micronutrient deficiencies, while the same number are overweight or obese. Additionally, as much as 40% of food produced is lost or wasted.  

Meanwhile, climate change impacts – including extreme temperatures, floods, droughts and changing rainfall patterns – are already reducing the capacity of our food systems, particularly in climate vulnerable regions. The hidden environmental, health and economic costs of current food systems are estimated at nearly USD 12 trillion per year and are expected to rise to USD 16 trillion per year by 2050.

As defined by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), “agroecology is the science and practice of applying ecological concepts, principles and knowledge (i.e. the interactions of, and explanations for, the diversity, abundance and activities of organisms) to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. It includes the roles of human beings as a central organism in agroecology by way of social and economic processes in farming systems. Agroecology examines the roles and interactions among all relevant biophysical, technical and socioeconomic components of farming systems and their surrounding landscapes.”

Transitioning to sustainable and resilient food systems can help address climate change, biodiversity loss and food security and nutrition. To successfully make this transformative shift in our food systems, policymakers, practitioners and other stakeholders must consider key agroecology principles to mainstream agroecology in planning, managing and evaluating food system policies.

Concrete measures to implement

While agroecology is founded on principles that are implemented in diverse ways depending on local contexts, UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 10 Elements of Agroecology and the High Level Panel on Experts on Food Security and Nutrition’s 13 principles of agroecology provide guidance on how governments can operationalize agroecology at the policy and farm level. These principles relate to agricultural and ecological management of agriculture and food systems as well as some wider ranging socio-economic, cultural, and political principles. Based on local policy contexts, the following measures, among others, can be implemented to operationalize and mainstream these agroecological principles:

  • Mainstream and strengthen knowledge on agroecology:
    • Integrate and mainstream agroecology values, knowledge, and skills across educational institutions (i.e. in teaching, research incentives and curricula): Transformation of food systems through agroecology requires changing the approaches used to study, measure and assess agricultural performance, and shifting from uniformity of indicators (often narrowly based on “yield” and “productivity”) to a diversity of multi-dimensional indicators to address at least three core dimensions of sustainability – sociocultural, economic and ecological.
    • Collaborate across disciplines – drawing on ecological and social sciences, including rural development studies, sociology, gender research, community health, political science and other fields – to better understand and empower farmer organizations, and encourage genuine Indigenous partnerships. Breaking down institutional silos and enhancing system thinking in research and training is crucial. Interdisciplinary courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels should include non-academic actors. Knowledge on agroecological innovations requires research that combines “know-how” and “do-how”.
    • Provide support to further develop agroecological curricula at colleges and universities and facilitate exchange between experienced and interested stakeholders (from research, civil society, donor organizations and the private sector). Establishing decentralized networks for studies in agroecology would further reinforce system thinking and enhance exchanges between different knowledge holders.
    • Align extension services with agroecological principles: Reform knowledge and extension systems to place greater emphasis on participation and social learning (e.g. farmer-to-farmer learning and on-farm demonstrations). Expand the use of low-cost information and communication technology (e.g. interactive radio, social media, other apps and videos) to reach large numbers of people, including youth. Innovative delivery of information can strengthen partnerships with the private sector, farmer groups, volunteers, social workers and youth entrepreneurs in extension and advisory systems. Focus should be placed on the central role and leadership of women and youth.
    • Promote the synthesis of, enhance accessibility to and encourage the utilization of findings from studies that provide multidisciplinary empirical evidence on the various sociocultural, economic, environmental, agronomic and production benefits of agroecology on national and local levels. Promote stand-out projects and individuals that successfully combine academia, inclusive approaches and practical research components that provide a benefit to society. 
    • Support the development of holistic performance measurements for agroecology and metrics for capturing policy alignment with the SDGs, building on FAO’s Tool for Agroecology Performance Evaluation (TAPE), the growing body of work on ‘true cost accounting’ and other metrics.
    • Use assessment methodologies to inform evidence-based policymaking for agroecology and demonstrate how agroecology can enhance ecosystem and climate resilience while also contributing to food security and nutrition. For more information, see Food system assessments. These research efforts should be paired with promotional campaigns to spread awareness of the research results and findings among policymakers and the public.
  • Integrate agroecology in public finance:
    • Harness large finance mechanisms for agroecology (e.g. Global Environment Facility funds, the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund) by developing and submitting funding proposals for research projects and programmes for agroecological transition.
    • Support donors that provide flexibility in programme planning and funding to earmark funding for agroecology projects and programmes, including the removal of obstacles to funding subsequent phases of the same project or programme. 
    • Establish mechanisms to track, measure and ensure transparency in global investment flows and subsidies in food systems, including funding to agroecology. 
    • Ensure that financing instruments lead to access to capital (e.g. mobile microfinance, peer-to-peer lending platforms and crowdfunding) that transform their practices based on agroecological principles for farmers (particularly smallholders, women and young people), producer organizations, input providers and businesses. 
    • Showcase and scale best practices for financing agroecology, including existing innovative funding mechanisms that support both local/grassroot initiatives and government efforts ensuring participatory decision-making and monitoring of projects.
    • Rethink traditional forms of measuring economic success in agriculture in favour of alternative approaches which account for factors such as reduced risks, cost savings, continuity of yields and income diversification.
    • Remove subsidies that encourage unsustainable use of resources, particularly resources with known harmful impacts to the environment such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Increase taxes on use of finite resources (e.g. water) in agricultural production.
    • Introduce true pricing and other related assessment methodologies (e.g., true cost accounting, life cycle assessment) to better account for the externalities associated with agricultural production. For more information, see Food system assessments.
    • Reform public procurement policies to incentivize adoption of agroecological practices. For more information, see Integrating healthy and sustainable diets in public procurement.
  • Support local/territorial markets:
    • Support local, territorial, and regional markets, processing hubs and transportation infrastructures that provide greater processing and handling capacities for fresh products from small and medium-sized farmers who adopt agroecological and other innovative approaches, and to improve their access to local food markets and supply chains.
    • Enhance direct connection between producers and consumers, provide public facilities, extension workers, support farmers´ associations and cooperatives in building strong local marketing networks, and certification of agroecological producers. See Improving physical and economic access to healthy and sustainable foods.
    • Push for fair remuneration for farmers and other food system workers. 
    • Amplify successful business models aligned with the elements and principles of agroecology.
  • Build and strengthen multistakeholder platforms and initiatives:
    • Build and coordinate platforms to enable interactions among farmers and other stakeholders and networks including local governments, investors, donors, knowledge and research institutions, and consumers to develop collective awareness, identity and agency around agroecological management issues. 
    • Convene multi-stakeholder dialogues built on evidence-based arguments to help to bring together different perspectives including women, youth, indigenous peoples and other marginalized people.
    • Support the development and functioning of bottom-up alliances with the involvement and ownership of farmer groups, researchers, NGOs and social movements, and use these alliances as a key partner in knowledge generation and sharing.
    • Promote South-South collaboration, long-term partnerships and coalitions with a focus on agroecology. Local ownership and the meaningful involvement of social movements and farmers’ organizations is equally important.

Tools and MRV systems to monitor progress:

Climate change mitigation benefits:

Mainstreaming agroecology in food systems can generate multiple climate change mitigation benefits through a shift in agriculture practices, including:

Adaptation benefits

  • Reduced risk of eutrophication due to reduced agricultural production. Eutrophication is the process by which aquatic systems become over-enriched with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus due to the run-off of agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizers into water systems). There are several types of emissions associated with eutrophication, including air pollution (e.g. sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) and water pollution (e.g. nitrates, ammonium, nitrogen and phosphorus).
  • Reduced acidification due to reduced inputs associated with agricultural production (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides). Types of emissions associated with acidification include sulphur dioxide, ammonia and nitrous oxides. 
  • Positive impacts of diversification on pollination, pest control, nutrient cycling, water regulation and soil fertility.
  • Agroforestry has a positive impact on biodiversity, water regulation, soil carbon, nitrogen and fertility and for buffering temperature extremes. See Agroforestry systems.
  • Resilience to price shocks through reduced dependency on international markets. Agroecological farming systems are more resilient to international input scarcity than conventional systems. 

Other sustainable development co-benefits

Agroecological principles relate to all the SDGs, and can particularly contribute to the following: 

  • SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth): By raising yields while improving soil carbon, and integrating plant nutrient systems, with reduced fertilizer application.
  • SDG 2 (zero hunger) and SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing): By increasing access to food by increasing the quantity and diversity of foods produced per household and maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and domesticated animals.
  • SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 15 (life on land): Agroecological practices use natural resources more sustainably and efficiently, and reduce the release of chemicals to air, water and soil. The enhanced proximity between producers and consumers also helps raise awareness and reduces food waste by repurposing urban organic waste as fertilizer.

Main implementation challenges, potential negative externalities, and trade-offs

  • Vested political and economic interests in conventional food systems may oppose the mainstreaming of agroecology. 
  • Applying agroecology principles may result in a temporary decrease in yields and may lead to additional risks and costs, while the ecological and economic benefits will take time to achieve. 

Measures to address challenges and trade-offs

  • Potential trade-offs must also be considered in each specific context. For instance, depending on quantity and type of inputs, reduced input use could lead to lower productivity and/or lower income, and thus higher food insecurity. In addition, agroecological methods, if more labour-intensive, could increase women’s workload and diminished nutritional status of children (if gender relationships within households are not changed).
  • Take advantage of highly visible global forums (e.g. UNFCCC COP meetings) to change the narrative around agroecology and spread awareness of agroecology principles, concepts and benefits among policymakers and other relevant food system stakeholders; use these forums to generate support and awareness for finance, initiatives and capacity-building programmes.
  • Reform food system policies to further value the perspectives and interests of groups (e.g. Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities) who have shown capacity—given they have secure land tenure and other rights—to both produce food sustainably while also supporting achievement of government goals, such as on deforestation and biodiversity conservation. These groups can also form a vital component of agricultural research and monitoring efforts.
  • During transition phases, build support by prioritizing “quick-win” or low-hanging fruit measures that demonstrate the benefits (e.g. cost-effectiveness) of agroecological approaches. For example, soil fertility improvement practices like mulching, composting and intercropping with legumes.

Implementation costs

No estimate was found in literature.

Intervention in practice

  • The Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), along with other partners, have implemented four long-term trials comparing organic and conventional farming in Kenya, India and Bolivia. Results from 2007 to 2019 show that moving away from input substitution to a diversified farming system using an agroecological approach led to similar or higher crop yields than a conventional production system. These agroecological approaches led to reduced incidence/impact of pests, improved soil conditions and an overall improvement in resource efficiency. 
  • In response to a global price increase of chemical fertilizers, the government of Ethiopia set up a task force to assess technical, policy and social measures that could be rapidly implemented to alleviate the fertilizer scarcity issue. Measures included: accelerating the registration/commercialization of domestically produced alternative organic fertilizers; mobilization of extension agents to promote the organic fertilizers and build capacity for their production; maintenance of subsidies for farmer organizations and cooperatives to help cover transport/distribution costs; and a production safety net for poor farmers, with the government and NGOs supplying fertilizer and seeds for free. 
  • The Government of Bhutan established the National Framework for Organic Farming in Bhutan in 2007. Under the framework it has implemented several agroecology-oriented measures, including: investments for capacity building, technology transfer and market linkages; development of unique affordable certification systems; preservation and enhancement of traditional and Indigenous farming knowledge; and creation of the National Organic Programme Coordination Unit for research, policy coordination and extension. 
  • Tanzania launched its National Ecological Organic Agriculture Strategy (NEOAS) in late 2023. This is based on the contribution of agroecological approaches to food security, farm incomes, environmental conservation, climate resilience and opportunities for youth and women. It also mainstreams organics and agroecology as a cross-cutting policy initiative in the coming national biodiversity strategy (NBSAP). The strategy was developed with the involvement of a wide group of stakeholders.

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