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Sustainable food systems are gaining momentum

Agroecology is a science, practice, and movement that seeks social, political, economic, and environmental sustainability in the global food system

According to a new study led by Dartmouth College, although this field is currently gaining momentum in the United States, it requires close collaboration between scientists, farmers, and activists.

Ecological and social sustainability of food systems

Study lead author Theresa Ong is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth. She noted that U.S. residents tend to be more familiar with organic farming, the production of food without synthetic inputs, and regenerative agriculture, which aims to restore soil health.

However, according to Ong, unlike these practices, agroecology is different, as it strives to achieve both ecological and social sustainability of food systems without sacrificing one for the other. 

“We cannot save biodiversity and ecosystem integrity without also preserving farmer livelihoods and ensuring that the food systems we create provide food that is culturally relevant to local communities, and not simply meeting a calorie quota,” said Ong.

Challenges facing global food systems 

Currently, the U.S. food system is monopolized by industrial agriculture, which relies on chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, along with technology depending heavily on fossil fuels. 

Moreover, challenges facing global food systems, such as food insecurity, public health issues, biodiversity loss, and global warming, are partly perpetuated by the US food systems and its key political players.

Promoting agroecology as a sustainable practice

For decades already, scientists and activists from the US and beyond have called for a major transformation of the current industrial food system, leading the United Nations to promote agroecology as a more sustainable practice. However, this field failed for a long time to gain recognition beyond certain academic circles.

Fortunately, in 2023, a major US Agroecology Summit gathered nearly 100 stakeholders in the food industry calling for a re-evaluation of current practices. 

The experts advocated the need for equitable representation and support of agricultural practitioners and scientists and increased access to funding, as well as the development of ethical approaches to research in agroecology.

“’Food sovereignty’ – the right to define, produce, and access healthy food that is culturally appropriate and preserves the ways of life of farmers, is a critical goal in agroecology and was first defined by La Vía Campesina, an international peasant movement, in 1996,” Ong said.

Equitable representation and coordination

This summit builds on the momentum which has been growing over the past 15 years, and led to the establishment of the nonprofit U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance in 2010, along with the enactment of food sovereignty laws in eight states (Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Georgia, North Carolina, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana).

Yet, more work needs to be done to make sure that all voices in this field – including large and small farmers, family farmers, migrant farmers, Black and Indigenous farmers, and farm workers – are properly represented and have decision-making power.

“Agroecology is about building coalitions to ensure equitable representation and coordination between farmers, activists, and academics,” Ong concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature Food.


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