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A call for diversity in farming systems

A new report by IPES-Food argues now is the time to shift from industrial agriculture to a system that draws on many different farming methods.

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    A farmer displays his cereal rye cover crop in Wellman, Iowa.
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A new report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) examines the mounting evidence in support of a transformation of today’s food and farming systems. The report, titled From Uniformity to Diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, explores the potential for a change to occur within the current food system, calling for a shift from a food system based on industrial modes of agriculture to a system centered around diversified agroecological farming.

The report acknowledges the role that current food and farming systems play in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets. It also notes the numerous negative outcomes associated with industrial agriculture, which include the widespread degradation of land, water, and ecosystems; high Greenhouse Gas emissions; losses in biodiversity; unrelenting hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies accompanied by rapid increases in obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers worldwide.

According to the authors, shifting current practices can ameliorate some of the specific outcomes of industrial agriculture, however, it will not provide long-term solutions to the numerous problems it creates. The report “identifies the major potential for diversified agroecological systems to succeed where current systems are failing, namely in reconciling concerns such as food security, environmental protection, nutritional adequacy and social equity.” In addition, the report questions “what is keeping industrial agriculture in place, and what would be required in order to spark a shift towards diversified agroecological systems.” Emile Frison, author of the report, asserts that “the way we define food security and the way we measure success in food systems tend to reflect what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver - not what really matters in terms of building sustainable food systems.”

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Key findings from the report include the need for a “fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long- term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods.”

However, diversified systems produce varied outputs, making it difficult to measure success and implications for global production volumes of staple crops, and food security. The report recognizes the difficulty in evaluating food system success and recommends developing new methods for measuring food system success. Other recommendations include shifting public support towards diversified agroecological production systems, backing short supply chains & alternative retail infrastructures, supporting movements that unite diverse constituencies around agroecology, mainstream agroecology, and holistic food systems approaches into education and research agendas, and creating food planning processes and united food policies at multiple levels. According to Frison, the “time is ripe for a radical change in our agriculture. While the problems of industrial agriculture have been denounced for some time, there is now sufficient compelling evidence showing that diversified agroecological systems can bring solutions on multiple fronts in a sustainable way.”

This article first appeared in Food Tank.

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