Agricultural Paradigm Shift: From Uniformity to Diversity

A new report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems confirms much of what our discussions on Faith, Food and the Environment have been pointing out: that today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts.

The report – From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems – identifies these negative outcomes as “widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high greenhouse gas emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.”

The report links many of these problems specifically to industrial agriculture and the intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes. The report identifies “uniformity” as the unsustainable heart of these systems, and the underlying cause “that leads systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities.”

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) is led by Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

What is required, the panel asserts, “is a fundamentally different model 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, i.e. ‘diversified agroecological systems’.”

In the report, the panel identifies a series of insidious cycles that lock in place industrial agriculture with the global food system and, in turn, national food systems. For example, “the way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems.”

Systemic change needed, not just tweaks

The international panel of experts is not fooled by the tweaks to industrial agriculture production that can improve some of the problematic outcomes. It seems evident that is needed are long-term solutions that effectively respond to the economic, ecological and social problems generated by industrial agriculture and the oligopoly of transnational corporate agribusinesses.

As cited in the report, data shows that diversified agroecological systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed.

A key message of the report is that change is happening. Industrial food systems are being challenged on multiple fronts, from new forms of cooperation and knowledge-creation to the development of new market relationships that bypass conventional retail circuits.

More needs to be done to shift political incentives in order for these alternatives to emerge beyond the margins. To that end, sustainable agriculture advocates are looking ahead to the U.S. presidential election and a new administration, along with a new Congress: this is an opportunity to launch new federal policies in agriculture and food production. The next Farm Bill is still a couple years away, but now is the time to shape that future.