Nature Needs Agroecology

12 May 2021

Francesco Sottile, agronomist and member of Slow Food Italy’s Executive Board, comments on the paradoxes between the urgent need for sustainable agriculture, and the reality of what is happening in negotiations rooms and in the fields.

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Francesco Sottile, 2018 © Francesca Cirilli

This is without doubt a complex period for the planet’s agriculture, a period in which the hiatus between what we see happening in the field and the corrective actions that ensue is profound.

In the wake of 2014, the UN has slated the years 2019-2028 as the Decade of Family Farming, almost as if to confirm small-scale agriculture’s importance as an instrument of sustainability, partly with an eye to Agenda 2030 goals. Family farming, in fact, possesses the wherewithal to make an effective contribution to a sustainable management of resources and consolidates the link with rural wisdom in both production and processing. More than 80 percent of the world’s farms are tied to family models and have an average surface area of about two hectares, yet today they occupy no more than 15 percent of the world’s farming land, which is still in the hands of a few farms supported by an industrial productive model.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability (Ricciardi et al. 2021) analyzed the most recent bibliography for the sector and concluded that small-scale agriculture ensures the highest production levels and a greater capacity to preserve natural and agricultural biodiversity.

Meanwhile, the EU Commissioner for Agriculture Janusz Wojciechowski has pointed out that this model of farming, so functional and so dependent on the commitment of families, is at a very high risk of disappearing insofar as it is paying the price of the shortsightedness of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which continues to support the industrial production approach of big business. The European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control (CONT) has also highlighted that 80 percent of the CAP’s resources end up with 20 percent of the farms in the Union, according to a criterion tied to surface areas and parameters that fail to reward small-scale agriculture’s undisputable contribution to the support of environmental policies.

In this line of reasoning, connections with the drawing up of the new CAP, the tentative start to work on the new National Strategic Plan, and the National Recovery and Resilience Plan are inevitable. Suffice it to say that all these tools ought to be built around an ineluctable political vision, namely the ecological transition so sought after by the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity 2030 strategies, which are about to celebrate the first anniversary of their official launch. Yet this ecological transition is struggling to find room to grow and there appears to be scant political commitment to working towards a really new paradigm.

Instead, attention is still being focused on the need for technological–including genetic–innovation that has nothing to do with ecological transition and the construction of a new relational model between humans and nature, to the benefit of the preservation of ecosystems. The call for policies based on agro-ecology–the only real systemic model capable of building virtuous processes and developing the innovation offered directly by nature–is barely listened to. We cannot continue to ignore the desertification that has progressively accompanied our agriculture in the last fifty years, with a consequent loss of soil fertility, water resources, agronomic culture, seed genetics, traditional knowledge, biodiversity of our land and sea, and a great many beneficial insects, thus jeopardizing our rural landscape and all its connections with the culture of our country and the whole of Europe.

Agricultural policy is moving inexorably in a different direction, towards the consolidation of the industrial model. The furrow we are digging between what we believe in and what we are actually doing is growing deeper and deeper–despite all our hopes for climate neutrality and the actions to achieve it.

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