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Africa: Agroecology – a Contribution to Food Security?

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World Food Day on 16 October calls for global solidarity to help all populations, and especially the most vulnerable, to recover from COVID-19. We asked Marieta Sakalian, a food systems and biodiversity expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), why agroecology is relevant to this call.

[UNEP] What is agroecology?

[Marieta Sakalian] Agroecology is an ecological approach to agriculture, often described as low-external-input farming. Other terms such as regenerative agriculture or eco-agriculture are also used. Agroecology is not just a set of agricultural practices – it focuses on changing social relations, empowering farmers, adding value locally and privileging short value chains. It allows farmers to adapt to climate change, sustainably use and conserve natural resources and biodiversity.

Why is conserving crop and animal diversity important for our health?

We need to grow a variety of food to nourish people and sustain the planet, but over the last 100 years, more than 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared. Half of the breeds of many domestic animals have been lost. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only nine plant species account for 66 per cent of total crop production, despite the fact that there are at least 30,000 edible plants.

Losing diversity in our diets is directly linked to health risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity, and malnutrition. Developing and encouraging agroecological farming techniques can help make soils more productive, minimize the use of agrochemicals and pollution, and enhance crop diversity. This in turn can make agriculture more resilient.

What has UNEP been doing to promote agroecology?

In April 2018, FAO, supported by UNEP and other United Nations partners, launched the Scaling Up Agroecology Initiative, which works with food producers, governments and other stakeholders to promote agroecology. Globally, the initiative is demonstrating how agroecological systems are vital not only for addressing poverty, hunger, and climate change mitigation and adaptation but also for directly realizing 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in areas such as health, education, gender, water, energy and economic growth. One successful example is the zero-budget natural farming project in the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, supported by UNEP.

The agroecology “movement” has been around for decades but it’s only in the past few years that it has gained international momentum. What has changed?

The biodiversity and climate crises have renewed focus on agroecology, which adopts a more holistic, nature-based approach to agriculture. Agriculture is responsible for about 20 per cent of global greenhouse gases – we need to find different approaches to how we produce food, if we are to meet our climate goals. Species losses have also been unprecedented over the past 50 years. This has prompted a growing awareness, for example, of the economic value of pollinators – not just bees, but a whole host of other animals. Attitudes to the way we do farming are changing, and COVID-19 may be speeding up the process.

Why is this approach relevant to food security?

By 2050, our planet will need to feed close to 10 billion people. It is vital that we transform our agricultural and food systems so they work with and not against nature. As more people go hungry and malnutrition persists, we need to transform the way we do agriculture to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. Agroecology focuses on ecosystem-based approaches which can galvanize agricultural production systems while helping to boost human well-being, tackle climate change and protect our living planet. But, for agroecology to be adopted at scale, it would need strong backing from policymakers.

What are the challenges in implementing an agroecological approach to farming across the world?

Education and finance are hurdles. In some countries, awareness of the benefits of this approach is limited and many farmers are conservative: having invested in machinery to do agriculture in a certain way they may be reluctant to change – especially without financial incentives.

Read more about UNEP’s work on agriculture, biodiversity and food security:

The United Nations Environment Assembly resolution, Innovation on biodiversity and land degradation, encourages Member States to step up their efforts to prevent the loss of biological diversity and the degradation of land and soil.