The world’s overlapping challenges of food insecurity, natural resource degradation, climate change and poverty highlight an urgent need for policymakers and international organizations to respond with collaborative and innovative solutions. With competing environmental and agricultural interests at the heart of many of these challenges, global leaders are increasingly turning to agroecological, landscape and territorial approaches to sustainable development in order to harmonize these disciplines and promote food systems transformation at scale.
Agroecology is a system of agricultural management rooted in sustainable interactions between plants, animals and humans that incorporates both ecological and social principles into its design. It has gained increasing traction for its potential to produce healthy, resilient and just food systems while minimizing negative environmental impacts. In parallel, territorial and landscape approaches have emerged as promising methods of implementing sustainable development solutions. By integrating social, political, economic and cultural contexts with unique local circumstances, these approaches offer a more holistic contrast to frequently ineffective, top-down and siloed development schemes.
The intersection of these two disciplines was the primary focus of an interactive dialogue co-hosted by Biovision Foundation and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) under the auspices of the Agroecology Coalition on June 24, 2022. During the day-long dialogue, “The Interface Between Agroecology and Territorial Approaches for Food Systems Transformation,” approximately 60 participants and speakers came together in a hybrid event hosted simultaneously in FAO’s Geneva Liaison Office and online.
The event brought together leading researchers, policymakers and program managers to discuss how agroecological and territorial approaches can work in tandem to make food systems more just, resilient and sustainable. Speakers shared insights from case studies on the ground while participants identified synergies between the two approaches and defined necessary governance mechanisms, stakeholder considerations, policy support and enabling conditions for their implementation.
Dr. Johanna Jacobi, assistant professor of Agroecological transitions at ETH Zurich and keynote speaker for the event highlighted the need for change in the agriculture and development sectors. “It is clear that the challenges cannot be addressed by the currently predominant agro-extractivist model, and that a paradigm shift is needed,” Dr. Jacobi stated.
Jacobi underscored the importance of neutralizing power imbalances in agroecological areas and explained how territorial approaches can achieve this goal by promoting democratic and participatory land use processes across landscapes. These approaches can prove especially useful to balance existing tensions between agriculture practices and environmental systems.
Organic Farming Territories in Madagascar
Haintsoa Nirina of Madagascar’s Ministry of Agriculture spoke about the development of organic farming territories through public-private collaboration in Madagascar. In 2020, the Malagasy government enacted a law defining organic farming territories as territories within which public-private partnerships are encouraged to develop organic agriculture in three zones:
- Peripheral buffer zones of protected areas;
- Areas with a high propensity for organic farming; and
- Peri-urban production zones intended to improve urban access to quality food sources.
Nirina spoke about the unique benefits associated with each type of organic territory and noted that they all share challenges of contamination and organic supply chain and market development.
Nirina also stressed the key role capacity development plays in supporting actors within the organic territories. To address this challenge, the territories utilize an adaptable toolbox to increase knowledge and understanding of territorial governance, agriculture production techniques, landscape approaches and value chain development and certification. She also emphasized the need for effective participation and coordination amongst the various stakeholders involved in organic territorial formation and development. Typical stakeholders include a government task force, project initiators from the private sector or civil society and a monitoring group from the private or public sector.
A Transformative Territorial Approach to Agroecology in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Jean Christophe Castella, a senior researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) then shared a case study from the Eco-Friendly Intensification and Climate Resilient Agricultural Systems in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (EFICAS project). The project employed a transformative territorial approach to agroecology in the Viengkham District of the Luangprabag Province by collaborating with local producers to co-produce sustainable and climate-friendly agricultural solutions that aligned with their economic needs and aspirations. The approach included:
- Identifying and engaging local stakeholders at the village landscape level;
- Designing experimental landscapes focused on improving pastures, forage systems and crop production;
- Developing a participatory land-use plan for each land-use type that is revisited annually and supported by collective learning, capacity development and outcome prediction; and
- Collectively managing livestock areas and testing improved cropping systems.
Castella emphasized the importance of adapting the process to each unique landscape and promoting local ownership, knowledge co-production and agency throughout. He cited local participation as “the key lever for action” and driver for success of territorial initiatives. Castella also stated that technical experts must transition from their positions as “lesson givers” to become effective “facilitators” to promote agency and longevity of projects at the landscape level.
Culture as a Key Ingredient to Parma’s Bio-district
Marianna Guareschi of the University of Parma shared her experience supporting the development of a bio-district in Parma, Italy. The bio-district seeks to honor Parma’s cultural commitment to quality food production and social solidarity through its agroecological approach.
Guareschi outlined the district’s priorities which include supporting sustainable farming practices, improving the quality of food products, strengthening organic value chains and fostering direct relationships between producers and consumers, all while prioritizing social inclusion throughout the process. She also spoke about necessary enabling conditions for the district’s success. This includes the use of a participatory, bottom-up process for design and governance, time to allow for sufficient dialogue amongst stakeholders, effective distribution logistics and local interest in quality food production and consumption.
Southern Brazil’s thriving agroecology network
Laércio Meirelles, coordinator of Centro Ecologico Brazil, spoke about his experience supporting agroecological producers in southern Brazil through the ECOVIDA Agroecology Network.
The network, founded 24 years ago, operates in four states and 450 municipalities spanning an area approximately the size of France. It consists of 5,000 farming families organized into 400 groups, 30 nongovernmental organizations and 10 consumer cooperatives. Annual membership fees fund the network.
The network brings its members together to centralize information and promote the sharing of technical knowledge and practical expertise on agroecological and organic production techniques. Members of the network also engage in one of the first ever and the world’s largest participatory certification process to certify the products of other network members as agroeocological.
According to Meirelles, despite the network’s impact, it still faces many challenges including lack of public policy support for the transition to and practice of agroecology, need for capacity development on the ground, conflict with powerful agribusiness and lack of consumer demand for agroecological products.
Recommendations and Opportunities
Between presentations, participants broke into small groups to brainstorm recommendations for enabling agroecology through territorial development and employing the two approaches together to accelerate food systems transformation. The groups also made recommendations on governance mechanisms, stakeholder considerations, policy support and enabling conditions to facilitate the interface between the two approaches. Select groups reported on their insights in a plenary group discussion.
Themes emerging from the small group discussions centered on the need to transition from disconnected, siloed approaches to people-centered, cross-sectoral actions embedded within places. Participants agreed that the unique contexts of each community, landscape and territory should drive the design and implementation of agroecological policies, programs and governance frameworks. Multi-stakeholder platforms like landscape partnerships can effectively guide the design and execution of these initiatives because they have a deep understanding of local dynamics, challenges and opportunities and they are designed to work across sectors.
Nevertheless, several challenges to accomplishing the transition emerged. There is a lack of investments that account for the long duration needed to achieve agroecological transitions and allow for multiple stakeholders to implement programs. Additionally, capacity-building activities and peer-to-peer learning processes for practitioners at various levels are needed to scale agroecological initiatives. Societies are also disconnected from where and how their food is produced. Consequently, better advocacy, communication and a common language of territorial and agroecological approaches is necessary for their mainstreaming and institutionalization.
Biovision and FAO will soon produce a forthcoming policy brief, which will include key messages and recommendations from the small group brainstorming sessions and plenary discussion.
Transforming the food system
The dialogue closed with final remarks from Emile Frison, member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, interim co-coordinator of the Agroecology Coalition, and EcoAgriculture Partners’ Board Member Emeritus. Throughout his remarks, Frison prompted participants to think transformationally, citing agroecology as an effective framework to take on necessary changes to economy, environment, nutrition, health, social objectives and climate simultaneously.
Frison emphasized the complementary nature of agroecology, integrated landscape management and territorial approaches, noting that they require all stakeholders to participate in decision making to maximize synergies and minimize tradeoffs. He also urged participants not just to focus on donor agency investment in projects, but to also seek to engage national financial flows administered through agencies to facilitate agroecological initiatives at scale.
Landscape and Seascape Partnerships as Solution Designers and Implementers
Throughout the dialogue, speakers and participants drew upon a wealth of experiences to provide concrete recommendations to enable agroecological transitions at territorial scales. Their recommendations support recent research on the role landscape and seascape partnerships can play in implementing territorial initiatives to address many of the key challenges participants highlighted. A recent white paper EcoAgriculture Partners produced in collaboration with the Global Livelihood and Landscape Recovery Platform Initiative (GALLOP), and Cornell and Columbia universities, outlines a detailed roadmap for policymakers to support territorial and landscape initiatives through landscape and seascape partnerships. Indeed, with the right policy support, landscape partnerships can engage stakeholders at the territorial level to design and pursue development across sectors in alignment with agroecology. Moreover, because stakeholders are embedded within landscapes, they can provide the essential link between high-level policy goals and local capacities and actions on the ground.
The dialogue demonstrated widespread enthusiasm for collaboration across disciplines to drive land use change. With landscape and seascape partnerships already at the forefront of these collaborations, implementing the sustainable land management and food production solutions defined in these partnerships is an essential next step to realizing meaningful food systems transformation.