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Business as Usual is Not an Option: The Making of a Paradigm Shift: Food and Agriculture

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Transformation of our food systems: the making of a paradigm shift

Key messages

Authored by Marcia Ishii-Eiteman,Lim Li Ching and Ivette Perfecto and approved by the IAASTD+10 Advisory Group.

Eleven years ago, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) provided a powerful evidence-based call to shift from dominant, resource-extractive and input-intensive approaches to agriculture (referred to as “business as usual”) and significantly transform our agriculture and food systems. The IAASTD was authored by over 400 scientists and development experts from more than 80 countries, sponsored by five United Nations agencies and the World Bank, approved by governments in 2008 and published in 2009. It provided an extensive array of policy options to shift course away from business as usual, towards biodiversified agroecological practices that place small farmers – who produce the majority of the world’s food – and their knowledge systems at the center [1]. The IAASTD also identified actions to address power imbalances embedded in global and national political, economic, research and trade systems and institutions that were found to entrench the inequities responsible for persistent poverty and hunger in the world.

A new collection of essays — Transformation of our food systems: the making of a paradigm shift — synthesizes the results of over a dozen international assessments that have been published in the intervening decade and provides critical updates on emerging trends in climate change, biodiversity, health, human rights, corporate concentration, resource grabbing and equity that affect the future integrity and viability of the world’s agri-food systems. Integrating insights provided by peasant and Indigenous communities and findings of UN and other multi-stakeholder analyses, the authors have articulated the following current and emerging trends and key messages.

Trends in agriculture and food systems

Climate change

The climate emergency is getting worse, risking damaging the natural resource base on which agriculture depends, with grave consequences for food security. The agri-food system, largely in its industrial manifestations from production to consumption, is responsible for 21-37% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with 14-28% of the total corresponding to agriculture and land use [26]. Climate change adversely affects biodiversity, while biodiversity loss (deforestation) exacerbates climate change [11, 17, 26]. Agriculture remains one of the main contributors to climate change, through, for example, nitrous oxide and methane emissions associated with agrochemical and industrial livestock production [26]. In contrast, agroecological and Indigenous methods of farming and sustainable grazing practices that regenerate soil biology, sequester carbon and provide critical food and habitat for wild species, offer promising pathways towards both climate change mitigation and adaptation [11, 17, 21, 24, 26].

Biodiversity

Threats to biodiversity have intensified, driven in large part by industrial agriculture and unsustainable extraction of natural resources, resulting in dramatic declines in species abundance and richness [9,11, 17]. These losses have resulted in reduction of essential ecosystem services such as water and climate regulation, pollination and pest control [17]. The diversity of domesticated and wild varieties of crops and animals has also declined, reducing system resilience to perturbations and stresses. The loss of some forms of biodiversity (for example, phylogenetic and functional diversity) can permanently eliminate future options [11]. In contrast, highly diversified, well-managed systems that initiate an agroecological succession support greater species diversity, while meeting communities’ food and livelihood needs [11, 17].

Pandemics

Recently emerged infectious diseases can be tied directly or indirectly to changes in agriculture or land use associated with industrial agriculture [12]. Logging, mining and intensive plantation agriculture allow wild pathogens that would normally die off in natural forests to propagate more widely across susceptible populations of people or livestock. These spillovers are exacerbated by poverty and austerity programs affecting environmental sanitation and public health, and can easily spread worldwide through the global food chain [12]. Pandemics also present a serious threat to Indigenous peoples’ lives and cultures, with subsequent loss of knowledge systems and technologies. Intensive livestock operations near city centers also provide fertile locations for the evolution and spread of pathogens that jump from wild to domesticated species.

Health, nutrition and diets

New research has provided a deeper, more complex understanding of what constitutes health, with increased recognition of the interconnected impacts on human health of nutrition, diet, environment, exposure to pesticides and emergence of new pathogens, as well as sociopolitical and economic factors such as inequality, migration, conflict, weak regulatory environments and policy inertia [12, 19, 22, 23]. The positive interlinkages between healthier diets, as a result of food and nutritional diversity, and holistic and diversified sustainable production systems such as agroecology and agroforestry, have meanwhile become clearer [19, 22]. Considerable evidence indicates that ultra-processed food products that have replaced nutrient-dense foods are core drivers of obesity, which has doubled since the publication of the original IAASTD report, while non-communicable diseases now form a greater proportion of disease burden. Additionally, industrialized meat production systems and overconsumption in industrialized nations have brought negative consequences for health, the environment and climate change. Globally, undernutrition has increased over the past five years and has not been reduced substantially since IAASTD.

Corporate concentration

Trends in industry consolidation identified by the IAASTD have not only continued, but intensified, with global food and agriculture-related industries becoming even more concentrated [4,14]. The market share held by the top four firms globally in 2019 is 40 percent or higher in an increasing number of sectors: agrochemicals (65.8 percent), animal pharmaceuticals (58.3 percent), commercial seeds (53.2 percent), and farm equipment (46.2 percent) [14]. Vertical integration is accelerating, including through digital capture of entire agri-food systems in the form of emerging technology platforms offering tailored integrated packages consisting of (so-called) precision agriculture and decision-making tools that make autonomous decisions about chemical inputs and seeds, cultivation measures and harvesting, transport and marketing of commodities. Further, asset management firms that act as dominant players investing in food and agricultural industries, and persistent power asymmetries in international food and commodity supply chains, have further reduced competition and inhibited policymakers’ ability and will to protect farmers and rural communities from loss of political, economic and market space [4, 5, 6,14]. As these transnational corporations become increasingly powerful, they exert greater influence over public policy and the research sector, while remaining largely unregulated as they set prices to their advantage [6] (e.g. determining prices that farmers pay for inputs and receive for their outputs, as well as retail prices that consumers pay). Meanwhile, “dumping” agricultural goods at below-cost of production continues, in the absence of policies to protect farmers’ food and livelihood security, and little use of market mechanisms to valorize agricultural ecosystem services and reflect the social and environmental costs of production [5, 6].

Resource grabbing

Throughout the past decade, national and transnational  corporations in the agri-food sectors have conducted highly successful campaigns to acquire land (e.g. through large-scale “land-grabbing”), obtain control of seeds and genetic resources, capture digital data and control institutional and public narratives about agriculture, food systems and “development” [4, 8, 10, 14, 27]. The extension of conventional “resource-grabbing” into intellectual, digital and social domains, paired with the increasing political influence that has accompanied corporate consolidation, has enabled industry players to shape agri-food systems to their benefit [4]. Transnational agribusinesses position themselves, their technologies and products as offering ideal solutions to global concerns, oppose regulations that might constrain product sales and frequently co-opt the language of deeper systemic change put forward by others, often with active support from states but to the detriment of local communities [27]

Human rights, equity and food sovereignty

Adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other people working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) in 2018 was an important milestone. It vests peasants and other groups working in rural areas with rights that need to be respected, protected and fulfilled, and recognizes their contribution to conserving and improving biodiversity as well as food security [15]. UNDROP reaffirms the universality of all human rights, in particular the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The rights, vision and agency of peasants, pastoralists, fishers, small-scale livestock keepers, women, Indigenous and forest peoples are therefore at its foundation and are central to the transformative change that is required in agriculture and food systems [15, 19, 24, 27]. Nevertheless, entrenched socio-economic and political inequities persist, undermining the health, diets, livelihoods, cultures, intergenerational transmission of local and Indigenous knowledge, and secure access to food and control over resources required by both rural and urban communities to ensure their food sovereignty and well-being [10, 17, 26, 28].

Agroecology

Since IAASTD, numerous transdisciplinary studies, UN and intergovernmental processes have recognized the transformative potential of agroecology to promote food and livelihood security, sustainable diets, environmental health, social, economic, ecological and climate resilience, and social equity [17, 19, 24, 28, 29]. It is now generally agreed that agroecology is critical to address deepening food systems-related crises. Growing evidence indicates that agroecology provides a paradigm for and multiple pathways towards a more just and sustainable food system [29]. Its positive contribution to climate mitigation and adaptation and biodiversity conservation has been established [24]. For agroecology to now reach its full potential, it must honor the principles and practices of interculturality, transdisciplinarity and Indigeneity [1, 24, 27].

These trends and updates indicate that the systemic flaws and vested interests that continue to prop up a failing industrial agriculture and food system have not been adequately or successfully addressed. As a result, too little progress has been made over the past decade, while crises have worsened. In the absence of serious commitment to changing course, multiple biophysical, ecological and socio-economic crises have accelerated. Human activities continue to degrade the natural resource base and — driven to a great extent by multinational corporations and governments lacking the political will to adequately regulate these corporations — are now pushing us past planetary boundaries. As industrial agriculture expands into remote natural areas, new pathogens jump species and, as with COVID-19, can lead to devastating global pandemics [12]. On the other hand, there are beacons of hope, based on agroecological principles, Indigenous approaches and co-creation of knowledges, emerging from the grassroots that are showing multiple paths forward towards a true transformation of the food system [15, 27, 28, 29].

Key Messages

Key message 1

Business as usual” is (still) not an option. A radical transformation of food systems is necessary. In many respects, the IAASTD got it right. Significant institutional, political and structural changes must be undertaken at local, meso (territorial) and global scales if we are to escape the deadly consequences of today’s accelerating and converging climate and biodiversity crises and succeed in radically transforming the systems that have pushed us to breach planetary boundaries and undermine the natural systems on which human survival depends [3, 13, 17, 26].

Key message 2

Failure to make progress at national and global levels is due primarily to lack of political will, power imbalances and system lock-ins. These lock-ins include: path dependency, export orientation, expectation of cheap food, compartmentalized, short-term or linear thinking, “feed the world” or technological fix narratives, inappropriate measures of success (focusing for example on simple economic metrics such as GDP or single crop yield that fail to value social and natural capital and neglect to quantify true costs), opposing agendas from corporate actors, limited donor vision, fear of failure and concentration of power [11, 13, 14, 17, 22, 28].

Key message 3

We cannot solve today’s multiple, converging and accelerating crises with uni-dimensional, linear, reductionist or mechanistic responses. We need, rather, to embrace a food systems approach with solutions that have multiple, converging and positively reinforcing outcomes that bring beneficial synergistic effects across multiple domains [2, 9, 11, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 29]. Transformative agroecology, for example, is not only productive, resilient, adaptable and profitable, but also focuses on agency, democracy, equity, rights and ecological renewal [24, 25, 29]. Indigenous approaches such as Buen Vivir, sumak kawsay, Ubuntu and swaraj, provide ways of knowing and being (epistemologies and ontologies, respectively) that offer holistic, multi-dimensional pathways towards a viable future, including, often, recognition of the rights of Mother Earth [1, 27]. Bringing agroecological and Indigenous approaches together in conversation offers a powerful way forward, rooted in interculturality and respect [1, 22]. These and other holistic and multifunctional systemic approaches also support progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and stand in sharp contrast to the limited benefits offered by narrow technological fixes such as genetically modified crops and new genetic technologies that do not address underlying agronomic deficiencies, inequitable power dynamics or the dominant social and environmental constraints to sustainable production [8, 9, 18, 25].

Key message 4

Progress towards a livable and viable future requires deeply participatory democratic processes and cannot be attained without attention to basic rights – in particular the rights of farmers, women, Indigenous peoples and other people working in rural areas [1, 3, 10, 15, 19, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29]. Implementing a rights-based approach requires enacting legislation and measures to promote and protect these rights, strong policy commitment to the obligations established in human rights law such as UNDROP and UNDRIP, and addressing the power asymmetries and inequities that impede these rights [15].  Fulfilling human rights requires replacing corporate and elite control over land, seeds, water and other productive and natural resources with cooperative ownership and other democratic models such as those based on principles of circular and solidarity economies. It also requires centering the leadership, vision and experience of women, peasants, fishers, pastoralists, small-scale livestock keepers, farmworkers, Indigenous peoples and others working in rural and urban areas [1, 7, 9, 15, 16, 20, 22, 25, 27, 28]. Deep changes in governance are needed to foster their inclusion, participation, empowerment and agency, including recognition of territorial systems of communal, collective and customary self-governance [3, 15, 16, 19, 23, 24].

Key message 5

Stabilizing climate and reversing trends in biodiversity losses requires transforming agri-food systems toward agroecological systems, reducing food waste and loss as well as meat consumption in most regions, and  prioritizing and valuing natural, social and human capital [9, 11, 13,17, 19, 23]. Societies must work within the realities of ecological limits and planetary boundaries, while economic systems—as one among many aspects of socio-cultural organization—must be adapted to serve rather than drive society [3, 13, 27]. Governments and civil society will need to redirect and shape policies, research, extension and market incentives away from dominant models of input-intensive industrial agriculture and towards diversified, knowledge-intensive systems that mitigate climate change and regenerate and conserve the natural resource base [5, 9, 11, 18]. An intercultural “dialogue of knowledges” between Indigenous and agroecological pathways and local practices can support the political, social, ecological and cultural shifts necessary to promote resilience, social equity and planetary health [1, 27].

Key message 6

Promotion of healthy, diversified and sustainable diets can both reduce the major forms of malnutrition and offer multiple reinforcing co-benefits to human and ecological health. A holistic and transdisciplinary approach to health-protective food systems will enable communities to grow culturally acceptable, accessible, affordable, safe and healthy food, protect farmers and food system workers’ well-being, conserve natural resources, and protect biodiversity and the critical ecosystem functions on which society depends [19, 22, 23]. Today’s expanded understanding of health and “food safety” necessitates a bold and comprehensive regulatory approach that tackles longer-term threats to human, ecosystem and environmental health posed by current production systems. This approach requires overcoming funders’ and policymakers’ resistance to change that arises from conflicts of interests, attachment to familiar but overly simplistic interventions, aversion to battling vested commercial interests, and attraction to false promises of easy solutions [22].

Key message 7

Rebalancing power in the agri-food system requires action to both curtail the power of dominant corporations and large businesses that underpin the industrial food system and to provide space for different trade and marketing systems that empower and allow small-scale and peasant farmers, Indigenous peoples, women, and rural and urban communities to flourish. Governments should utilize measures, including competition and anti-trust regulations, to reverse trends in corporate concentration [4, 14]; redirect subsidies and incentives away from unsustainable practices and towards agroecological practices [5, 24]; support short supply chains, territorial markets and distribution infrastructures and locally-managed interactive rural-urban linkages [11, 20]; use public procurement of agroecological produce and artisanal foods to build or rebuild these markets and infrastructures [11]; and revise institutions, policies and regulations shaping ownership and control over resources, ensuring farmers’ secure access to and control over land, water, genetic, intellectual property and other resources [15, 24]. Valuable approaches include participatory and territorial management planning processes that center Indigenous peoples, women and youth [15, 16, 23, 27, 29], and that ensure seed sovereignty through, for example, farmer-to-farmer seed exchange [1, 24, 26, 28].

Key message 8

Systems transformation requires a re-visioning and re-centering of values of equity, reciprocity and solidarity; principles of democracy, justice and collectivity; and the recognition that humans exist within, not outside of, nature. The process of transformation also implies re-valorizing the local, socio-cultural, biodiverse and resilient [11, 17, 23, 25].

Over a decade ago, the IAASTD presented “options for action.” Today, decisive action is no longer “an option;” it’s an imperative. The COVID-19 pandemic has moreover laid bare the inequities, system failures and dangers of today’s dominant, globalized and increasingly corporatized food and agriculture systems that have concentrated profits in the hands of a few, while simultaneously driving global climate, biodiversity and health crises towards their tipping points. What is inarguable is that today’s multiple accelerating crises demand transformative change. Ample evidence now exists that such change is not only possible but is already happening on the ground in communities and countries around the world.

Transformation of our food systems offers evidence that our most promising ways forward lie in a pluriverse of cultures and solutions; the respectful co-creation of diverse knowledges; and the collective visioning, re-imagining and implementing of systems of fair and democratic governance that rebalance power, restore ecological integrity and prioritize social justice and human and ecosystem health within planetary boundaries.

References

[1] Looking Back: IAASTD, agroecology and new ways forward. Marcia Ishii-Eitemann
[2] EU-SCAR: Two narratives in a world of scarcities. Erik Mathijs
[3] Update: Innovation for whom? Molly Anderson
[4] Update: Corporate multilateralism at the UN. Pat Mooney
[5] UNCTAD: How to cope with largely dysfunctional market signals for sustainable agriculture? Ulrich Hofmann
[6] Update: Trade and market policy. Steve Suppan
[7] UN: How the IAASTD helped shape the SDGs. Michael Bergöö & Mayumi Ridenhour
[8] Update: The emerging issue of “digitalization” of agriculture. Angelika Hilbeck & Eugenio Tisselli
[9] UNEP: Recasting agriculture in a resource-smart food systems landscape. Jacqueline McGlade
[10] Update: Access to land and the emergence of internationally operating farm enterprises. Ward Anseeuw
[11] IPES-Food: From uniformity to diversity. Emile A. Frison
[12] Update: Agriculture, capital, and infectious diseases. Rob Wallace
[13] TEEB AgriFood: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Alexander Müller & Nadine Azzu
[14] Update: The state of concentration global food and agriculture industries. Phil H. Howard & Mary K. Hendrickson
[15] UNDROP: The UN declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. María E Fernandez
[16] Update: Changing demographies and smallholder futures. Ben White & Jan Douwe van der Ploeg
[17] IPBES: Agriculture and biodiversity. Kate Brauman & Bob Watson
[18] Update: Assessment of modern biotechnologies. Jack Heinemann
[19] Agrimonde-Terra: Land use and food security in 2050. A narrow road. Marie de Lattre-Gasquet
[20] Update: Urbanization and the effects on agriculture and food security. Frédéric Lançon
[21] Update: The vast potential of sustainable grazing. Anita Idel
[22] Lancet Commission: The agriculture and health nexus: a decade of paradigm progress but patchy policy actions. Boyd Swinburn
[23] Update: Food systems in relation to nutrition and health. Marie Josèphe Amiot
[24] FAO Report on Agroecology: Agroecological approaches and other innovations. Alexander Wezel
[25] Update: The need for a conceptual paradigm shift. Bernard Hubert
[26] IPCC Climate and Land: The contribution of the IPCC to a change of paradigm in agriculture and food systems. Marta G. Rivera-Ferre
[27] Update: Indigenous autonomy and indigenous community-based research. Tirso Gonzales
[28] Global Alliance for the Future of Food & and Biovision: Beacons of hope. Lauren Baker, Barbara Gemmill-Herren, Fabio Leippert
[29] Looking Forward: Resources to inspire a transformative agroecology: a curated guide. Colin R. Anderson, Molly D. Anderson


Benedikt Haerlin

Benedikt Haerlin heads the Berlin office of the Foundation on Future Farming (Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft). He co-ordinates the European initiative “Save our Seeds“, runs a “global field” of 2000 m² and co-chairs the thinktank ARC2020 on European agricultural policies. He represented northern NGOs in the board of the IAASTD. Before, he was an author and journalist, a Member of the European Parliament and worked for Greenpeace International.

“Business as usual is not an option” has become a widely-used maxim since appearing in the press release on the final report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in April 2008. One decade later, the majority of the academics, policy makers and institutions involved seem to agree on the fundamental need for a transformation of food systems at both local and global levels. In addition, the spirit of change has accelerated over this period, emerging from a groundswell of innovative grassroots initiatives, old and new, from field to fork.

More than a decade ago, the IAASTD identified a number of major shifts and policy options that would contribute to the reduction of hunger and poverty, the improvement of rural livelihoods and human health, and facilitating equitable, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable development (1) . These included:

  • Favourable and just conditions for small farmers, especially women, in terms of their access to land, resources, seed, knowledge and markets;
  • Support for and investment in agroecological practices, innovation and research;
  • Complementing the concept of food security with that of food sovereignty as the right of peoples and sovereign states to democratically determine their own agricultural and food policies;
  • Fair and equitable terms of trade, designed to overcome the ‘global treadmill’ and foster local and regional value chains, offering greater protection from financial speculation, international corporate domination and corruption;
  • The revalorization of indigenous, traditional and local knowledge and a participatory approach to knowledge production and sharing that is solution oriented instead of technology driven.

The complexity of food system and ecosystem approaches is being addressed today by an emerging discipline, or rather trans-discipline, of agricultural, ecological, economic and health knowledge. Pathways to holistic and multifactorial approaches have been increasingly conceptualized and elaborated. As a result, a new food system narrative has been firmly established over the past decade. This new narrative is distinctly different from the post-war industrial and chemical narrative whose fame and glory culminated in the Green Revolution and which still dominates mainstream farming. It also goes well beyond concepts of sustainable intensification merely trying to improve the resource efficiency of productivism.

Narratives and fashions come and go. However, what has developed over the past decade is more than this. A real paradigm shift for agriculture, nutrition and food systems has emerged. Such a paradigm shift entails the change of prevailing questions and priorities to be answered within a conceptual framework accepted by a majority of the scientific and expert community and those following their knowledge system. Thomas S. Kuhn defined paradigms in 1962 as “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” (2) . Paradigms are questions, methods, patterns and models, not answers. They provide room for lively discussion and competing concepts as well as different approaches, including a pluriversity of knowledge systems well beyond classical western natural sciences. However, they do exclude answers to questions not asked. A good example of such a paradigm shift is the role that Climate Change considerations have in global priority setting.

Amongst the key elements of the new paradigm for food and farming systems is the recognition of planetary boundaries and natural scarcities, including rapid climate change and biodiversity loss as well as the scarcity of time left for addressing these issues. The drama of the predictions of the IPCC (see here) as well as the IPBES (see here) becoming true and visible in even less time than expected is defining the global modus operandi under which we have to address the questions of the new paradigm.

Integrating previously segregated sectors of production, processing, trade, consumption, environmental assessment and health, as well as knowledge systems into the concept of food systems substantially extends the scope and complexity of the approaches that are needed. Together with the recognition of social inclusion and human rights as critical systemic factors in any sustainability equation this systems approach has gained weight enormously over the past decade. The new paradigm of agri-food systems also integrates the implementation and cost of public and personal health as part of the economy of food and agricultural production. Lifestyle, mass communication and its manipulation, and socio-demographic developments have all been acknowledged as drivers of our food systems. As to whether the archaic and modern myth of “more food is needed – production must increase!” has already been overcome by a differentiated “only produce or take what is needed” as a part of the emerging paradigm shift is still too close to call.

The level of complexity that emerges from this new paradigm is higher and more challenging than its green revolution predecessor. This leads some scholars to believe that only computed modelling, big data and artificial intelligence will be able to solve the riddle. De-humanisation by means of digitization has become a conceptual approach to managing this complexity. Resorting to tools and technologies instead of values to answer what are basically political and social questions is not new. However, this ideological mistake is at the root of many of the disasters that must now be urgently managed and healed. Re-humanising, reconnecting, rebuilding and restoring the resilience of our food systems is a distinctively different response to the same set of undeniable challenges.

The past decade saw the formation of agroecology as a uniting conceptual frame work for addressing the new paradigmatic questions. At the same time, evidence has emerged of the importance of myriads of diverse local forms of implementation; traditional and new. Agroecology both as a social and cultural concept and as a set of agricultural and food system practices is certainly one of the most holistic and convincing approaches to the challenges of the new paradigm. While diversity is the mantra of agroecology at every level from local practices to global understanding, the beauty of the approach is that it provides plain and simple answers. These are based on human values and compassion to many uncomputably complex questions. The IAASTD has contributed substantially to the adoption of agroecology over the past decade.

The emerging food and agriculture paradigm shift contrasts with the insufficient and sometimes counterproductive political and economic approaches of governments and global corporations and their national and international value chains. This is not an entirely new illustration of practise not following knowledge. Threats to the resilience of ecosystems and sustainable use of natural resources and critical material cycles have increased over the past decade. All planetary boundaries, except the ozone layer, are being stressed harder today than ten years ago. Loss of biodiversity, mounting greenhouse gas emissions, degradation of soil fertility, deforestation, and detrimental nutrient and chemical emissions continue to rise at unacceptable levels. In many regions of the world ‘mainstream’ chemical agriculture continues on a pathway of self-destruction. Despite progress on the part of some countries, chronic undernourishment and hidden hunger, as well as obesity and other food related diseases have actually increased over the past decade. The destructive impact of industrial food systems and agricultural practices on our ecosystems and the social and cultural wellbeing of communities and nations has probably never been higher than today.

When looking back to the last decade we must acknowledge that, however intellectually and technologically productive and exciting it has been, it was by and large a lost decade for the practical resilience and ecological adaptation as suggested by the IAASTD report. While this is the statistically quantifiable evidence, the qualitative balance may not look as grim. This decade has seen bottom-up movements across the globe, not only demanding but realizing radical change, inspiring new approaches and practices in fields, kitchens and markets. A groundswell of highly innovative, yet conserving and healing agricultural and community practices may prove to have laid the ground for a “revolution of the niches” in industrialized as well as less industrialized societies.

Many scientists and other experts believe that the present decade will be the last chance to keep global warming and global biodiversity loss at an acceptable level for the survival of humankind. Likewise, bio-culturalism is threatened with irreversible collapse. The food and agricultural system has become the single most important factor that can deliver fast and sustained results in relation to these challenges. It is the one sector that directly affects, and can directly be influenced by, all those who eat and who produce food, i.e. all 7.7 billion humans on this planet.

Most societies and individuals now know exactly what needs to be changed, what really works and how it works. The financial and technical means to accomplish these changes are at hand. All that is needed is the political and economic will to do the right things at the right time. And there is clearly no time to lose.

Hopefully this collection of essays and topical papers will contribute to the debate, convincing and motivating colleagues, decision makers and all those involved in the food and agricultural sector to deliver the changes we all need to see. May it serve as a useful resource for those engaged in converting this paradigm shift into a real-life transformation of our food systems.

Endnotes

1 IAASTD, Global Summary for decision makers, p. 3 ↑ back to the text

2 Kuhn, Thomas S., 1962,.The structure of scientific revolutions, 2nd edition 1970, p. 8 ↑ back to the text

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A web of Life for ALL Life

Allan Savory: A holistic management shift is required

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"We need to findmore effective ways to amplify the stories of solutions"

 

Mr. Savory we know historically that the deterioration of food production systems in past civilizations and their inability to cognize encroaching complexity of population growth and governance in a holistic context leads to unbroken chain of civilizations’ collapsing. Do you think we still have time to avoid this on a global level now? Is there a way to create a new hope and new vision?

We we do not know, but Britain did not know if they could survive after the fall of France and most of Europe – but with good leadership, pushing aside egos and personal gain and acting on a war-footing they more than survived. Never has human civilization faced a graver danger than now with global finance and ecological illiteracy of our institutions driving the massive environmental degradation destroying our only habitat. Ordinary people know that all species, including humans cannot survive without suitable habitat. If world leaders (heads of governments and UN) put the massive environmental degradation that culminates in global desertification and the climate emergency on a war-footing and lead we have great hope for future generations.

Can you elaborate on the different impacts that ‘policy’ vs. ‘practice’ has on this impending problem of reforming agricultural systems worldwide?

Yes. Without agriculture there is no city, church, university, army, business or government – no civilization. Without a new regenerative form of agriculture (not crop production, but the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters) global civilization will fail. This is because all forms of agriculture historically have led to the failure of civilizations in all regions of the world and now the same threat is global. Few things in my life have taught society more clearly how interlinked our survival is than the present pandemic. Armies change civilizations. Farmers, foresters, fishermen, pastoralists destroy civilizations. So, we face the situation in which mainstream institutional, industrial agriculture led by our universities, governments and corporations supported by global finance, is the most destructive and extractive industry ever in history. And all forms of organic, sustainable, permaculture, grass production of livestock ever known led to failure of many civilizations in all regions long before chemicals and machinery.

 

So, if we keep discussing different practices and people keep vying for validity and funding for their favoured practice we know we will fail. What world leaders on a global war-footing need to do is to address agriculture at the policy level by focusing on the cause of agriculture, throughout history, being so environmentally, socially and economically destructive (while feeding ever growing numbers of people).

By governments and all large institutions addressing at policy level the cause of the ever-growing environmental destruction reflected in global desertification and climate change all nations will rapidly develop the required new regenerative agriculture. Very little new knowledge, not already available amongst the world’s farmers, fishermen, foresters, wildlife and livestock managers, universities and environmental organizations, is required. We do not lack detailed knowledge, we lack the ability to manage the social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity. That ability we only gained in 1984.

“If the Greta Thunberg generation are to have any hope I am again going to use my statement “We have no option but the unthinkable. By every means possible we have get enough public demand to force quicker change by insisting institutions develop policies to address problems in a holistic context.”

 

We know most of the organized structures of our modern world can be represented as silo’s, inhabited by true believers (Eric Hoffer author), and authoritarian demagogues.  Do you believe that Holistic Management training will become widely acceptable at upper levels of organizations or will occur because of collapsing regional agricultural ecosystems at the level of farming being our next crises?

I don’t know. All we do know, from good research and history, is that when counter-intuitive or paradigm-shifting change is involved, it is impossible for democratic leaders or any organization (institution) to lead. No change is possible until public opinion shifts and demands that change. And this holds no matter how serious, no matter how many million lives are lost or what the economic cost. Institutions, including elected leaders of such, take on a life of their own as complex systems. Institutions reflect the prevailing beliefs of society and lead the way with such thinking. However, when truly new knowledge emerges (which has happened very few times in history – Coppernicus, Galilleo, Semmelwiess are examples) institutions lead the ridicule and rejection until public opinion shifts. I cannot find any case in history of any institution accepting paradigm-shifting change ahead of its public.

Addressing the cause of all that ails us involves two paradigm-shifting concepts – known and developed by thousands of people over sixty years, including thousands employed in institutions but acting independently of their institutions – the Holistic Management framework has been blocked from rapidly gaining public awareness by the world’s institutions that became aware of it – environmental and agricultural organizations, universities, governments and international agencies. Only time will tell if programs such as this interview, social networking and the efforts of many people mainly engaged in developing regenerative agriculture will prevail over institutional aggression and inertia.

How is the lack of validation affecting positive change in local communities to holistic principles?

Firstly, there is really only one holistic principle. Intuitively known by all earlier people who in most cultures recognized humanity’s inseparable tie to our habitat. And the principle was brought into Western thought in 1926 by Jan Smuts who wrote Holism and Evolution. That principle is that nature works in wholes and patterns – not as mechanistic world-view and science believed. Knowing all they did, including Native Americans thinking seven generations ahead before taking any action, did not help them. Wherever humans were we still damaged our environment and least so in regions of perennial humidity. This was brought about by two things. First human decision making has always been to meet our needs, desires or to address problems basically. Reducing the unavoidable web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity to such things as the reason or context for management and policy is “reductionist” in a holistic world. What we finally discovered in 1984 after decades of work, was how to address the cause of past and present failures – by going to where the rubber hits the road.

That point is where actual decisions are made in any policy or management practice. Here, two points become important for the survival of civilization. One- all management and policy needs to be in a holistic context. Second -it is simply not possible, as tool-using animals, for humans to prevent or address global desertification and thus climate change using the only tools institutional scientists who advise world leaders accept or recognize. Those tools available to institutional scientists (and world leaders can only act through institutions) are technology in its many forms, fire, or conservation (resting our environment to recover). Three tools. That is why in a 2013 TED Talk I said “we have no option, but the unthinkable, and that is to use livestock as a tool to address global desertification.”

So, yes, none of this can come about until we have a better-informed public insisting that our governments and large environmental organizations in particular develop policies in a holistic context. It cannot be done until there is public insistence is what we learn from both research and history. So this we need to focus on.

After so many years of educating farmers has a training model emerged that can be web based and integrated into real time data collection to establish the validity of rethinking management in agriculture?

We do have a great deal of training material from simple self-help to more sophisticated coaching and mentoring in collaborating groups of people and organizations that are beginning to change. That can and will keep growing. However, that is the normal process of incremental change against institutional blocking and according to research we can expect to take about 200 years. Just to get the Royal Navy to accept lime juice would end scurvy cost over a million sailors lives and took 200 years – and nothing has changed in institutions since.

If the Greta Thunberg generation are to have any hope I am again going to use my statement “We have no option but the unthinkable. By every means possible we have get enough public demand to force quicker change by insisting institutions develop policies to address problems in a holistic context.”

The downside of public demand for this is Zero – there is absolutely no risk whatsoever and the only blockage is professional and institutional egos. Over now sixty years of development there has never yet been any financial vested interest oppose or ridicule the idea of managing or developing policy holistically. The upside is that we might just address global human habitat destruction in time to save civilization as we know it.

 

One of your key observations that attracted me years ago to your work was the “herd effect” and grasslands regeneration. Has that observation become an empirically established fact at this time?

When I consider this question, I ponder whether it is an empirically established fact that water flows downhill? Science is fundamentally a process of observation, interpretation, deduction and experimentation to gain knowledge of nature. That enabled us thousands of years ago to accept water flows downhill and later the theory of gravity, and experimentation there gave explanation as to why water flows downhill.

By this “scientific” process over thousands of years before academic scientists people developed all the domestic varieties of plants and animals making civilization possible. Since the recent dominance in management by academic scientists we are losing species, losing languages, losing cultures and accelerating human habitat destruction.

 

 

It was a simple observation by me over twenty years of tracking people and animals that where people, or animals, crowded in one another’s body space or were hungry, lost or wounded the effect on the soil and vegetation was different – more soil surface disruption, more course plants trampled more dead plant material laid horizontally on the soil ( slowing water flow, slowing rate of application of water from rainfall to the soil surface, increasing water penetration,..) more seedlings, closer plant spacing holding litter – all of this dramatically affecting the ease or otherwise of tracking. How much easier tracking was where fewer herds, more fire, more bare soil, more erosion and so on. And it was simply observation that any large herbivores (buffalo, bison, elk or whatever) when not apprehensive and defensive against pack-hunting predators spread, walked gently, did not tramp on course plants, did not lay much litter, etc. etc. And from there we simply recognized if we are to use animals as tools we have to do so largely through behaviour and their feet not mouths, and not mere presence. I have frankly not wasted my time worrying about empirically proving any of this that can be observed at any time – just like water flowing downhill. That academics sitting in offices relying entirely on peer-reviewed publications have a problem with this I have no doubt. Thank goodness the pioneers like Leopold, Smuts, Bennet, Howard and others engaged in science mostly in the field as did my own mentors.

Where you aware of the fact that research based on NASA satellite sequential space photos of the Great Plains area in the United State, a major bread basket of the world, is showing a significant destabilization of grass cover? Desertification is a major issue isn’t it.

I was not aware, but am not surprised. The desertification of the United States is terrible and is a major contributor to climate change as well as the increasing droughts, floods, poverty, collapse of the Western Culture (which will eventually be kept alive only by rodeo athletes and cowboy poets). I have always been saddened by the extreme opposition to my work from cattlemen’s organizations and environmental organizations in the US. But again, people are not being bad and are not to be blamed – that is what institutions do -ridicule and oppose any truly new insights.

Could you explain what sustainability means in a holistically managed paradigm, and what that would look like in greening the planet?

Let me try. First I must say it will not be Holistic Management because that is not agriculture but is purely a way to manage complexity in anyone’s life or business. It will be a new agriculture (crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and wildlife management) that regenerates the world’s living soils and biodiversity on the land and in our waters including oceans. Regenerating societies, cultures, towns and economies based, as they need to be, on the photosynthetic process – not paper wealth or wealth based on extractive industry. This new agriculture will be made up largely of many of the practices we see today in organic, sustainable, permaculture, pastoralism, wildlife, fisheries and forestry management. It will include some new practices (like the Holistic Planned Grazing process or holistic policy development) to reverse desertification that only became known and possible with the development of the Holistic Management framework. The practices that will “float to the top” as it were will be those that are socially, environmentally and economically sound both short and long-term all determined by policy developed in a holistic context reflecting what all humans want. Regenerative agriculture is what it will be. Management and policy developed in a global holistic context is how it will come about.

How can farmers best usher in a post industrial ecologically balanced food system?

They can do their best to learn how to manage holistically ensuring those practices that improve their own immediate environment, society and economy as many are doing today. However, this will not succeed because, as the corona pandemic has highlighted, we are a global community. Most of our population lives in cities and the economic and political power has shifted to cities totally disengaged from ecological literacy and ability to connect the dots. Corporate, shareholder, political game playing, celebrity desire for popular appeal, institutional and professional egos will persist in supporting veganism, vilifying meat, investing in manufactured meat, factory production of animals, university/corporate led crop production based on chemistry and marketing of technology (not on biological science) and of course planting billions of trees. All of which is leading to climate change and none of which addresses the cause. And the UN will continue to promote its 17 Sustainable Development Goals that almost all address the symptoms of desertification and not the cause and so are doomed once more to failure.

With such facts the best we can strive for is to use social media to educate the public in cities as well as rural environments to the fact that agriculture has to be regenerative and can really only be brought about in time by demanding policies be developed in a global holistic context – soaring above politics, stock markets, national power aspirations – to what all humans want and need for civilization to survive.

In addressing a world audience what would you say is the most important take away from your many years of astute observations of regeneration of natural systems?

My view is coloured by my years of struggle to first understand, and then find solutions to why humans so consistently destroyed their own environment or habitat. A struggle that led to me from being a government research officer to being an independent scientist, a farmer, rancher, game rancher, international consultant, soldier, member of parliament, president of a political party, exile while throughout collaborating with thousands of concerned individuals in all walks of life. From that broad perspective enjoyed by few if any scientists the two most important thoughts I would love to convey would be:

That we have to work at scale through governments and that all forms of governance -communism, socialism, capitalism, dictatorships, populism – have failed us. Our best hope lies in democracies but only when democracies ban all political parties that make it impossible for democracy to function. In this view I was preceded by George Washington (with some parallels in our lives) some 200 years ago.

Secondly governments need to form all policies in a national holistic context to ensure that all people feel well governed and secure, without which no one is.

If these come about I can see the human spirit fly as never before. If we continue supporting political parties and reductionist management and policy the future will be grim beyond imagination and the greatest suffering will be in cities.

 

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Agriculture

Ecocide must be listed alongside genocide as an international crime

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Large-scale environmental destruction affects the future of all life on our planet. Criminalising it would finally hold decision-makers to account

For many years, we have been advised and counseled, warned and forewarned that we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking (and action) that created them.  As many of us have been on the path of speaking our minds, warning leaderships, boycotting corporations that damage our planet and our rights to health, the good news is that the effortsof our labors are starting to bear fruit.

According to the Guardian on 06/23/2021: An international team of lawyers co-chaired by Philippe Sands QC and Dior Fall Sow has presented the outcome of its work announced in November last year to develop a legal definition of ecocide. This is a crucial step towards adding ecocide to the list of other major offences recognised by the international criminal court (ICC), including crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.  Source: The Guardian UK

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How is The Gates Foundation is driving the world’s food system in the wrong direction.

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