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June 04, 2011

Agroecology comes to Capitol Hill

Staff from congressional offices, development agencies and family farm organizations jammed into a crowded briefing room on Capitol Hill on Thursday to hear more about new approaches to food security that help farmers feed their communities while working with nature. The briefing was sponsored by IATP and the Interfaith Working Group on Global Hunger and Food Security, and hosted by Rep. Jim McGovern. 

Deschutter Olivier de Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food (see right with Cheryl Morden), led off the event with a bold assertion: we’re not actually facing a hunger crisis, but really three interlocking crises: a poverty crisis, an environmental crisis and a nutrition crisis. In many cases, the volume of food available isn’t really the issue. Poor people can’t afford the food that is available, and they can’t influence agricultural prices and policies. Unsustainable farming practices that rely on agrochemicals derived from petroleum products mean that farmers can’t afford the inputs, and that the land becomes degraded. And, many countries are facing a new nutrition crisis, with obesity rates in some communities increasing at the same time as hunger persists in others.

There is no magic bullet to solve these problems, he said, but there hasn’t been nearly enough attention paid to agroecological approaches that have huge potential to address the three crises. Agroforestry, for example, can help retain moisture in the soil, reduce dependency on chemical inputs and lower costs for farmers. More diverse farming systems mean more diversity on plates too, i.e., better nutrition. He called for more investment in public goods, sharing local knowledge, and farmers’ organizations with a strong focus on gender. Rather than relying on global supply chains, he said, we need to re-localize food systems that prioritize linkages between rural producers and urban consumers.

Susan Bradley from USAID spoke next on Feed the Future, the Obama administration’s signature initiative on food security. She emphasized the need to better integrate environmental and economic resilience in very vulnerable households. They are trying to improve analysis of the constraints facing women farmers across value chains, so that they take women’s positions of power into account, and increase their access to extension and financial services.

Cheryl Morden from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (a multilateral agency focused on small-scale farmers and rural poverty) spoke about the need for an “evergreen” revolution. It’s simply not possible to intensify agricultural production using the same old technologies; It won’t work, and there are serious environmental consequences. Some 70 percent of IFAD’s projects are on degraded lands, so they’re looking at how to increase productivity in perpetuity with sound natural resource management and livelihood security, recognizing that all of these approaches must be site specific. She said the hallmark of their programs is community empowerment and capacity building, as political and economic marginalization is at the heart of the problem.

Timi Gerson from American Jewish World Service concluded the event with the story of Ruth, a landless and migrant widow who only survives because she is able to use the tradition of "gleaning" food left from the harvest in the fields. The story emphasizes that caring for the poor is an obligation, not an option. She emphasized the faith community’s commitment to foreign assistance programs that support local communities’ efforts to claim their right to food.

Karen Hansen-Kuhn

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Comments

Sylvia Burgos Toftness

Kudos to IATP in working to bring these linkages to the forefront among policy makers. What are the next steps? We grass-fed beef farmers, and life-long food lovers, want to know what we can do within our communities and local food systems.

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