Transforming Food Systems with Agroecology

From research results to policy influence
27 September 2018, SDC, Bern, Switzerland

Photo: Janina Dierks


Registration and Coffee



​​Welcoming words (SDC – GPFS)

Manuel Flury, co-head of the Global Programme Food Security, opens the event by highlighting the high visibility Switzerland enjoys related to agro-ecology and food systems. He recalls the words of José Graziano da Silva, the DG of the FAO during the opening of the 2nd symposium on Agro-Ecology: Despite the diversity in the way to shape transformation there is consensus on the urgency to get out of the trap of conventional, high resource input system with increasing productivity at any social and ecological cost, still not leading out of hunger for over 800 million people, and to proceed pathways towards sustainable food systems, providing healthy food and preserving the environment and the resource base."

Manuel Flury reminds that SDC's stake regarding Agroecology (AE) is based on the multidimensional goal hierarchy of the SDGs, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) that Switzerland signed as one of the 58 signatory states, and a general understanding of risk mitigation and evidence in agriculture.

He recalled the 10 principles of agro-ecology and SDC's understanding of an agriculture optimizing interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment and delivering multiple economic, ecologic and social functions (incl. resilience building regarding climate change). Last but not least he reminds that the price of agro-ecologically produced food would be lower than the price of conventionally produced food if external costs of damaging the health of producers, consumers, the production capacity of the soils and the environment would be internalized.

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Agroecology Research - Status quo and Perspectives (FiBL, Urs Niggli)

Urs Niggli from the FIBL, the Research institute of Organic Agriculture highlights the 3 levels of agroecology: scientific, agricultural practices and social movement (food sovereignty), also the importance of involving non-scientists(farmers, citizens, etc.) in Ecologic Agriculture (EA). In EA, greater responsibility is given to farmers than in conventional systems.

In comparison to organic agriculture, EA is more flexible and less standardized. EA encompasses both new technologies and traditional practices. It is a mix of both that is based on an intensification of knowledge. – However, not everything praised as sustainable corresponds to the principle of ecological intensification: While sustainable intensification is generally loosely defined (in a way that almost any model or technology can be labelled under it), ecological intensification proposes a whole landscape approach that makes smart use of the natural functionalities that ecosystems offer. The aim is to design multifunctional agroecosystems that are both sustained by nature and sustainable in their nature. AE has the potential to contribute to 9 of the 17 SDGs.

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Agroecology - Policy Environment and Trends in Policy Development (FAO, Caterina Batello)

Ecological Agriculture (EA) is not the only solution to current challenges (population growth, climate change, diminishing resources), but it can contribute to solving them. Agricultural diversity needs to be seen as an attribute and not a barrier (classical agronomy), the focus needs to be widened from productivity to quality. This is why FAO is promotes EA, since it contributes to several SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), whereas conventional agriculture potentially harms several of them. EA is by definition more demanding in knowledge. Farmers practising it and rural advisors promoting it need more knowledge on their plant, animal, soil, water, their human and technical resources and the interactions of production factors in agriculture.

Currently, most agricultural policies do not sufficiently support EA, they are still too much directed towards intensification. An example of a legislation in support of EA is the one of Brazil (hospitals and schools supplied with food produced by small producers) and the Canton of Vaud (one of 26 regions in Switzerland with its own regulation on EA). EA reduces the productivity of the farm but overall increases the productivity and sustainability of the landscape. These changes must be encouraged by agricultural policies.


​​Organic Farming Evidence – Research Findings

What is the contribution of organic agriculture to sustainable development? - Results of 10 years long-term farming systems comparisons in Kenya, India and Bolivia on productivity, economic viability, soil fertility, resource use efficiency, biodiversity, (FiBL, Gurbir Bhullar, Monika Schneider, Noah Adamtey)

Gurbir Bhullar, Monika Schneider and Noah Adamtey did a broad comparative research between organic cultures and conventional cultures in Bolivia (cocoa), Kenya (maize, vegetables, potatoes) and India (cotton, soy, wheat) regarding productivity, economic viability, soil fertility, resource use efficiency and biodiversity.

Yields are equal in Soybean but lower in cotton and wheat.

Benefit-cost ratio is higher in Organic, while the variation across farms is more significant than the yield gap of systems.

System based premiums are necessary to better compensate the farmers. Premium prices are an important motivational factor for small and medium holders.

Closed nutrient cycles and and healthy produce/ecosystem are important for organic farmers with larger holdings.

Organic farmers have better training and know-how than their conventional peers.

Wheat from organic farms has higher grain zinc concentrations than that from conventional while attaining same yield level (is healthier).

The density and biomass of earthworms in organically and bio-dynamically managed soils is much higher than in conventional and conventional Bt (meaning cultures with GMO (enetically modified organisms) seeds).

Despite lower inputs, availability of phosphorus is equivalent to conventional systems pertaining to higher biological activity in organic systems.

Cereal and common bean yields are similar in conventional and organic (especially after conversion period).

Leafy vegetables, French beans and potato yields are lower in organic (pest and disease!).

With premium, of 20-50% gross margin from maize in organic was on average 53% higher compared to conventional. Without premium, profit from organic system was similar to conventional from the 4th year.

Conventional systems exported more nutrients from the field (N: 2.3 to 2.6 times; P: 1.2- 1.8 times; K: 2.6-4.3 times) compared to organic. High input organic farming increases soil pH, K, Ca & Mg.

The challenge of Soil organic carbon (SOC) still remains unsolved as the trend is similar in all systems. Pesticide residues in soil and products are higher in conventional system. A contamination of organic systems was observable due to drift and run off water.

There were higher cumulative yields and higher return on labour in agroforestry systems compared to the monocultures. Organic monocrop systems have lower yield compared to conventional monocrop system.

Cocoa: Organic and conventional have a similar share of non-healthy pods. Agroforestry systems and full sun monocrop system have similar share of non-healthy pods.

Soil Carbon in agroforestry and organic systems is higher than monocultures / conventional (0-10cm)

Cumulative energy demand of inputs and labour is higher in the monocultures.  The Non-renewable energy inputs were higher in the conventionals systems.

Agroforestry production systems have higher species richness of bird species than monocultures.

In summary: Yield and yield gap are crop and system specific. In most cases organic systems have equivalent or better economic performance. System based premiums could be more helpful to the farmers than commodity premiums. Organic systems have better soil health, are more resource efficient (less nutrient export, less energy demand), have better product quality (higher zinc, minimal pesticide residues) and have higher biodiversity.

Challenges to overcome in the organic systems are pest and disease management, nutrient management, as well as markets for all the products growing in diversified organic systems.

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Organic agriculture in Kenya and Ghana: results from fields studies on crop diversity and management practices (FiBL, Christian Schader, Irene Kadzere)

Irene Kadzere and Christian Schrader aimed at comparing the efforts and results of cabbage, cocoa, coffee, mango, onion and macadamia farmers using conventional and organic cultivation techniques. They asked what the determining factors and key differences were with respect to productivity, profitability, and sustainability of established organic and conventional smallholder farms. They also also wanted to know how the different groups could improve performance. Due to inconsistencies in the behaviour of control groups the research questions led also to lessons regarding complex research set-ups. Key challenges for all groups were crop pests and diseases during growth, inadequate training and a lack of market information, with small differences among the groups.

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11:15-11:45Coffee Break

​​Agroecological and Food Systems Approaches – Research Findings



Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture (FiBL, Adrian Müller)


100% of organic farming at the global level would require, in the current state of consumption, larger areas to meet global food needs. It is therefore necessary to work on the reduction of food waste. Stop focusing only on production. Adrian Müller sees the following SWOT for large scale agro-ecological/organic production:

Strengths: Dustainable production on a per ha basis. Weaknesses: Worse performance on a per kg basis than conventional agriculture

Opportunities: Move from yield gap discussions and footprint indicators to adopting a truly systemic view and acknowledging the central importance of consumption change. Threats: How to fertilize the system? Resilience in climate change?

Adrian Müller suggest that policies focusing on nitrogen use are needed since nitrogen use is a good indicator regarding the application of EA principles and regarding the sustainability of an agricultural systems.

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Towards Food Sustainability: Reshaping the Coexistence of Different Food Systems in South America and Africa (FoodSAF) (CDE, Uni Bern, Johanna Jacobi an Stephan Rist)

Johanna Jacobi and Stefan Rist demonstrated an instrument for non-scientific actors to assess the sustainability of food systems. They did a valuation of 6 different food systems in Kenya (grains, meat, milk, horticulture) and Bolivia (soy bean, maize) thanks to 5 dimensions of food sustainability (Food Security, Right to food, Reduction of Poverty and Inequality, Environmental Performance, Social and Ecological Resilience). An example of the Food Sovereignty Initiative, which focused on the application of sustainability criteria.

A policy brief developed on the pesticide use in Bolivia (showing that pesticides, which were prohibited in other countries were heavily used in Bolivia) lead to an invitation of the research team by the Bolivian registration ministry and to a revision of the Bolivian list of banned harmful pesticides in joint work with researchers.

Research showed relatively small impacts regarding poverty due to limited markets.

The research contributed via an advisory network partners to the formulation of counter proposal to the Swiss Food Security Initiative.

Rist promotes an active role of research in policy formulation through policy briefs and opportunities to interact with national decision makers when they pop up.

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Pesticide use in the tropics: Differences between organic and conventional smallholder farming (Eawag / Swiss TPH, Philipp Staudacher)

This study aimed at a comparison of organic and conventional agriculture in Costa Rica and Uganda. There's a continuum between conventional practices and organic practices. This confirms an observation made by colleagues above (Schader and Kadzere) that there are differences between farmers' verbal commitments and what they actually practice in reality. Organic is not necessarily organic and neither is conventional necessarily conventional. A challenge in the research set-up was also that almost no certified organic farms were involved. General market conditions seem not to incentivize organic yet. There are interesting but different social trends among organic and conventional farmers in both countries.

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Sustainable Agroecosystems: From Science to Practice (Sustainable Agroecoystems Group, ETH Zurich, Wilma Blaser & Johan Six)

This study presents results of research on Conservation Agriculture (CA) and Agroforestry in their potential to multifunctionally improve productivity, prevent soil degradation, conserve biodiversity, adapt to climate change, build resilience to shocks, mitigate climate change and improve farmer's livelihoods.

Positive impacts of CA on yield are mainly possible in dry climate and under the condition that organic material is not used for fuel or other purposes.

In order for CA to have a positive impact on yields and soil conservation, it is necessary to apply all three principles of CA, which are minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil cover through crop residue or live mulch and crop rotation or intercropping. If this is not the case, CA has neither positive nor negative effects.

For agroforestry, a compromise between shade (30 to 40% of tree cover) and yield for cocoa plantations in Ghana seems to be optimal if it comes to make best use of effects of trees on climate mitigation, increased biodiversity and carbon capture. However, it is necessary to find markets for the products of the planted trees (fruits, timber, fooder other NTFPs), otherwise the ecological aspects have no value in most markets today, in which there's not yet a broad willingness to include positive externalities.

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​​From Research Results to Policy Influence



How to influence policies with research results? (Schweizerischer Nationalfonds (SNF), Claudia Zingerli)

Claudia Zingerli highlights the importance of the transparency of results and good communication. Zingerli gives six communication tipps e.g. to avoid a moralistic attitude or to make it clear where facts end and where opinion begins). Creating interfaces, i.e. productive relationships between different groups of society (scientists, civil society, private sector, policy makers) vested with differing levels of power and having different interests seems to be key in confronting them with each other's views (through vulgarisation, tech transfer or speaking truth to power).

The role of the scientist is important in the implementation of agricultural policies through their influence and through their recommendations. Scientists need to make a choice regarding their role (Being a pure scientist, a science arbiter, an issue advocate or a honest broker). - A good example for positive interaction is the one cited in the presentation by Stephan Rist above, another one the facilitation of the participation of decision makers in Sri Lanka in field visits that created awareness on the impact of their policies and resulted in a policy change.

Claudia Zingerli highlights that as long as good science PR is not rewarded it is unlikely to happen. The Swiss National Science Foundation explicitly rewards creating accessibility of science for its potential users by defining science communication measures (see article 7, 28 and 47 in the funding regulations).  

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Perception of a policy maker (Ministère de l'Agriculture, de la pêche et des ressources hydrauliques de la Tunesie, Samia Maamer Directrice Générale de l'agriculture Biologique)

Samia Maamer in her capacity as the Director General of organic Agriculture in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and water resources of Tunisa shows how reaching a variety of development objectives, the strengthening of different organic value chains and the implementation of the legislation promoting organic agriculture in Tunisia are connected. Tools for the national and international promotion of products stemming from Tunesian organic agriculture were the creation of "bio-territories", bio-tourist tours and a dining car in a train, in which only organic products where served).
The importance of establishing governance regarding the organic system can't be understated, there is a high need for credibility of control and traceability. It is therefore necessary to set up an adequate capacity building system for the various actors in the organic sector, also regarding the marketing strategy and the promotion of local products. Samia Maamer also stressed the important role of consumers and their influence on the orientations of both agricultural policy and research. Mrs. Maamer highlights the advantage of developing regional models that rely on organic agriculture to boost the local economy. Her ministry thus promotes organic agriculture as a driver of development!

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Translating Results into Action through Policies


Fishbowl-style discussion


Collection of statements and opinions 

  • Why does Ecological Agriculture (EA) exist? - It is important to remember that EA was put into place by a social movement, neither policy makers nor researchers, but farmers and consumers.
  • Why are we not in a better situation regarding development of EA? – The social movement is (not yet) strong enough. Interests are too diverse (e.g. Monsanto) with some of them going against EA.
  • How to convince people? – A bigger social movement is needed. It is neither researchers nor policy makers that are going to do the difference
  • Retailers are powerful, consumers are demanding and feared by retailers in their criticism. Consumers and retailers can thus efficiently orientate the debate, while industry and retailers may be precursors and pioneer. Consumers have the buying power and it is extremely powerful.
  • The economic system needs to change and consumers need to also to learn to think more in terms of solidarity with the producers and in support of socially and ecologically more responsible production methods that they want to prefer, to promote and to foster.
  • Civil society can influence massively the following 4 policy pillars to go in the good direction:
  1. Support EA systems through comprehensive action plans to help them grow and perform better;
  2. Move mainstream agriculture into the right direction through incentives or disincentives;
  3. Lift the bar for all by raising legal standards which render evident that the conventional farmers don't perform well regarding these raised standards;
  4. Sensitising citizens and creating aditional demands.

    To go into this direction it is necessary to showcase what already goes well
  • We need to reach out to new groups of people. In this workshop we are still or again convinced people among convinced people talking to ourselves.
  • Do we need a revolution or an evolution? Probably both.
  • There is agroecology and there are systems that are integrating certain EA principles. The big assumption is that all are looking for the best solution. - Unfortunately this is not true - own interests prevail. And research goes where money the is. Topics that are not "fancy" have less money and topics that have no money are not "fancy". There is less scientific interest, no matter how big the relevance of actual problems is if their solution is not perceived by a strong movement as a priority.
  • A much deeper change in society is needed. The example of cigarettes shows that it is possible to change societies' view on harmful but economically interesting product,
    Huge parts of society need to understand and assert that unsustainable production harms health and the long-term sustainability of the food production.         

Closing remarks (FiBL)

Beate Huber, the Vice-Director of FIBL summarizes key questions, imperatives and key challenges of the day by recalling key questions and statements made regarding the topic of the day.

  • How relevant is agro-ecology in our world?
  • Is agroecology a protective space for innovations – or a method to become mainstreamed?
  • Capitalize diversity – don't see it as a burden!
  • Multitude of indicators to assess economic performance: yields, income, cost-benefit ratio, return on labor.
  • Making consumption more sustainable – not only production!
  • You have to be strong if you want to engage in policy relevant research!
  • Organic knowledge! How to make it available?
  • It is important to apply all 3 principles of conservation agriculture – but it is not a silver bullet solution.
  • In the real world there is almost never a simple scenario where scientific evidence directly guides policy decisions.
  • Organic agriculture is an engine of development.
  • Let us enter the battlefield of communication.

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