Addressing world hunger with agroecology

by Luca Beti

Zero Hunger by 2030 – was the goal set by the international community in 2015. But with the current methods of food production, this goal remains unattainable. A fundamental shift towards agroecology is needed.

“A system change is needed in agricultural production! All experts agree on this. The disagreement starts when you try to agree upon a possible way of achieving this,” says Urs Niggli, former director of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). After all, the goal has been fixed and takes the second position in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: an end to global hunger, food security, improvement of the food situation and the advancement of sustainable agriculture. Still ten years short of the set date, but “Zero Hunger” seems further away than ever.
  According to the latest UN report on food security and the world food situation, around 690 million people suffered from hunger in 2019. That is 60 million more than in 2015, when the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda. After years of declining numbers, an increase in the number of hungry people was registered since 2014, a trend now exacerbated by the COVID-19-induced global recession.

An involved situation

The crisis exposes how vulnerable and inadequate current food production systems are. The earth would be able to feed ten billion people – that is how many will populate the planet in 2050. According to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), this will require a fundamental shift towards agroecology and other innovative methods.
  “Some say you have to rely on extensive agriculture, such as organic production,” Niggli explains. “Others say you have to focus on new technologies and invest in increased efficiency.” One thing is certain: conventional agriculture, together with forest management and other forms of land use, has had a negative impact on the environment. It causes 23 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, leads to less biodiversity, promotes soil erosion as well as the loss of humus and is responsible for a large part of water pollution.
  It’s difficult: agriculture is suffering from the consequences of climate change, for which it itself is partly responsible. “The solution is agroecology,” says Hans Hurni, professor emeritus at the Centre for Sustainable Development and Environment at the University of Bern. “With this kind of agriculture, you combine different aspects: not only organic production, but also the social, political and economic realities in the lives of the farmers.”

Balanced nutrition is favoured

Agroecology combines science, practice and social movement. One of its key principles is diversification by cultivating diverse species on the same land, thereby restoring natural ecosystems. The method strengthens the resilience and climatic adaptability of ecosystems, their resistance to diseases and their absorption of nutrients. It also favours a balanced nutrition, as farmers decide for themselves what they want to cultivate.
  “In addition to strengthening plants against parasites and drought, organic farming also promotes food security and a healthy nutrition,” emphasises Tina Goethe, an expert on the right to food from the non-governmental organisation Bread for all. “In Honduras, for example, by those who cultivated maize, beans, fruits and vegetables and had domestic animals the corona crisis was survived without major problems. This was not the case for those who only cultivated coffee.”

Turn towards food security

What Goethe recalls is also proven by a recent study conducted by the NGO Biovision and the FAO: agroecology is an effective tool to combat the consequences of climate change, strengthen the resilience of humans, animals and plants, increase biodiversity and promote knowledge and exchange between farmers and researchers.
  Agroecology is not the same as organic farming. “For many years I have been involved with this form of cultivation, and I also know its limitations,” says Urs Niggli. “Agroecology, on the other hand, is the ideal way to combine new technologies, organic farming methods and the experience of farmers – that’s a key element in development cooperation.” The transition to the new system is undoubtedly happening through farming nuclear families.
  According to international studies, 500 million small farmers could double their production with it. Already, they could feed an estimated 70 per cent of the population of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. “Monocultures have reached the peak of their productivity, so we now need to focus on smallholders to increase the amount of food available,” Hurni stresses.
  Paradoxically, 75 per cent of people suffering from hunger live in rural areas and from agriculture. And here, too, the answer lies in agroecology, a multifunctional approach that promotes democratic processes conducive to food sovereignty. What is meant is control over the production, soil, water and genetic resources of local communities. “It is for example important for farmers to create cooperatives to sell their products on the local market without middlemen – thus fighting against poverty,” Tina Goethe highlights. “Compared to organic production methods, agroecology confronts human rights issues and questions of income and a dignified life in a more direct way.”

Time presses

Instead of a further increase in productivity, Urs Niggli prefers to talk about curbing consumption: “We could easily live with a 20 to 30 per cent reduction in agricultural production. But this would only be possible if we changed our eating habits, for example by reducing our meat consumption. At present, however, there is a trend toward more meat. Especially the middle classes in developing countries see meat as a synonym for prosperity.”
  This is not to condemn meat consumption in general, he said, but more emphasis should be placed on ruminants such as cows and sheep that eat grass. Cereals, on the other hand, should not be used to feed poultry and pigs, and certainly not to increase milk production from cows.
  Eradicating hunger requires a sustainable nutrition and cutting food waste in half. “In addition, we need to stop producing biofuels from crops intended for food and feed production,” Hans Hurni stresses. “Let’s use what little land we have to grow food.”
  What is needed now are supportive policy interventions at the international, national and local levels, and a shift toward a food system that serves human health, the environment and social well-being. “Today, we still have choices,” says Urs Niggli. “But the more global warming increases, the fewer options we will have.”  •

Source:, issue 4/2020

(Translation Current Concerns)

The IAASTD Report

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report, published in 2008, shows that an agroecological evolution of agriculture, food production and consumption is needed. The IAASTD Report cites a wealth of new and old examples of successful agroecological adaptation and describes their enormous potential to directly increase crop yields and conserve resources, but also to revitalise local economies and improve health, wealth, and resilience.
  Agroecological approaches are grounded in traditional and local knowledge and cultures and combine it with knowledge and methods of modern science. Agroecology relies on the inclusion of knowledge from all stakeholders.
(, translated by Current Concerns)


Funding agricultural research

As many as 85 per cent of the Gates investments in agricultural research for agricultural development projects end up in industrial food production in sub-Saharan Africa.
  This is the conclusion of a study by the NGO Biovision, the expert group IPES-Food and the Institute for Development Studies IDS. However, Biovision President Hans R. Herren emphasises, “Industrial access has failed across the board in Africa.” The agroecology system does not propagate universal recipes, but calls for the development of local solutions, the study emphasises. It also analysed agricultural research projects supported by the SDC: 51 per cent of the projects included elements of organic farming, while 41 per cent promoted dignified labour and gender equality. Only 13 per cent of the initiatives supported by Switzerland focused on industrial agriculture.

Source: «Money flows» study: (Moneyflowsreport)

(Translation Current Concerns)

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