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Agroecology in dispute: What’s behind the “transition towards sustainable agriculture” narrative?

Organisations analyse strategies, discourses and alliances of agribusiness that continue putting profit before peoples and planet

Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) [1], the Transnational Institute of the Netherlands (TNI) [2] and the Crocevia International Centre [3] launched a publication entitled: “Junk Agroecology: The corporate capture of agroecology for a partial ecological transition without social justice.” [4]

The aim of the report is to “influence the just ecological transition debate in a way that ensures that we don´t end up asking the wolf to take care of the sheep,” said Alberto Alonso-Fradejas, researcher at Utrecht University (Netherlands) and associate researcher at TNI and one of the authors of the report, in an interview with Real World Radio.

According to Alonso-Fradejas, in a world with consensus on the need to move towards a sustainable agricultural model, there are two competing visions. “One is sustainable agricultural intensification, spearheaded by leading global agrifood corporations and focused exclusively on increasing agricultural productivity in the most environmentally sustainable way possible. And the other vision is that of agroecology, understood as a science, a popular practice, a social movement and in particular as a way of living.” This second vision points to the need for a political social transformation, aimed at improving human health and the planet in a just way.

“It’s about whether the path of agroecology or the path of sustainable agricultural intensification to service big agribusiness will set the pace and receive political and financial support in the global transition towards sustainability,” summarized Alonso-Fradejas.

Wolf in sheep´s clothing

FoEI, TNI and Crocevia analysed the three main initiatives of the big agribusiness, among other actors, drafted to promote a model that the authors of this new report are calling “sustainable intensification of agriculture with agroecological overtones.”

Alonso-Fradejas shared with Real World Radio a list of these initiatives. The first one is the “Sustainable Agriculture Initiative” (SAI) created in 2002, chaired by Unilever, it includes representatives of PepsiCo, Muntons, Mars, Innocent Drinks, Nestlé, Marks & Spencer, McCain Foods and Danone. 95% of SAI’s multinational members represent private corporate interests.

Then there is the “New Vision for Agriculture” (NVA) launched in 2009 by the World Economic Forum of Davos which involves over 650 organisations at global, regional and national levels through the “Grow Africa”, “Grow Asia” and the “New Vision for Agriculture in Latin America” programs. 49% of NVA’s multinational members represent the interests of the global agribusiness capital.

The third initiative is entitled the “Food and Land Use Coalition,” (FOLU) which was created in 2018 as a result of the work of the Business and Sustainable Development Commission created in the 2016 edition of the World Economic Forum of Davos.

Alonso-Fradejas highlighted the corporate nature of these initiatives, although he also stated that they involve social and intergovernmental organisations, States and philanthropists, among other actors. “These three initiatives are a clear example of pre-competitive collaboration between big corporations, to exert influence on the public-private governance spaces of the agrifood system where multiple stakeholders participate.”

The true intention of agrifood corporations

Alonso-Fradejas believes that these three initiatives promote “a strategic and selective corporate capture of the aims, discourses and practices of agroecology, as well as the political space and the funds necessary for the transition towards sustainable agriculture.”

“Just as many of the corporations behind these mega-initiatives promoted a junk version of food back in the day, today they are promoting a junk version of agroecology,” he explained.

Meanwhile, researcher Katie Sandwell, member of the Agrarian and Environmental Justice Program from TNI, who was in charge of preparing the executive summary of the report launched on Tuesday, added: “You might have heard people talking about or using the term “junk food”, for food which is kind of attractive and appealing on the surface but actually doesn´t nourish people or communities. What we mean by “junk agroecology” is the same kind of thing: solutions that might be superficially engaging or attractive, but which at their core are not helping, or are not just and are not sustainable.”

Alonso-Fradejas digs deeper, explaining that “instead of radically transforming the current unsustainable agricultural model,” the three corporate initiatives “aim to make a series of strategic changes focused on the production sphere and aiming to turn production, still controlled by global agrifood chains, into a cleaner, greener work. But in reality, the unjust social relations that come with these big global value chains are not changed.”

Meanwhile, the co-coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Program at Friends of the Earth International, Martín Drago, said that the big agrifood corporations are promoting a narrative that tells us that we need to increase food production to tend to the needs of a growing global population, which could reach 9 billion people by 2050. “The first element is false, because the issue of food at a global level and hunger suffered by almost 1 billion people is not related with the lack of food, but to the concentration of and access to food,” stated the environmental activist. “The world is already producing food for 9 billion people,” explained Drago, indeed we almost reached a global population of 7.8 billion according the United Nations Population Fund. “But nearly 30 per cent of food is thrown away, it is wasted for several reasons, in addition to which a lot of people in the world don´t have enough resources to access this food.”

Drago expanded on the term “junk agroecology”. The three initiatives under study “do not take into account at all the economic and social problems generated by agribusiness, in addition to the environmental issues.”

Moreover, Sandwell warned of the huge risk of the corporate capture of agroecology undermining a more genuine and transformative vision of agroecology.  Meaning that “all of this political and social energy which should be going towards building a better food system is instead being redirected to this process of building a system which is a little bit different but which basically preserves the same unequal power distribution and the same destructive dynamics that have caused so many problems in the current food system.”

Privatisation of decision making and the debt of multilateralism

Another issue of concern for TNI, FoEI and Crocevia is that agrifood corporations are increasing their control over decision making processes related to production and food policies. “These corporate initiatives promote the privatisation of decision-making at the level of the United Nations as well as national and local governments,” stressed Drago. He warned that “multiple stakeholder approaches, where everyone gets to sit at the table to define issues may sound democratic,” but they actually aren´t. Because “when we sit the wolf and the chicken at the same table to discuss how the wolf will eat the chicken, this is clearly not a discussion among equals in order to build a policy.”

Instead, Drago demands a multilateralism “based on the participation of governments democratically elected by the people, but also of the peoples themselves, of those directly involved.” “Companies, that aim to profit from agrifood production, cannot be the ones that define how the people can exercise their rights.”

A political vision of agroecology and the potential road map

Sandwell said that the new report defends a vision of agroecology that is essentially a political one, and which is looking for transformation in political terms.  “The kind of agroecological food system that we see coming out of these political processes is a food system that respects traditional and indigenous knowledge, that regenerates ecosystems and respects territories and that builds new kinds of relationships with nature,” said the activist. “None of those more transformative visions would be possible if we put our transition towards sustainable agriculture in the hands of corporations,” she added.

Alonso-Fradejas referenced recommendations for a just transition towards sustainable agriculture presented in the report. He said that public policies are needed that give a central role to small food producers and rural/urban workers, who also need to be involved in the design and implementation of these policies. “Because they are the ones that make agroecology possible on a daily basis, and have been doing so for generations,” said Alonso-Fradejas.

He added that there should be public policies with the aim of the equitable distribution of wealth, income, work and decision-making among genders. The aim should also be to facilitate the return of young people to the countryside making sure they stay there, with capacity-building policies. “It is this model of agroecology by and for the peoples and workers which would contribute to overcoming not only the lack of environmental sustainability, but also the injustice reigning today both in the agrifood and the social-productive system as a whole,” concluded Alonso-Fradejas.

Meanwhile, Drago highlighted that public policies should “help peoples realise their rights, such as the right to land, water, food sovereignty, health and education.” It is about “rebuilding social networks in the rural world” with the direct participation of the inhabitants of these areas and with specific support for production activities. “A wide range of public policies that ensure environmental sustainability, but also social, economic and cultural sustainability in the territories is urgent,” concluded the activist.