Our agricultural system is broken: unsustainable farming practices and a disconnection between consumers and the food we eat are at the heart of the problem. Yet there is hope in two interlinked solutions: food sovereignty and agroecology – approaches that shift agriculture in a more sustainable, local direction.
Friends of the Earth Europe campaigns for food sovereignty – the right of people to define their own food and agriculture policies – to solve the problems of European agriculture. This means that they must be able to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade, determine the extent to which they want to be self-reliant, and restrict the dumping of cheap imported products in their markets. Also, fisheries-based communities must be given the rights to manage their own aquatic resources.
Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but instead promotes trade policies and practices that encourage healthy and ecologically sustainable food production.
The increasing number of hungry people around the world, the concentration of food processing and marketing in the hands of only a few companies, and the ongoing depletion of natural resources are all important reasons why we should embrace food sovereignty.
Part of the path towards achieving food sovereignty is embracing agroecology – a set of farming practices that aim to preserve natural resources by making agriculture work in harmony with the natural world, and to bring farmers and consumers closer together.
This is done by recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than using external inputs – like artificial pesticides and fertilizers. By using organic matter and improving the soil, farmers can promote better plant growth.
It also focuses on integrating crop and livestock farming; diversifying species (and therefore genetic resources); and on the ways in which crops and livestock can mutually benefit each other, instead of thinking in terms of individual species.
Agroecology needs a lot of knowledge and expertise, and this is developed by farmers through an understanding of local conditions that comes from years of experimentation.
As well as being a system of sustainable agriculture, agroecology is also a wider social movement that seeks to bring farmers closer to consumers and in doing so empowers both.
Re-connecting farmers and consumers is important to help build vibrant local food economies. The aim is to support local producers, processors and retailers, and build links between consumers, local farmers and local food businesses. This means creating short, decentralised supply chains, diversified markets based on solidarity and fair prices, and closer links between producers and consumers locally. Consumers should be able to purchase ecologically-produced food from small-scale producers.
Short distance distribution models are also an important aspect for the closure of mineral cycles, a basic need in agro-ecological farming practices. To return plant nutrients back into the loop, back to the soil, on the right spot, in the right composition and in the right amounts, is a complex issue. This complexity increases significantly over distance. From the perspective of closing mineral cycles, the shorter the distance the better. In this way local food economies answer the basic need for plant nutrients in agro-ecological farming practices.
There are already many different projects that promote 'local food' and 'short supply chains' across Europe. These include farmers' markets, 'farm-gate' sales, box delivery schemes, mobile shops, community-supported agriculture, consumer-producer cooperatives and collective catering and canteens. The short supply chains that agroecology works towards are not just about reducing the number of steps between producers and consumers, but connecting them by at most one intermediary. This puts the consumer and the producer at the heart of deciding what is produced, how it is produced, and how its value is defined.
Food distribution through short supply chains in local markets has been shown to increase income for producers, add value and generate greater autonomy for farmers, and to strengthen local economies by supporting more small businesses. This can improve also the viability of small farms and reduces the carbon footprint from food distribution.
Local food supply chains also create employment in rural areas and bring farmers into direct contact with consumers, which encourages revenue staying in local economies, all the while enhancing social cohesion and making it more likely that farmers can continue to farm. This helps foster a sense of community in rural areas, improving the quality of life.