On a cool October evening, as PAN friends gathered in Northern California to celebrate our 35th Anniversary, I left for Rome, where I joined hundreds of civil society movement leaders from around the world in making the case for agroecology as the most promising way to nourish people and planet.
The next morning, walking down ancient Roman streets towards the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), I recalled making the same journey 23 years earlier to participate in the first World Food Summit. That was in my very first year as a newly hired scientist at PAN. A lot has changed since then.
Pesticides, corporations & climate change
In countries around the world, evidence of the devastating effects of highly hazardous pesticides on people’s health and the environment is on the rise. The introduction of herbicide-resistant genetically engineered seeds in the 90s has led to a resurgence of chemical sales and widespread drift of harmful herbicides like glyphosate and dicamba. Corporate consolidation has enabled three mega-pesticide companies to capture over 70% of the global pesticide market and 60% of commercial seed sales. In the U.S., this corporate power translates directly into political power, and has led to the unraveling of critical health and environmental protections.
And then there’s climate change. The same three mega-pesticide companies are major drivers of today’s climate chaos. The production and distribution of their petroleum-based chemical products release greenhouse gases, their promotion of GMO soybean production drives deforestation in the Amazon, while their herbicides destroy the soil biology that would otherwise be capable of sequestering carbon and helping mitigate climate change.
Global support for agroecology
And yet, here I was, walking into a UN conference filled with government delegates from 114 countries, 170 civil society organizations representing farmers, laborers, Indigenous people, women and youth, and over 250 other institutions and observers. The majority of participants at the Committee on Food Security’s 46th General Assembly were there not to discuss “business as usual,” but to welcome a new expert report highlighting the ability of agroecology to transform the world’s food systems, enable productive, climate-resilient farming and fulfill people’s rights to food, good health and a safe working environment.
The growing focus on agroecology in recent years by the FAO and governments represents a tremendous victory for peasant, Indigenous and family farmers who have been developing this ecological approach to farming over millenia. It’s also a victory for PAN and the social movements that have been fighting for decades for farmers’ rights to do so.
As Ali Aii Shatou, Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, told delegates in Rome:
Small-scale food producers have been practicing agroecology for centuries. It is our life… and the only solution we have to address the multiple crises we are facing. This report demonstrates that agroecology is the only transformational option to address all the structural changes needed in our food system.
Throughout the week, stacks of materials I had brought were quickly taken up by government delegates, including hundreds of copies of PAN International’s “Position Paper on Agroecology: Solution to Highly Hazardous Pesticides,” which we provided in six languages, along with PAN’s new regional and country case studies documenting farmers’ successful transition from pesticide-dependence towards agroecology.
Confronting corporate power
In stark contrast to the support for agroecology expressed by many governments, the US remained an outlier, vigorously defending the pesticide/seed industry in plenary and at side events. One such panel featured large-scale growers — and Bayer CropScience — presenting their operations as “climate-friendly,” despite their heavy reliance on glyphosate.
In the Q&A session that followed, I asked the Bayer representative to explain how the corporation could claim to support agroecology, when it continues to produce neonicotinoid insecticides known to harm pollinators, when its Roundup-based soybean systems are contributing to the destruction of Brazil’s rainforests, and when its drift-prone herbicide, dicamba, is damaging millions of acres of American cropland. Before the Bayer representative could reply, the facilitator quickly ended the session, turning to the US Ambassador for closing comments. His contribution? “Bayer has a lot of good guys.”
I’m not surprised that the US government continues to defend the pesticide industry. That’s such an old story. I’m much more excited about the evidence of real change happening on the ground, reflected in the animated conversations I heard throughout the week, between youth organizers from Mozambique and Sri Lanka, among women leaders from Fiji to Pakistan, linking family farmers from Iowa to Brazil, and more.
Back home now, I remain deeply inspired by the indomitable spirit, energy, joy and wisdom of the amazing movement leaders I met in Rome. And I look forward to what we can accomplish together in 2020.
Photo: Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa