Coherent policies driving sustainable agriculture and food systems
Organic farming is often criticized for lower yields and therefore for not being able to feed a growing population. However, the question is not if we should convert tomorrow the whole world to organic farming, but how to address the big challenges related to our current food system: climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, poverty and malnutrition. Here, organic farming offers relevant approaches that can also be integrated in mainstream farming. Key is that we focus on coherent policies that support sustainable food systems, incentivize better farming practices, and raise the bar of what is acceptable in farming in the 21st century.
There is broad consensus that agriculture and food systems urgently need to change, but progress is far too slow. A major obstacle is the deep divide between two competing schools of thought on how the change needs to happen: through step-wise improvements of the predominant agricultural systems, making use of biotechnology and IT solutions, or through a radical system redesign based on agroecological principles. Whenever proponents of the different approaches interact, heated arguments are the result.
Such polarized debates may be entertaining, but do not lead to much progress. We therefore felt a need to bring the overall goal back to everyone’s attention: making agriculture and food systems more sustainable. The SDGs provide a universally agreed framework against which progress can be measured. Every step that shifts agriculture and food systems towards the SDGs, without major trade-offs between different goals, should therefore be welcome. Policies are key in this since they define the rules of the game. Subsidies, taxes and regulations largely determine the systems we have. As a society we spend enormous amounts on subsidies for agricultural systems that negatively impact people and planet, and still keep farmers poor.
Within the organic movement, this new perspective has become an important concept of what is now coined “Organic 3.0”; a new phase of development in which the focus is on contributing to the SDGs, using synergies with other initiatives and providing inspiration for mainstream systems. When we tested the approach and particularly the figure that visualizes it in more “mainstream” contexts (e.g. UN Food and Agriculture Organization FAO and the EU Commission's Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development DevCo), we got encouraging response. We realized that this integrated perspective in which the distinct approaches have their “raison d’être” and can synergistically reinforce each other, enables a broad range of stakeholders to focus on the enabling policy environment that accelerate the needed shift. This reassurance gave us the motivation to go through the many rounds of draft versions with our co-authors, editors and reviewers, which became a fruitful learning process for ourselves.
Sure, this Comment piece will provoke criticism, from various sides. A debate is fruitful if it advances understanding. What matters is that society focuses on how to jointly move forward, addressing the obstacles that hold back the necessary change. The challenge ahead is too big to spend much time and energy on ideological fights.