The conventional corporate-dominated, industralized, agrochemical-intensive model of agriculture, also known as the green revolution, has come under increasing criticism in recent years from scientists, scholars, farmers, environmentalists, civil society and social movements from all over the world. The advocates and practitioners of ecologically sustainable, scientifically sound and socially just alternatives, like agroecology and food sovereignty, are moving into territory formerly monopolized by agrochemical corporate giants and their supporters in governments and academia, and they are doing so with ever more assertiveness and confidence. Conventional agriculture, represented in the public eye by the likes of Monsanto and Syngenta, is losing public acceptance. It is on the defensive and losing ground every year as the public realizes that another agriculture is possible.
In 2008 the green revolution model was dealt a decisive blow by the release of the United Nations’ Agricultural Assessment. Officially called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), it was the largest and most thorough assessment of the state of world agriculture ever undertaken.
Funded by the World Bank and by UN agencies, it was authored by over 400 scientists, developed through an unprecedented participatory process in which government, academia, the business sector and civil society worked together in conditions of equality, and subjected to two independent peer reviews. The IAASTD was co-chaired by Swiss scientist Hans Herren, winner of the 1995 World Food Prize and the 2013 Right Livelihood Award. The report’s conclusions were devastating for green revolution agriculture. In Herren’s words, modern industrial agriculture is thoroughly unsustainable in its use of resources like soil and energy and it urgently needs radical change if future generations are to survive. The report recommends decentralized, ecologically sound and democratically controlled food systems, precisely what organic farmers have been advocating all along. As for the genetically engineered crops being aggressively promoted by Monsanto and other agricultural biotech giants, IAASTD expressed skepticism and advised caution with this new technology.In the face of the IAASTD challenge, and more recent scientific reports that validate the feasibility and need for agroecological approaches, industrial agriculture finds itself increasingly pressed to prove its case and affirm its relevance in the face of overlapping global financial, energy, food and water crises, and climate change. Some advocates are adopting a conciliatory tone, affirming that both modalities of agricultural production can be combined into a harmonious coexistence. This argument was presented by University of Minnesota professor Jonathan Foley in a National Geographic magazine May 2014 cover story. Foley outlines a plan to feed the world consisting of technological fixes, which proposes to ‘blend the best’ farming techniques of organic and local farms with those of high-tech and industrial farming operations. The proposition, which comes with a flashy media presentation, goes along with much of the conventional wisdom of food and agriculture policy circles.
Along these same lines, the frontline defense of industrial agriculture is now “climate-smart agriculture,” a proposal that seeks to incorporate some ecological elements into farming in order to address the peril of climate change.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):
“The concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) was originally developed by FAO and officially presented at the Hague Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change in 2010 … CSA is an approach to developing the technical, policy and investment conditions to achieve sustainable agricultural development for food security under climate change. The magnitude, immediacy and broad scope of the effects of climate change on agricultural systems create a compelling need to ensure comprehensive integration of these effects into national agricultural planning, investments and programs.”
The CSA approach is designed to identify and operationalize sustainable agricultural development within the explicit parameters of climate change. However, achieving the transformations required for CSA and meeting these multiple objectives requires an integrated approach that is responsive to specific local conditions. Coordination across agricultural sectors (e.g. crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries) as well as other sectors, such as with energy and water sector development is essential to capitalize on potential synergies, reduce trade-offs and optimize the use of natural resources and ecosystem services.”
In September 2014 the FAO launched the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture. It describes itself as “a voluntary alliance of partners, dedicated to addressing the challenges facing food security and agriculture under a changing climate.” Its members include environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, IUCN and the Environmental Defense Fund; the World Resources Institute, an influential US-based natural resources think tank; European corporate food giant Danone; the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, global flagship of corporate environmentalism; Ecoagriculture Partners, a private outfit that advocates a corporate-friendly form of ‘sustainable agriculture’; the World Bank; and over 20 governments, including those of the U.S., U.K., Mexico, Costa Rica and France. Also on board is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the green revolution’s global research consortium. Interestingly enough, no major pesticide manufacturers appear on the members’ list, but the fertilizer industry seems awfully interested in seeing this bandwagon succeed- the Alliance’s members include the International Fertilizer Industry Association, the Fertilizer Institute- the industry’s research and development arm- and Yara and Mosaic, two of the world’s top fertilizer corporations.
In the words of Bruce Campbell, director of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security:
“Somewhat surprisingly, agriculture has, until recently, been on the sidelines of discussions of human-induced climate change. Once largely seen as a 'victim' of climate change, there is now, however, a growing recognition of both the contribution agriculture has made, and continues to make, to climate change and the role it can play in mitigating the impact of human activities on climate change.
But what exactly is "climate-smart agriculture"? Broadly speaking, it consists of proven practical techniques, such as mulching, inter-cropping, conservation agriculture, crop rotation, integrated crop-livestock management, agro-forestry, improved grazing, and improved water management, together with innovative practices, such as better weather forecasting, drought- and flood-tolerant crops, and crop and livestock insurance.”
Not everyone is rejoicing. Climate-smart farming was condemned as “a deceptive and deeply contradictory initiative” in a September 2014 open letter signed by over a dozen organizations, including Friends of the Earth, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and the Third World Network. The letter says that:
“...“climate-smart” agriculture provides a dangerous platform for corporations to implement the very activities we oppose. By endorsing the activities of the planet’s worst climate offenders in agribusiness and industrial agriculture, the Alliance will undermine the very objectives that it claims to aim for… the Alliance is clearly being structured to serve big business interests, not to address the climate crisis.
Companies with activities resulting in dire social impacts on farmers and communities, such as those driving land grabbing or promoting (genetically modified) GM seeds, already claim that they are “climate-smart.” Yara (the world’s largest fertilizer manufacturer), Syngenta (GM seeds), McDonald’s, and Walmart are all at the “climate-smart” table. Climate-smart agriculture will serve as a new promotional space for the planet’s worst social and environmental offenders in agriculture. The proposed Global Alliance on Climate-Smart Agriculture seems to be yet another strategy by powerful players to prop up industrial agriculture, which undermines the basic human right to food. It is nothing new, nothing innovative, and not what we need.”
Critics are particularly concerned that the Alliance’s projects are to be funded by carbon offset schemes, which they fundamentally oppose. According to the open letter, “Carbon offset schemes in agriculture will create one more driver of land dispossession of smallholder farmers, particularly in the Global South, and unfairly place the burden of mitigation on those who are most vulnerable to, but have least contributed to, the climate crisis.”
“Do not be fooled by the title. Climate Smart Agriculture incentivizes destructive industrial agricultural practices by tying it to carbon market offsets based on unreliable and non-permanent emissions reduction protocols,” advises the US-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “While Climate Smart Agriculture is designed to expand carbon markets and serve the interests of agribusiness and the financial industry… The undefined approach of CSA has no scientific backing and further, will intentionally repeat the worst mistakes of green revolution agricultural practices.”
“We are directly opposed to the carbon market approach to dealing with the climate crisis,” says Josie Riffaud of La Vía Campesina, an international organization that represents tens of millions of small farmers worldwide. “Turning our farmers' fields into carbon sinks – the rights to which can be sold on the carbon market – will only lead us further away from what we see as the real solution: food sovereignty. The carbon in our farms is not for sale!”
“Carbon trading has totally failed to address the real causes of the climate crisis. It was never meant to do so”, according to the Canada-based ETC Group. “Rather than reducing carbon emissions at their source, it has created a lucrative market for polluters and speculators to buy and sell carbon credits while continuing to pollute. Now the pressure is increasing to treat farmland as a major carbon sink which can be claimed as yet another counterbalance to industrial emissions.”
The leaders of the global movement for agroecology identify climate-smart agriculture as part of a broader pattern of attempts to co-opt and accommodate agroecology to the conventional paradigm of green revolution agriculture. These developments were discussed at the International Forum for Agroecology, which took place in the African country of Mali in February 2015.
In the Forum’s final declaration, they noted that:
“Popular pressure has caused many multilateral institutions, governments, universities and research centers, some NGOs, corporations and others, to finally recognize “agroecology”. However, they have tried to redefine it as a narrow set of technologies, to offer some tools that appear to ease the sustainability crisis of industrial food production, while the existing structures of power remain unchallenged. This co-optation of agroecology to fine-tune the industrial food system, while paying lip service to the environmental discourse, has various names, including “climate smart agriculture”, “sustainable-” or “ecological-intensification”, industrial monoculture production of “organic” food, etc. For us, these are not agroecology: we reject them, and we will fight to expose and block this insidious appropriation of agroecology.”
Alternatives to green revolution industrial farming and “climate-smart” agriculture are being developed and put in practice by small scale producers all over the world. According to the open letter on CSA:
“Real climate solutions are already out there in farmers’ fields – based on agroecological practices and the relocalisation of food systems to effectively fight hunger. Instead of creating one more body for business-as-usual, governments, funding agencies, and international organizations should be taking bold action: committing to shift resources away from climate-damaging practices of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and meat production and towards investment in and commitment to agroecology, food sovereignty, and support to small-scale food producers.”
The International Forum for Agroecology also weighed in on the course of action to take in order to feed the world and counter climate change:
“The real solutions to the crises of the climate, malnutrition, etc., will not come from conforming to the industrial model. We must transform it and build our own local food systems that create new rural-urban links, based on truly agroecological food production by peasants, artisanal fishers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples, urban farmers, etc. We cannot allow agroecology to be a tool of the industrial food production model: we see it as the essential alternative to that model, and as the means of transforming how we produce and consume food into something better for humanity and our Mother Earth.”
Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican journalist, author and environmental educator based in Ecuador. He is a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, and a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology. Ruiz also directs the Biosafety Blog and the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor. His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz.