Radical transformation of not just our food systems, but of the whole of our world

Radical transformation of not just our food systems, but of the whole of our world

This is a short talk I was invited to give on a panel at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2019 with the title ‘RECLAIMING RESEARCH FOR REAL FOOD & FARMING: resetting the agenda for the public good‘.

In the talk I bring together some elements of my work on (the lack of) agroecological funding (shorter version in The Conversation) and the Amazon, where I have worked with Kichwa and Shipibo people since 2005. There is an audio recording available on SoundCloud.

Radical transformation of not just our food systems, but of the whole of our world

Rupert and Kate have said some important things about how to strengthen research for agroecology, and the hurdles that need to be overcome. I would like just to add a few points.

To keep it brief, I am not going to repeat the catastrophic side effects of petrochemical farming in terms of pollution, disease, waste and poverty. Nor will I argue that a radical transformation of the dominant food system is needed and that agroecology is the most promising way to do so – I will assume that all this is understood and agreed.

(Evidence has only been mounting since the milestone publication of the IAASTD Agriculture at a Crossroads 2008; Report of Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food 2010; UNCTAD Trade and Environment Review: Wake up before it is too late 2013)

The Food Ethics Council has made a strong case for reclaiming Food and Farming Research from its corporate orientation and for making it inclusive, participatory, and focused on the creation of long-term public goods. It’s hard to disagree, but how are we to achieve these rather abstract principles and what kind of content are we going to give this inclusive, transparent, public research? How are we going to bring it about?

To find some answers to these questions, I want to share some thoughts with you: 3 thoughts on funding and 3 on developing a research agenda, to be precise. They are all about raising the public profile of agroecology and building a narrative in support of it which goes beyond questions of food and farming.


1. Somewhat unsurprisingly there is comparatively very little money available for agroecological research and development. On the most generous interpretation, the UK’s Department for International Development has given less than 5% of its agriculture budget to projects supporting agroecology in so-called developing countries (Pimbert and Moeller 2018). Less than 10% of the funding for the CGIAR Centres (the International Agricultural Research Centres) is for agroecology (Nicholls and Altieri 2018). And only 0.6%-1.5% of the US Department of Agriculture’s Research Education and Economics budget is spent on agroecology (DeLonge 2016).

While this may well shift due to the attention certain ‘light’ versions of agroecology are receiving at the international level (as at the FAO Agroecology Symposium last April), financial support for agroecology development and innovation is dwarfed by the enormity of the support for petrochemical agriculture and agricultural biotech and novel areas like ‘smart foods’.

For some obvious reasons of entrenched power, this is something unlikely to change without concerted action on a wide variety of fronts, including fronts unrelated to either agriculture or research – everyone in a position to influence the funding priorities of governmental or non-governmental institutions should do so, and part of achieving this is also the building of a powerful narrative in support of agroecology. More on this in a moment.

2. At the same time, the vast majority of the world’s research is not funded at all. People have experimented and innovated for millennia already and even today knowledge is generated all the time within and between networks of farmers, social movements, and all sorts of other groups of human beings – which any of us can participate in and support in all sorts of ways, thereby contributing to relevant and inclusive research.

Echoing this was a contribution at the FAO Symposium on Agroecology by a woman who said something along the lines of: “we smallholders don’t need your funding, just stop funding industrial agriculture and let us get on with it”.

3. However, given that some money will be needed for some things, my third thought on funding concerns the fact that there is a lot of money out there for climate-related research and development projects. Climate finance is truly huge internationally, as is increasingly money being made available to achieve the SDGs. So, an important task is to frame research for agroecology right. Its climate-change- mitigating effects and potential for habitat recreation need to be put centre stage in both research and public debate. Agroecology has to be placed in a context that is much wider than food and farming, it has to be framed as an answer to the multiple crises of our civilisation – ten years on from the IAASTD report, and in the aftermath of the UN leaving us with only 12 years to change things (IPCC global warming report) , it has become glaringly obvious that it’s not just agriculture that is at a crossroads (as the IAASTD has it), but civilization as such, and agroecology as the basis of a new social metabolism and restoration of the human habitat might just be our best bet.

[[Climate finance (for developing countries) is rising exponentially – from about ½ a billion USD in 2000 to about 20 billion USD in 2016 and is expected to reach 100 billion USD by 2020.]]

[Work to include agroecology in National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans!]

Developing a research agenda

An agroecology research agenda ultimately has to be developed in collaboration with farmers, social movements, indigenous peoples and some new alliances such as the emerging global network of sail cargo initiatives, but there are also some immediate questions that need addressing.

1. We need a better understanding of the mechanisms that keep the industrial, fossil fuel-based system in place. I mean all the various legal, economic, political, social, but also crucially the cultural and psychological mechanisms that keep us locked in the status quo: how are these successfully shifted? What kinds of discourses and understandings keep business usual, both within the farming community and without, and how can we constructively push against these?

2. We need to further the integration of medical and nutrition science with agroecology, especially in light of new discoveries in microbiology and neurology regarding the importance of the human microbiome which raise critical questions about our dominant food choices, and their parallels to and direct links with soil health.

3. My last point is about building an alternative narrative of development – a narrative to counter and chip away at the progress myth. Support for this comes from many angles, especially from social movements and perspectives such as degrowth, Buen Vivir, ecological swaraj, but also from insights in archaeology, biology and anthropology, e.g. regarding the cultural forests of the Amazon which bear witness to the fact that human civilisations do not have to be environmentally destructive, but that we have evidence of large-scale complex societies which enriched the biodiversity of their immediate surroundings to live in edible abundance.

Bringing these insights together and backing them up with agroecological practice could help us envisage and move toward the radical transformation of not just our food systems, but of the whole of our world.

Thank you.

PS: Education and training!