Break agriculture’s chemical monopolies to free our food

Keep looking - there’s a new way of farming in there somewhere. Geoff Caddick/PA

Current farming methods rely too much on expensive chemicals such as fertiliser and pesticides; agroecology combines the best of ecological science and farmers’ knowledge to develop more sustainable food and farming.

This is not some fringe theory – agroecology has been discussed in the UK parliament, and an Agroecology Strategy Bill to be presented to MPs will be launched at the Oxford Real Farming Conference that starts today.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has argued that agroecology can double food production in entire regions within ten years, while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. And a recent UNCTAD report also made the benefits more visible for mainstream policy makers.

However, the term agroecology is now frequently used to mean very different things.

The French Minister of Agriculture declared his intention to have France become Europe’s “champion of agroecology”. But his government’s vision is radically different from that of French civil society and farmers’ organisations. Instead of merely promoting no-till farming methods with herbicide sprays, these organisations call for an agroecological approach that brings producers and consumers closer, boosts employment, the development of a solidarity-based economy, and diverse nutritious foods.

This emphasis on locally controlled food systems is at the heart of a radical agenda for food sovereignty in Europe that transforms the system, rather than conforms to the current model. But this transformation will not happen spontaneously. Change in Europe ultimately depends on the power of citizens to redirect public investments and policies that limit the spread of agroecology for sustainable food and farming.

Re-localising food

A growing number of initiatives in Europe aim to re-connect producers with consumers, using short food chains that supply local food. According to a recent EU commissioned study, short food chains generate great social and economic benefits. They create a sense of community by building trust and social bonds. They also create jobs and strengthen local economies because producers keep a higher share of their food’s value.

The environmental impact of short food chains can be mixed. Greenhouse gas emissions can be high if electricity and fuel have to be sourced from far away, for example. So a major challenge is to find new ways of re-integrating food, energy, water and waste systems in circular models.

The overall focus is on doing more with less: widespread recycling and reuse; bringing production and consumption back from a global food supply chain to a more local, decentralised food web. From house clusters, municipalities, and whole cities, to semi-urban areas beyond city hinterlands linked to nearby farms and countryside.

Free the seeds, reclaim the land

Ensuring biodiversity-rich and change-resistant farming depends on unrestricted access to a wide range of seeds that are not proprietary products of big corporations. But European seed regulations and Plant Breeders Rights encourage uniformity across farm landscapes by restricting the free exchange of seeds. While this benefits seed companies, it hampers our ability to develop the more genetically diverse farming systems we need to adapt to climate change. Changes to the law are urgently needed to liberate seeds from corporate control, and strengthen farmers’ rights.

Land ownership in Europe is also highly unequal. There are some 12m farms in the EU, but large farms of 100 hectares or more, representing only 3% of the total number, nevertheless control 50% of all farmed land. For young people trying to enter farming, high land prices and an increasingly speculative market have made it even more difficult. We need a pan-European political process to reverse the concentration of land ownership.

But a number of citizens’ initiatives are taking land off the market in order to allow farmers to enter or stay in farming. For example Terre de Liens (“ties to the land”) in France has bought more 2,000 hectares of farmland since 2007, held in perpetuity for the sake of current and future generations. Land is then let to farmers who largely farm organically and sell through short food webs that create jobs and wealth in the local economy.

Citizen action

Citizens need to change the way public money is spent. For example, funds are required to build the infrastructure of decentralised food systems: local abattoirs, mills, food processing facilities, renewable energy generation, and water treatment.

Working with allies in local government, public money can be redirected into procurement schemes that favour farmers using agroecological methods and short food chains to deliver healthy, local food to schools, hospitals, and office canteens. For example, in both Italy and Scotland, local authorities have promoted local producers by finding ways to bypass the “non-discrimination” EU regulatory constraints. Only local products are used to prepare school meals in several Italian towns.

Another challenge is to change research priorities towards developing sustainable food systems. The challenge is to increase public funding for long-neglected agroecological research and democratise how such research is governed. Citizens – farmers – should be more involved in defining strategic research priorities and policies. More emphasis needs to be placed on forms of social organisation and education that encourage direct democracy and partnerships, including farmers’ movements and their innovation networks..

In a globalised world, new trade rules will be needed to protect local food systems and local businesses, and new supply management policies to reduce wasteful production and consumption and connect farms to fair markets. But this must not simply tweak the system. This is where a greater convergence between agroecology, food sovereignty, the solidarity economy, and degrowth movements can help.

Localised, circular systems based on agroecology can strengthen food sovereignty, democracy, and cultural diversity in Europe. Given the threats of climate change, peak oil, water scarcity, food supply, and steeply rising unemployment in the EU, piecemeal solutions that perpetuate “business as usual” will not do.