Agroecology: A contribution to transformative change towards sustainable agricultural and food systems to achieve the 2030 Agenda

Special international seminar
15 November 2018, SDC, Bern, Switzerland

(Cattle is being fed on grassland exclusively)



​​Agroecology and Swiss Agriculture Policy: What is the Gap?

To make sustainability more profitable and create incentives for farmers to produce in a more environmentally friendly way

Bernard Lehmann the Director of the Federal Office for Agriculture opens with the statement that Switzerland is affected by malnutrition (not due to undernourishment but more due to obesity) and that is why one must find local solutions first in order to tackle global problems. The Swiss constitution foresees that agricultural productivity can only be enhanced when the ecological footprint is not increased. At the moment Switzerland is able to feed enough people but only under loss of biodiversity, pollution of soils and water and water stress due to changing climate patterns. In terms of carbon emissions in agriculture Switzerland is not on track with climate-friendly cultivation methods and, thus, contributes to climate change. There is a trade-off between productivity and more ecological friendly agricultural practices such as Agroecology. Agroecology is not a new concept for Switzerland and was already introduced 20 years ago, but is now perceived in a much wider perspective. There is no place for reductionist approaches in the transformation of agriculture – solutions need to be systemic. Agricultural productivity must be more consumption driven and therefore the consumer must change his or her behaviour towards a more environmentally friendly food intake. Furthermore science must collaborate with producers as well as consumers and provide new technology resp. evidence and future predictions to change contemporary consumption patterns. But science is and cannot be the only solution. Farmers want to be part of the solution, not of the problem. Switzerland must make sustainability more profitable and create incentives for farmers to produce in a more environmentally friendly way.

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The HLPE, science-policy interface of the CFS

"The road to 2030 is a rocky one, but can be walked if everyone pulls at the same string"

Mario Arvelo, CFS Chair, explains the establishment of the CFS in 1974 as an answer to the world food crisis and its purpose to serve as a forum for the different UN bodies to review, develop, endorse and follow-up on policies concerning food security and nutrition. Each year FAO together with WFP, IFAD and UNICEF publish a scientific and evidence-based report, whereby the SOFI2018 report revealed that malnourishment (obesity in global north) and different stages of food insecurity are increasing and 1 out of 9 person in the global south does not have access to sufficient food. Based on this annual reports the CFS and the HLPE develop policy advices and voluntarily guidelines which entail at the moment nutritious food systems, right to food and food sovereignty. He stresses out the important partnership between Switzerland as a donor and member of this multi stakeholder platform and believes that hunger can be “defeated”. “Agriculture and food systems are not only at a crossroad – a veritable storm is forming! The road to 2030 is a rocky one, but can be walked if everyone pulls at the same string”

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Presentation of the HLPE, roles and methods of work

The HLPE builds a narrative on critical issues upon controversy, with scientific rigor but accepting disagreement.

Patrick Caron (HLPE Steering Committee Chairperson) explains how the HLPE works, its outcomes and its purpose. Its main task is to assess and analyse the current state of food security and nutrition, provide scientific and knowledge-based analysis and advice on specific policy-relevant issues as well as identify emerging and new issues. In short the HLPE mobilizes knowledge from different sources, driven by the demand of burning political questions resp. answers. Their working mode distinguishes itself from “conventional science” as well as their products are different from “normal reports. On the one hand side they provide evidence based reports on basis of other knowledge, since there is no need for more research. On the other side they provide normative policy recommendations that shall lead to policy coherence informed by science.


​​Panel 1: Agroecology for sustainable development: current knowledge and potential


To move mainstream Agriculture and Food Systems towards more sustainability through innovation, capacity building and policy incentives

Frank Eyhorn from Helvetas introduces the work of the CNS-FAO and begins this panel by emphasizing that a joint vision of how our food systems should be shaped can trigger and enable a dialogue between different stakeholders. The CNS-FAO identified four key factors that need to play together for this transformation: knowledge (fuelled by practical research), market demand (fuelled by consumer awareness), policy, and multi-stakeholder collaboration. When looking at the global agriculture and food systems, Agroecology only makes up a small part but with a high performance in terms of sustainability. A combination of promoting agroecological systems while making them more efficient and integrating agroecological elements into mainstream systems can considerably contribute to making our food systems more sustainable. Hence the question arises if Agroecology can have lighthouse function for system redesign and inspire global agriculture? How to link agroecological producers to consumers, and how to get a coherent policy context that allows Agroecology to unfold its full potential? The most important question, however, is how to trigger collaboration of different stakeholders to up-scale Agroecology?

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Agroecology provides an answer (i.e. intercropping practices) to deal / combat the Fall Armyworm

Fergus Sinclair, HLPE Project Team Leader, encourages to understand agriculture and Agroecology in a broader, systemic view. Agroecology is not just a scientific concept anymore but also a political (policies) and social (social movement) one. The social movement is essential for the transformation, built on shared values / beliefs. It is the interplay of all notions of Agroecology which can transform the existing food systems. There is also a conceptual broadening of Agroecology from the producer level towards the consumer level and Agroecology enabling policies should also focus on the latter. Fergus Sinclair brings up an example of how to deal with the Fall Armyworm with Agroecology such as make use intercropping to interfere with the egg laying or create a suitable habitat for natural predators (spiders) of the Fall Armyworm. Knowledge like this can only be created through the interplay of science and civil society (farmers). We need a co-learning between research and practice, solving problems that farmers are facing. Transdisciplinarity approaches for knowledge generation serve as bridges between these two sometimes separate worlds. Science can learn from social movements and farmers and vice versa, but both groups must be open minded and brought together, which can be really hard sometimes.  At last there is also the question about which kind of research the world wants or needs to change its food systems. Do we want more of basic research for incremental innovation and changes or open research for transforming innovations (or maybe both)?

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Open discussion

Technology to reduce workload is available but not accessible!

Muhammad Azeem Khan (HLPE Steering Committee member) highlights positive externalities of Agroecology by means of a case study from Pakistan. Several farmers received a training in eco-friendly agriculture (through Farmer Field Schools) and could improve their food quality by 71 percent as well as the commodity value by 65 percent. In addition, their reputation in the village community was increased. At the same time though, the agroecological approach took its toll from the farmers. A higher workload and improved organization skills were required. These challenging aspects of Agroecology can be tackled with technological innovation. First, however, existing technological instruments need to be up-scaled as at the moment they are not widely applied yet.  

There are other ways than increasing productivity

Urs Niggli from FiBL opens with the question he always stumbles across, namely if organic agriculture can feed the world. For him it is an illusion to be highly productive and at the same time environmentally friendly, but in the end it is the farmers who will feed the world and not an instrument or an approach. And the farmers know best how to do their job. One of the biggest obstacles for Agroecology to gain a large foothold is this very question of productivity. However, not only productivity contributes to food security in the sense of sufficient food, but also targeted measures in other areas such as reducing food waste or changing consumption patterns. FiBL modelled that agroecological production can still produce enough food, if food waste is reduced by 50 percent and cattle is being fed on grassland exclusively.  

Agroecology is not for rural use only

Michelle Grant from the World Food System Centre at ETH talks about global issues and how we are moving backward in our effort to tackle them. For her, different tools are at our disposal and we have to use them properly in order to achieve any progress, whereby Agroecology is one of these tools. At the moment Agroecology is understood as tool for rural agriculture. In order to upscale it there is need to connect it to the urban context. More attention must be given to urban-rural linkages, especially when it comes to demand driven production. Furthermore, it is important to consider the potential of digitalization. At the moment digitalization in agriculture and Agroecology are discussed separately. Using such opportunities requires more collaboration between different research institutes and faculties.

10:45-11:15Coffee Break

​​Panel 2: What is needed to make use of this potential?

Opening statements

Agroecology can guarantee access to water, seeds and pesticides

Isabelle Chevalley Member of Swiss Parliament for the GLP is, based on her African experiences, convinced that Agroecology is the right path for the future in which we have to invest. At the moment between 50 and 80 percent of the African population lives on agriculture, and for her three problems are evident: Farmers lack access to water, to seeds and to adequate pesticides. By applying Agroecology one is able to save water, one can use the seeds again and for pesticides, better regulations are needed. At the moment pesticides are available, they are, however, harmful for humans and the environment.

Create local food systems and diminish policy incoherence and power imbalances

Tina Goethe from Bread for all refers to three of the 10 FAO Elements for Agroecology. For example the "co-creation and sharing of knowledge": we need to make sure that Switzerland does not push for policies such as the establishment of new seed laws and intellectual property rights, that endanger access to seeds for farmers and preservation of indigenous knowledge. So we need to rethink of international policies, which are not in favour of the livelihood of local farmers. One change that must happen is that farmers regain control over land and seeds, what is at present denied due to policy incoherencies and power imbalances. One must also think about new ways of linking farmers with consumers and organize more local food systems which allow proximity between farmers and consumers. This would allow food chains are getting shorter and therefore energy saved for food transport.

Incentives to work in agriculture are missing

For Regina Ammann from Syngenta agroecological systems are important for biodiversity and food quality. At the same time, Agroecology provides answers to challenges such as productivity, adaptability towards climate change, fertility on degraded soils etc. Overall, the question of who will feed future generations needs an answer as migration to cities is the biggest movement of people in this day and age. Simultaneously, labour is missing in rural areas because agriculture is not attractive anymore. Incentives are required in order to keep youth and farmers in rural agriculture. At the moment comprehensive investment schemes for farmers are missing. Better crops and the use of biotech might help to create incentives as well as investment from the private sector in rural agriculture. Syngenta would like to be a part of this discussion and already has set some goals on soil enhancement and biodiversity to gather evidence for dialog with stakeholders.

Before talking about Agroecology, the livelihood of small-scale farmers must be assured

Ulrike Minkner as a member from UNITERRE and a Swiss small-scale farmer points out that not terms such as Agroecology are of importance, but rather practices. Before one can talk about Agroecology, the livelihood of small-scale farmers must be assured, since it is them who will apply it. At the moment she faces unequal treatment because she is a small-scale farmer and access to financial credits from government is denied, whereby large-scale farms are heavily supported. It seems that Switzerland rather wants to be fit for the world market and promotes growth instead of environmental sustainability. Before focusing on the export of agricultural goods, Switzerland should focus on peasant rights first. When transforming food system it is important to listen to the farmers because they have the knowledge for improving them.


Statements from the panel and the plenary:


Chevalley confronts Ammann by pointing out, that innovation does not necessarily mean GMO. With GMO the Global North links itself with Global South and creates dependency of the latter to intellectual property, owned by the Global North. A lot of farmers are also losing money due to context inadequate seeds and adverse effects.  

Ammann answers that this is why farmers need to be educated and that she is not aware of a sustainable business product that creates dependency. To ensure this, one must start a dialogue with farmers to produce according to their needs and preferences. No dependency is created then. One shouldn't judge from the Swiss position on production methods others choose in their context. Furthermore if farmers choose GMO seeds, this is not Syngenta's doing but rather the one of existing policy frameworks, rules and regulations created by governments and organizations such as SDC.

Goethe adds, that Syngenta is investing 1.2 billion dollars in research and development every year and asks what would happen if this money would be invested in agroecology, or at least more sustainable technologies. In her opinion farmers are eager to learn more, which happens through exchange but isn't fruitful if the power asymmetry between the different actors is too big. One key is to help farmers organize themselves better and give them a voice. When working together one must clearly discuss power inequalities and define who is in which position. For Minkner, big companies and the private sector do not really care for sustainability in trade, and it is the role of governments to engage and regulate more.

Niggli wants to clarify that farmers do not hold the ultimate knowledge and that a dialogue between farmers and researchers is important to create better knowledge. Furthermore it is important to talk about farmers' and breeders' privilege and not about right and wrong.

But for Chevalley it is about right and wrong. When Syngenta is investing 2.1 billion in research for GMO it is wrong, because research is not equal research. Farmers are not really informed by Syngenta and they don't really have a free choice. They don't have a strong voice or enough knowledge and information about the product they buy.

Tadesse mentions that there were problems with pesticides in Ethiopia and, related to that, with water in bore-holes. The Government of Ethiopia did not allow GMO seeds at that time. However, the technology and circumstances made policy makers change their opinion on GMO. The challenge in Africa is to promote cost efficient agriculture. Farmers rather care for productivity than ecology and this focus is not changing at the moment. Zürcher elaborates that one can also increase yields with agroecological group practices and that there is evidence available from several NGO's from different countries.

For Caron, the big challenge is to create a perfect food system. There are different visions of the world and it is idealistic to think one would come to an agreement. But different visions can help to start a better dialogue. Agroecological transition is and will not be the same in different contexts and local stakeholder should design their own solutions. One can encourage stakeholder to choose between different existing approaches.

Arvelo refers to Chevalley and explains that black or white thinking comes from parliament where clear positions must be taken. Within the UN there is a search for consensus and policy guidelines are shaped accordingly. Chevalley replies, that it is indeed a choice and consensus is not always the right way. The goals are common for every party but there are different ways to reach them. She would bet her money on Agroecology and not on GMOs. Goethe supports her, because in her opinion, the existing challenges are clear and there is nearly enough time to tackle them. So it is time now to make clear choices. There is no way to go somewhere in between. A clear pathway is needed. Also one must include and think about economic and social innovation and not only about technology

For Amman it is still an unsolved question what "sustainable" and "responsible" agriculture really means. There is not enough focus on the role of technology and digitalization. One should rather define "sustainable" agriculture and then existing technologies can be applied.

Minkner is pessimistic when she looks at Swiss farmers. Although they get a lot of subsidy payments from the government it is barely enough and many farmers are in debt. The agricultural sector has a much higher suicide rate than other sectors in Switzerland. It is not just about money, but also a about a feeling of pride! One must strengthen local farmers' organization and support direct sale as well as rethink existing free trade agreements



​​Lessons learnt from the Seminar

Preservation of ecosystems as an intrinsic value to promote Agroecology

Mahmoud El-Solh (HLPE Steering Committee Vice-Chairperson) consolidates the challenges mentioned and answers the question if we can really feed the world with "Innovation". Agroecology is one of several approaches to feed the world and tackles the challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition. In terms of productivity it is not the ideal approach, but it takes the ecosystem into consideration. There are approaches such as Agroforestry, Climate Resilient Agriculture and sustainable intensification and one must consider what their contribution towards our ecosystem is, because the preservation of the latter should be an underlying value and goal for humanity.


Perspectives of Switzerland’s international development cooperation on Agroecology as a transformative pathway to the realization of the SDGs

Proximity is key for future food systems and a paradigm shift is needed to transform food systems

Pio Wennubst, Head of Global Cooperation at SDC starts with a little story to point out that a paradigm shift can take place over time. During the 1990s, when he talked with China about food sustainability and Agroecology, they made clear, that they are interested purely in production, in quantities. Years later, when he asked them to take part in an Agroecology side-event, they were on board with one condition, to name it “Innovation” instead of “Agroecology” which is an ideologically charged term. In order to feed our world in 20 years, a transformation is needed. Due to increasing migration and urbanization the existing concept of how we organize our food supplies must change drastically. One approach is to restructure the global food system to several local food systems, because proximity is the key to feed future megacities. Long food chains and long-distance shipping cannot be the answer. Agroecology is just a little tip on the scales and mostly in terms of increasing biodiversity and varieties and not the only solution for systemic problems. Therefore: imagine the future, think ahead and do it strategically!

13:45-14:15Networking lunch for all participants

Answer and feedback from an SDC/r4d context to HLPE draft on “Agroecology and other innovations”

The Swiss r4d project «Towards Food Sustainability» formed part of a transdisciplinary group of scientists and social movements to draft a collective comment on the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) Draft 0 on "Agroecology and other innovations"


Feedback by Johanna Jacobi of CDE 

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