Taking on the Questions Holding Back Food Systems Transformation: Toward Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches and Indigenous Foodways

2021 was billed as a “super year” for food, with the UN Food Systems Summit, the biodiversity convention, COP26 in Glasgow and the Nutrition for Growth Summit shining a light on the deep structural transformations required to address multiple and overlapping crises. To address accelerating climate change, biodiversity loss, rising food insecurity and growing inequality we need to repair the relationship between people and nature.

Agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways are a direct response and counterpoint to the dominant, industrial food system. The industrial food system, defined by chemicals, concentrated livestock, monoculture, and ultra-processed foods, comes with a cost we can no longer afford. Underpinning the inherently diverse and intercultural processes of agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways are  principles of renewability, resilience, and co-creation that have existed for thousands of years and need to be centered in efforts to transform food systems.

Agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways are tried and tested pathways to food and agriculture systems, in use by millions of people worldwide, that sustain health and well-being, are economically viable, are culturally appropriate, protect nature, and respect the planet.

Yet, dominant narratives and recurrent questions limit and skew our collective conversation about the efficacy of these approaches and compromise their mainstream uptake. Claims about evidence—that it is clear or lacking, amount and types of evidence available, whether the data is statistically valid or not—are used to sow seeds of doubt and undermine transformative action. I hear questions about the evidence available everyday. It is in the context of a narrow view of “what counts” as evidence that the old model of the industrialized food system continues to trundle on.

Working with 70+ colleagues from around the world, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food set out to unpack the questions and scrutinize the dominant narratives holding back change. In the resulting compendium, we critically examine knowledge and power, providing real-world and diverse evidence that directly address the questions that plague the dialogue about food systems transformation and provide recommendations for how decision-makers can move beyond binary thinking and narrow ideas of evidence in order to take the action.

Here are just two of those questions to give you a taste of what the compendium holds:

Question #1: “Can these approaches feed the world?”

The “feed the world” narrative falsely positions the production of food as the fundamental challenge in feeding populations. This line of thinking downplays the political economy of food systems, the structural causes of food insecurity and perpetuates the disconnect between food production and the environment. Distribution issues, poverty, lack of access, lack of power, inequality, conflict, and waste are the reasons hunger and food insecurity persists — not scarcity.

Agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways are strongly linked to positive health and nutrition outcomes and measuring performance and resilience through a systems lens (rather than just yield) demonstrates the multifunctional benefits of these approaches.

Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) has spent the last 20 years building more equal and resilient Malawian communities. They have worked with more than 15,000 farmers in 500 villages, and research from this group shows that, when a range of diverse crops are grown under agroecological systems, the farms are more productive than their conventional counterparts—by as much as 80 percent.

To counter the “feed the world” myth, we offer the “good food is good health” argument. Better quality, taste, and variety of foods grown using these methods have positive health impacts – for individuals, communities and for the environment – in direct opposition to the harmful health impacts of industrial agriculture.

In Toronto, where I live, organizations like FoodShare and Black Creek Community Farm are reclaiming public land for food justice initiatives, growing incredible amounts of food through urban agriculture, strengthening communities, enhancing green infrastructure, and working towards food sovereignty.

Question #2: Can these approaches be scaled?

The dominant narrative presumes agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways are marginal, effective only at small scales. This is a deeply limited understanding of what is meant by scaling (and at which scale farms are effective). As evidence in the compendium shows, replicating success is about more than just the size of farms.

Scaling is a process of amplifying a new paradigm that builds sustainable food systems rooted in equity, justice, and reciprocity. Just take for example the work of Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) — one of the world’s largest agroecology programs. In 2020, 700,000 farmers and farm workers participated in their program.

The APCNF model of identifying “Champion Farmers” (who train other participants) and taking a ‘whole village’ approach (where all farmers in a community transition to the natural farming methods) leans on the knowledge and credibility of those in the community, achieving scale using farmer-to-farmer and woman-to-woman methodologies. The timeline for moving a village from existing practices to natural farming can take three to five years, demonstrating that scale is possible in a reasonable timeframe when there is a community-specific strategy in place over time.

Opposing this limited view of scale by speaking to the co-benefits across a number of societal, ecological, economic, health and well-being  indicators illustrates the ways this dynamic, multifunctional approach to food systems can serve as a “way out of the trap” of multiple global crises for many communities.

In my own work on scale I’ve always been interested in how initiatives scale out and replicate, and also scale up to address structural issues like capacity, industrial agriculture, and unequal distribution of wealth. The “trans-scalar” approaches of social movements have also been critical disruptors and enablers of agroecology and regenerative approaches.

These are just two of the five questions that we tackle in depth in the compendium. Authors also unpack the narratives about technology and innovation, meaningful livelihoods, and the ability of agroecological and regenerative approaches to contend with the severity of the climate and biodiversity emergencies we face.

It’s time to recognize the validity of different scientific practices and diverse sources of evidence. Ensuring the sustainability, security and equity of our food systems requires a paradigm shift in thinking about evidence— decision-makers must be cautious in elevating certain kinds of expertise over others. Yes, we need western science published in peer-reviewed journals, but we also need to turn to Indigenous, traditional and experiential knowledge systems, and evidence that is shared through knowledge exchange, stories, videos, and art. There is a broad array of evidence that is not considered, documented, published, or heard.

Unlocking the structural barriers holding back food systems transformation requires changing our research, education, and innovation systems and hinges upon a broader ecological, social and political transformation. It is our hope that this compendium sparks discussion about the broader meaning of evidence, and the power and politics that shape and infuse our understanding of agroecology, regenerative approaches and Indigenous foodways.

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