How to leave industrial agriculture behind: Food systems experts urge global shift towards agroecology

(Brussels / Trondheim: 2nd June) Input-intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots must be consigned to the past in order to put global food systems onto sustainable footing, according to the world’s foremost experts on food security, agro-ecosystems and nutrition.

The solution is to diversify agriculture and reorient it around ecological practices, whether the starting point is highly-industrialized agriculture or subsistence farming in the world’s poorest countries, the experts argued.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), led by Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, released its findings today in a report entitled ‘From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems’.

De Schutter said: “Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Simply tweaking industrial agriculture will not provide long-term solutions to the multiple problems it generates.”

He added: “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms.”

The report was presented today at the 8th Trondheim Biodiversity Conference (Norway) by lead author Emile Frison, former Director General of Bioversity International.

The report reviews the latest evidence on the outcomes of the different production models, and identifies eight key reasons why industrial agriculture is locked in place despite its negative outcomes. It also maps out a series of steps to break these cycles and shift the centre of gravity in food systems.

Frison explained that some of the key obstacles to change are about who has the power to set the agenda. “The way we define food security and the way we measure success in food systems tend to reflect what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver - not what really matters in terms of building sustainable food systems,” Frison stated.

Based on a review of the latest evidence, the expert panel identified industrial agriculture as a key contributor to the most urgent problems in food systems:

  • Food systems contribute around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions;

  • Around 20% of land on earth is now degraded;

  • More than 50% of human plant-derived foods now depend on three crops (rice, maize and wheat); 20% of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction;

  • The extinction of wild species and the application of insecticides threaten the 35% of global crops dependent on pollination;

  • Around 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies; current food systems produce an abundance of energy-rich, nutrient-poor crops.

The experts concluded that a fundamental shift towards diversified agroecological farming* can deliver simultaneous benefits for productivity, the environment and society.

A growing body of evidence shows that diversified agroecological systems deliver strong and stable yields by building healthy ecosystems where different plants and species interact in ways that improve soil fertility and water retention. They perform particularly well under environmental stress and deliver production increases in the places where additional food is most needed.

Diversified agroecological systems have also shown major potential to keep carbon in the ground, increase resource efficiency and restore degraded land, turning agriculture into one of the key solutions to climate change.

Diversifed agriculture also holds the key to increasing dietary diversity at the local level, as well as reducing the multiple health risks from industrial agriculture (e.g. pesticide exposure, antibiotic resistance).

Some of the key findings:

  • Average organic yields equivalent to conventional agriculture, and 30% higher in drought years (30-year study);

  • Total outputs in diversified grassland systems 15%-79% higher than in monocultures;

  • 2-4x higher resource efficiency on small-scale agroecological farms;

  • 30% more species and 50% higher abundance of biodiversity on organic farms;

  • Around 50% more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in organic meat and milk.

The experts identified major promise in the burgeoning initiatives now forming around alternative food and farming systems, from new forms of political cooperation to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits.

“The challenge is to join up these initiatives,” Frison urged. “Farmers can only be expected to transform their practices when they are certain that they will find markets. And consumers will only shift towards healthy, sustainable food when it is accessible and affordable to them. These changes must lock each other in, just as current dynamics conspire to lock them out.”

De Schutter added: “We must change the way we set political priorities. The steps towards diversified agroecological farming are steps to democratize decision-making and to rebalance power in food systems.”

Read the executive summary

Read the full report

Read the key messages, also available in French and Spanish

*Diversified agroecological farming refers to models of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Organic agriculture often reflects these principles, but organic certification does not guarantee a holistic diversified approach.