We can feed the world and protect our forests – but it requires system change 

Residents of Ujat Bato Longhouse in Long Pilah, Sarawak at the nursery they have prepared with saplings

Residents of Ujat Bato Longhouse in Long Pilah, Sarawak at the nursery they have prepared with saplings.

Friends of the Earth International
We are told there is a choice between forest and food. But in reality it is industrial processes that are destroying sustainable farming and the ecosystem. KIRTANA CHANDRASEKARAN discusses a new report from Friends of the Earth International which suggests agroecology is an alternative that can respect people and planet

In order to scale up agroecology, peasants and small scale food producers are continuously involved in struggle.

Do we care more about people or forests? This seems to be the question implicit in much of the current debate that pits forest protection and nature conservation against food production.

A debate that involves much political hand wringing over the limited supply of land to do both. But this is a false conundrum.

Yes, the fates of our remaining forests and our food system are intimately linked. But it is the combination of industrial farming and industrial forest plantation systems that is wreaking havoc.

Collapse of biodiversity

There are solutions out there, as our new report explains, if we transform the way we view and manage our farmlands, forests and natural commons towards agroecology and community forest management.

Next month governments, UN Institutions, academics and small scale food producers will meet in Rome to map out how to ‘scale up’ - provide institutional and policy support - and ‘scale out’ - increase geographical reach - agroecology.

In order to succeed, it is crucial that decision makers understand that agroecology is about changing the social, economic and political system of food production not just about technical changes to farming practices.

It is also key that we expand our perspectives on agroecology, including its link to ways of increasing the power and control of local communities over their resources, such as community forest management.    

Today, there is little doubt that agroecology offers us a path away from the well documented ravages of the industrial food system - which include climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, diet related diseases, pesticide poisoning, land grabbing and evictions, abuse of workers, farmers’ debt and a failure to feed the world, especially the most marginalised communities.

Involved in struggle

There is little doubt even from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN FAO). This is a major step forward. 

But we need more. Friends of the Earth International and social movements of small scale food producers - the pioneers of agroecology and its main protagonists - recognise that in order for the agroecology movement to achieve its full potential it must address questions of power, control, autonomy and the very purpose of our food system. 

In order to scale up agroecology, peasants and small scale food producers are continuously involved in struggle.

Who do we produce for? The industrial system is focussed on producing agrocommodities – palm oil, soy, corn and meat traded in global commodity and financial markets whose sole aim is to extract the highest profit possible for food and finance corporations. These same agrocommodities are responsible for the majority of global deforestation. 

Who controls the system? Currently the industrial food system is controlled by global food and finance corporations. This means in order to scale up agroecology, peasants and small scale food producers are continuously involved in struggle.

This is the struggle to access, control, use, and shape or configure land and physical territory - consisting of communities, infrastructure, soil, water, biodiversity, air, mountains, valleys, plains, rivers and coasts.

Practicing agroecology

In areas where agroecology has successfully spread to hundreds of thousands of food producers, it has been a method for peasants to gain control over their productive resources and territories in order to feed themselves and their communities with agroecological methods. 

What social, political and cultural values is the system based on? The industrial system is geared towards gaining unprecedented market power and profits for oligopolistic agrifood corporations.

It views the natural world and people as a source of extractive profit. The agroecology system has the potential to prioritise peoples’ wellbeing over profit – feeding the world with healthy local food, providing good stewardship of the rural environment, preserving cultural heritage and the peasant or family farm way of life, and promoting resilience to climate change. 

Is this hoping for too much? No. There are approximately 500 million family farmers in the world who already produce 80 percent of the world’s food .

These farms are already feeding about 70 – 80 percent of the world and - contrary to popular belief - their numbers are increasing. While not all of these farms are practicing agroecology or food sovereignty, many of them are already engaged in a battle with agribusiness over the future of our food system. 

Body of evidence

What’s more, peasants are not alone. The FAO estimates that there are about 1.2 billion people dependent on forests, many of whom also practice some form of agroecology in their day to day lives.

Many of these communities - such as those of indigenous peoples - already manage their forests and territories for collective benefit. Numerous studies show that community managed forests are richer in biodiversity than those that are conserved under other forms of conservation.

Agroecology and community forest management are intimately connected. Both strengthen community control of the territory, promote the rights of people over profits for market economies, recognise the role and autonomy of women, promote social and solidarity economies and local markets, defend and manage traditional knowledge, community heritage and common goods and promote and strengthen a vision that is not centred solely on humans use of nature but also on the value of nature itself.

As our report shows, there is a rich body of evidence and examples of people putting these values into practice. Our challenge is to create the institutional and societal mechanisms that will enable these solutions to flourish.

This Author

Kirtana Chandrasekaran is Food Sovereignty coordinator for Friends of the Earth International. She has spent over a decade fighting for food sovereignty and against the injustice of the industrial food system in India, the UK and Europe.

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