By Manon Castagné (Food Sovereignty and Climate Advocacy officer at CCFD-Terre Solidaire, France) and François Delvaux (Agroecology and Food Sovereignty officer at CIDSE)
The agriculture section of the EU Green Deal is plagued with contradictions. On the plus side, it finally acknowledges the need to massively develop agroecology. But Farm to Fork advocates for a range of false solutions, including so-called “carbon farming”. All agricultural models cannot coexist, argue Manon Castagné and François Delvaux in this op-ed.
2020 was expected to be a “super year” for climate, biodiversity and food security: two major UN Conferences Of Parties were supposed to take place (on biodiversity and climate, each time with potential important outcomes for agriculture), the UN Committee on world Food Security (CFS) is still expected to identify recommendations on agroecological approaches and the EU is unfolding its Green Deal. With the COVID-19 outbreak, some of the aforementioned events have been postponed, but that makes 2020 even more exceptional: the urgency to address the interlinked and systemic crises is now clearer than ever, as COVID-19 sheds light on the vulnerability and the lack of resilience of our food systems.
However, in the agricultural sector, the European Commission is responding with contradictory propositions. On the one side, the Farm to Fork strategy, the agricultural plan of the Green Deal, advocates for a range of false solutions, including so-called “carbon farming”. On the other hand, the Commission finally acknowledges the need to scale and develop agroecology. But don’t these visions of agriculture conflict? We argue that these orientations are contradictory and most likely bad news for agroecology.
Carbon farming is a threat to both climate and the people
The strategy defines “carbon farming” as a “new green business model” to reward farmers who sequester carbon through CAP payments and carbon markets.
Improving soil organic carbon content is necessary, and can be done by, for example, changing agricultural techniques to agroecology. But the prospects of sequestration are limited, hard to measure, and carbon sequestration is reversible. Moreover carbon sequestration often entails the continuation of practices that have significant negative impacts on biodiversity and farmers’ autonomy, practices such as “conservation agriculture” that depends on technological inputs such as “improved seeds”, synthetic herbicides and fertilizers.
“Carbon farming” is even more problematic when rewarded through carbon markets as it fuels the idea that “offsetting” emissions is a valid climate mitigation strategy. Offsetting implies that emissions can simply be cancelled – which, unfortunately, is not true. For example Total’s plan for carbon neutrality includes keeping extracting fossil fuels, and this is made possible thanks to carbon offsetting. It therefore acts as a mitigation deterrent for the biggest polluters who should be reducing emissions at source – we don’t have time for zero-sum games, we need immediate emissions reductions!
Moreover, the increased financial value of land due to its supposed ability to store carbon ends up increasing risks of land grabbing and threats to food security. (And not only in Global South countries. See this conflict in New Zealand and fear of livestock farmers on international competition over the country’s land for carbon credits.)
While it is important to financially support farmers to change their practices, climate must not be the only parameter of policies, and farmers should be ensured a consistent and stable flow of aid – which markets cannot ensure.
Agroecology and international cooperation: Key for the recovery
Agroecology, which is promoted in both the Biodiversity and the Farm to Fork strategy, could lay the path for transformative policies in the field of food and agriculture. “Agroecology can provide healthy food while maintaining productivity, increasing soil fertility and biodiversity, and reducing the footprint of food production,” says the Biodiversity strategy, highlighting how powerful agroecological approaches can be.
More specifically we are glad to read that agroecology has found a home under the international cooperation section of the Farm to Fork strategy. We do hope that the EU budget for external action and its additional 16.5 billion euros planned under the Next Generation EU recovery instrument will put food systems and food security at the core by supporting a transition towards agroecology. This is urgently needed since all alarm signals are red, indicating that Covid-19 will worsen the permanent state of food insecurity we have been facing for decades.
Promoting agroecology: an empty promise?
Nevertheless, what really lies behind the term “agroecology” is a deep transformation aiming at redesigning the whole food system. This transformation entails agricultural and economic diversification, food-chain decentralization and de-concentration, vibrant territorial markets, healthy soils, a high level of autonomy for farmers, and more. It requires changing policies that discourage agroecology, such as harmful subsidies and free trade policies. Agroecology is therefore incompatible with false solutions which are merely aiming at “greening” the current industrial food system, and rely on the current political and economical framework (with only marginal revision) to be viable.
Promoting both agroecology and carbon farming seems to indicate that the European Commission has a limited understanding of the policies it needs to put in place to implement agroecology (see the 10 elements of agroecology which were agreed at FAO), limiting a potential agricultural transformation to another set of practices which can peacefully coexist with business as usual approaches.
We are at a crossroad and our ability to tackle the urgency of climate change, food insecurity and biodiversity collapse has and will be impacted by Covid-19. The amount of money channelled towards recovery plans and the impact it will likely have on public finance in the years to come means there’s no room for making mistakes we would regret in a decade. The European Commission got it half right by recognising agroecology. Now it must focus on overcoming what it got wrong and drop false solutions from its strategies.
François Delvaux is Agroecology and Food Sovereignty officer at CIDSE, an international family of Catholic social justice organisations. Read CIDSE’s report on Agroecology here in several languages (or download the PDF or Infographic). Access CIDSE’s landmark paper on Climate Urgency here.
Manon Castagné is Food Sovereignty and Climate Advocacy officer at CCFD-Terre Solidaire, a French NGO working to tackle the root causes of poverty and hunger. Read CCFD-Terre Solidaire’s report on carbon farming here.