Quelling an imperfect storm at Stockholm+50: Why transforming food systems through agroecology gets more urgent as a new food crisis unfolds


The article was originally published on the Agroecology TPP website

Event proceedings at CIFOR-ICRAF Headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya

On 30 May, the Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology (Agroecology TPP), together with co-hosts CIFOR-ICRAF, SEI, SIANI, SLU and UNEP, hosted the Stockholm+50 associated event on ‘The scope for agroecology to support integrated implementation of the three Rio Conventions through food system transformation.’

As a hybrid event – with panelists and the audience present in Stockholm, Sweden (SEI Headquarters), Nairobi, Kenya (ICRAF Headquarters), and online – it set out to explore the role of agroecology in strengthening the implementation of the three Rio Conventions and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), all the while putting smallholder farmers and indigenous communities at the center.

The diverse group of panelists included names such as Pat Mooney of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and the Co-founder and Executive Director at ETC Group; Laura Scandurra, President at the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) Board of Directors; Veronica Ndetu, Head of the Climate Change Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture in Kenya; Elisabeth Simelton, Senior Policy Specialist – Agriculture at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); and Marcos Lana, Associate Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences – with critical reflections from farmer representatives including Monica Yator, Founder of the Indigenous Women and Girls Initiative, and Irish Baguilat of the Asian Farmers Association.

The event was moderated by Fergus Sinclair, who is the Co-convenor of the Agroecology TPP, one of the coordinators of the Agroecology Coalition, and Chief Scientist at CIFOR-ICRAF. He gave an overview of the existing agroecology-related work on the ground as well as present-day partnerships and commitments. For instance, the Agroecology TPP, launched at the 46th Plenary of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS 46) in 2021, is a partnership that brings multiple actors together, interested in addressing knowledge and implementation gaps constraining agroecological transitions. The Agroecology Coalition that emerged from the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September of last year is a coalition of the willing focused on action, with 33 countries, including the African and European Unions, and 63 organizations already on board. These include key UN bodies, civil society, research and regional farmers organizations, all committed to making agroecological transitions a reality.

Pat Mooney talked about a recently issued special report from IPES-Food – ‘Another perfect storm’ – which discusses the current global food crisis – a third one in 15 years – and what can be done to prevent the next one. He referred to ‘black swans’, talking about apparently unanticipated global challenges of which there are many, happening at the same time, and feeding off one another – such as broken food systems, degradation of land and water resources, climate change and biodiversity loss. However, when writing the report, the IPES-Food team realized these events were not such a bolt from the blue but could be expected, and so referred to them as ‘grey swans’. What does this mean in practice? He explained:

“These ‘grey swans’ – or challenging events – are not simply a one-off occurrence, they will happen again. The response to such crises starts with knowing that they are out there. On the food side, for example, we should be thinking about ways in which we can create a system that takes care of global food needs when normal structures fail … and ways of overcoming the existing legal obstacles when faced with, say, the food crisis. One possibility could be a treaty for food emergencies.”

The event strongly underlined the fact that these global challenges we face are connected with one another and therefore, as Elisabeth Simelton put it, “they should not be treated in isolation.” Instead, we should try to tackle them in a holistic – or systemic – manner.

Another important argument made concerned the critical role of smallholder farmers and indigenous communities in supplying food to the world. Both Marcos Lana and Monica Yator stressed that these farmers require support. As Monica outlined:

“Today, fertilizers are incredibly expensive. Indigenous and other farming communities simply cannot afford them. We need action, which means supporting these farmer groups. We need to listen to them. They should be heard.”

There were numerous interactions with the audience over the course of the event, with live questions being addressed by the panelists. A five-step poll was also shared, to get insights into what the audience deems important for the work on agroecology in relation to the implementation of the three UN Rio Conventions. As such, those in attendance – both physically and online – were asked to rate the importance of different proposed actions on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is not relevant and 10 is of vital importance. Reducing power asymmetry amongst actors in food systems was considered most important (77% ranking it of vital importance, with a mean score of 9.3).

Following the discussion held between the panelists, the outcome of an online poll and numerous comments and remarks from the audience, one important – and constant – theme emerged: moving from talking to action. This is exactly the remit of the Agroecology Coalition, which, building on the scientific knowledge of the Agroecology TPP and other organizations, will take the lead in making sure that the commitments made are being turned into real action on the ground.

Watch the recording here

Blunderous organic farming attempt


This blog post was first published at SIANI and is written by Anudini Wijayarathna, Master’s student in Rural Development & Natural Resource Management at SLU. 

Having participated in the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021, I have observed different propositions presented by world leaders to transform prevailing global food systems to attain sustainable food systems and food security in the future. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka was one of them who unveiled Sri Lanka’s policy, which was already initiated in April 2021 to restrict importing chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and weedicides to make agriculture 100% organic. That appeared to be a promising step for a sustainable future in Sri Lanka. Now, it has been almost one year since the policy was implemented and I started wondering how far Sri Lanka has come along with it!

Tea pickers in Sri Lanka

A scheme with many promises

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed that banning imports of agrochemicals and shifting toward organic fertiliser was an instrumental step to “sustainably transform its food systems and ensure greater food security and nutrition for people.” He also emphasised that this scheme further intends to “enhance market-oriented inclusive food value chains to reduce rural poverty.” Moreover, this was implemented, on the one hand, to combat widespread non-communicable diseases in Sri Lanka, such as Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), which are speculated to be caused by agrochemicals. On the other hand, many activists and experts outside the government depicted that this ban was a strategy to retain foreign currency reserves in Sri Lanka. However, with such promises, has Sri Lanka really become the world’s first 100% organic food producer or at least on track for it?

Full-scale experiment with disastrous outcomes  

Today, in pursuit of this venture,  Sri Lanka has become nothing but a debacle. This policy was implemented when people were wearied of many lockdowns while going through a foreign exchange crisis, mostly due to the disruption of the country’s main sources of income, such as international tourist arrivals, providing migrant labour etc., along with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the disapproval and criticisms of many agricultural experts and academics in Sri Lanka, this policy was executed based on the recommendations and data presented by the government-appointed advisory committees. Adaptation of organic fertiliser and banning chemical fertiliser, pesticides and weedicides was a drastic change not only for farmers but also for the whole Sri Lankan agriculture sector. Although the president stated that changing farmers’ long accustomed practices in agriculture and production of organic fertiliser domestically is challenging, the implementation process did not reflect that point. The majority of the farmers in Sri Lanka were dependent on chemical fertiliser for nearly fifty years. The government rushed into this shift on full-scale without any prior pilot programme. Besides, the government could not even organise adequate procedures and methods to produce a sufficient quantity of organic fertiliser domestically. As a result, the government could only provide a small amount of organic fertiliser to farmers, and they constantly complained about its quality.

Apparently, this rash transformation resulted in a declining yield of paddy (rice), the staple food in Sri Lanka, and vegetables drastically, making farmers’ livelihoods miserable. In addition to that, the country’s other crops, including the main export crops linked to the food systems, such as tea, coconut, etc., are also suffering from a decrease in production. It already created food shortages among the general public and subsequently started food prices skyrocketing by disrupting the food systems and creating stagnation in the Sri Lankan export market amidst the prevailing financial crisis in Sri Lanka. Apart from that, the estimated yield losses in Sri Lanka would be as follows: Paddy (rice) – 30%-35%, tea – 50%, maize – 50%, potato – 30% – 50%, upcountry vegetables – 30%-50%, etc.

When domestic organic fertiliser production was not functioning correctly, and the food systems were dilapidated, the government even tried to import organic fertiliser to Sri Lanka based on controversial recommendations and shady agreements. Besides, the authorities had to import rice to fulfil the consumer need. Furthermore, the government stated that they would compensate the farmers who had devastating impacts by the fertiliser ban by paying around  USD 200 million for the loss of their harvest and  USD 149 million to rice farmers as subsidies. Eventually, the government withdrew its decision to ban most agrochemicals. Thus, this full-scale experiment of converting Sri Lanka into the first 100% organic nation, resulted in soaring rural poverty, destabilising food security, and worsening the whole country’s financial crisis.

Potatoes in Sri Lanka
Food for thought

No matter, this scheme in Sri Lanka brought destructive consequences; I believe shifting toward organic farming in any country is a constructive approach to uplift food security, public health, soil quality, groundwater and surface water quality, biodiversity, and many more. Yet, it has to be planned, organised, led, implemented, and controlled in a solid but customised manner. One main fact that should be upheld to realise the triumph of such policy is to understand and aim at the grass-root level of the food system, and the whole approach needs to be a bottom-up rather than a top-down. Besides, when implementing such a policy, there should be feasible and appropriate plans to produce or import organic fertiliser to cater for the requirement. Moreover, I highly consider that expediting transformation against deep-rooted practices will not prosper as change need time to be familiarised.

On the other hand,  organic farming still addresses a niche market in any society, so the shift should be strategic. The transformation toward organic farming can possibly start with a hybrid method where both organic and non-organic farming can function before escalating to the organic agriculture sector. Furthermore, as an initial step to promote organic farming and expand the market for organic food, I believe it can be incorporated into school meal programmes.

Most importantly, to create a better future for the next generations, the whole global community needs to learn lessons from past failures and execute sustainable practices without following short-sighted decisions.

Aquaculture collaboration between SLU and University of Dar Es Salaam


This blog post was written by Anna Norman Haldén, research coordinator at the Department of Biomedical Science and Veterinary Public Health, SLU, and Dirk-Jan de Koning, professor at the Department of Animal Breeding and Genetics, SLU. Both have contributed as doctoral supervisors and as SLU coordinator and SLU principal investigator, respectively, within the UDSM-SLU aquaculture collaboration.

Research facility for tilapia fish farming in Tanzania. Photo: Francis Pius Mmanda

Year 2022 has been declared by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture (IYAFA 2022). SLU aquaculture researchers collaborate with researchers in countries across the world, including in low- and middle-income countries. One of these countries is Tanzania. Since 2015, SLU and University of Dar Es Saalam (UDSM) have jointly focused on strengthening sustainable small-scale fish farming in Tanzania.

“Small in scale, big in value” is a motto used during IYAFA 2022 to highlight the importance of small-scale artisanal fisheries and aquaculture. Aquatic food (fish, molluscs, crustaceans and aquatic plants) plays a fundamental role for human well-being and livelihoods around the world. A large portion of this food is produced by small-scale artisanal fishers and small-scale fish farmers.

Fish farming in Tanzania has increased during the past decade but is still considered low in comparison with the country’s potential. The main fish species farmed in Tanzania is tilapia and dominated by small-scale production is in earthen ponds. Since 2015, SLU aquaculture researchers have been part of the Sida-funded Marine Science Program, within the research cooperation between Sweden/SIDA and Tanzania/UDSM, to strengthen capacity building within aquaculture in Tanzania. At the start of the UDSM-SLU collaboration, two focus areas were identified as being crucial for a sustainable development of tilapia production in Tanzania: feed and breeding.

A major challenge for fish farming in Tanzania, and all over the world, is to find a sustainable high-quality feed at a reasonable cost. Within the UDSM-SLU collaboration, the nutritional value of local ingredients available to small-scale farmers in Tanzania was evaluated as potential components of feed to Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). The results showed that good-quality tilapia feed can be produced by replacing up to 50 % of the commonly used fishmeal with locally available feed ingredients. In addition to being a more sustainable feed choice, the use of these alternative ingredients can also reduce the cost of feed for the farmer by up to 30 % compared with a conventional fishmeal-based diet.

Tanzania has identified a great need for faster-growing and better performing strains of tilapia, which can be farmed successfully in great varieties of production environments, e.g. in both fresh and saline waters. The UDSM-SLU collaboration has strengthened the genetic competence among researchers in Tanzania and the results from the breeding research conducted can be used as a guideline for establishing a future tilapia breeding program in Tanzania.

The collaboration between SLU and UDSM has, until now, resulted in two SLU-registered sandwich PhD students that have graduated and one more that will defend her thesis during 2022. In addition, two local PhD students co-supervised by SLU researchers have graduated within the program, as well as one PhD student jointly supervised by Stockholm University and SLU. Linked to the UDSM-SLU collaboration, workshops arranged within the Sida-funded AgriFoSe2030 program have contributed to valuable knowledge-sharing and networking between researchers and farmers in Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Tanzania.

We have done all the ground work to start a systematic breeding program for tilapia that is well suited to the production circumstances in Tanzania. In order to actually establish such a breeding program we need to have long-term uninterrupted funding (decades not years). We also need additional investments in infrastructure to deal with the logistics and biosecurity that is required to deliver healthy and improved fingerlings to the small-scale farmers.

Next phase of the Sweden/SIDA and Tanzania/UDSM cooperation starts July 2022. This means a possible continuation of the UDSM-SIDA aquaculture collaboration, and thus a progression both within the area of developing sustainable fish feed and the establishment of a breeding program for tilapia in Tanzania.

Read two of the doctoral theses produced within the UDSM-SLU collaboration:

Read more about SLU Aquaculture global activities: https://www.slu.se/en/Collaborative-Centres-and-Projects/slu-aquaculture/global-aquaculture-activities-at-slu/

Read more about IYAFA 2022: https://www.fao.org/artisanal-fisheries-aquaculture-2022/home/en/

Countering the pitfalls of gender mainstreaming in development through gender transformative approaches


This blog post is written by Karolin Andersson, PhD student in Rural Development at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, SLU.

Over time, gender inequality in global development has been addressed in different ways with varying outcomes and effects on people. Some approaches have been criticized by feminists and other activists for not taking the issue seriously, and for using the strategy of gender mainstreaming as a means to achieve economic growth rather than equality. In some areas of development, such as agriculture, gender transformative approaches to development research and practice have emerged in response to such critique.

Gender inequality has been considered a crucial issue in global development since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995. Today, gender inequality is often addressed through the governance strategy of gender mainstreaming, which intends to challenge and change gender biases that lead to unequal development outcomes. In practice, however, gender mainstreaming efforts have mostly meant integrating and including more women into existing development projects and programs without challenging their underlying structures, gender norms, and unequal power relations that are the root causes to gender inequality. This has tended to turn gender mainstreaming into an instrument towards other goals such as economic growth, and it has contradictory cemented ideas of women as both especially vulnerable and as responsible for their own empowerment and for alleviating poverty and hunger. This approach has little prospects to achieve just, and thus sustainable, development outcomes.

Therefore, feminist researchers and practitioners persistently continue to reveal and challenge the biases and unequal effects of the dominant ways of addressing gender inequality in global development policy and practice, and of how gender mainstreaming is implemented. Many argue that if gender equality is to become an actual reality, development ideology, theory, and practice need to connect with and fully integrate feminist ideas and ideals of care, justice, and emancipation. Only then may it become possible to achieve sustainable and sustained social change.

Optimistically, some progress has been made over the past decade in this regard, for example within agricultural development. Researchers and practitioners in this field have increasingly challenged and questioned how gender has been addressed in agricultural discourse, including turning gender, and women in particular, into instruments of and as responsible for development objectives through modernized agriculture. In response, agricultural development actors have gained an increased awareness of the significance of power relations, gender norms, and unequal structures in agriculture. This has led to an emergence of what has been termed gender transformative approaches to agricultural development policy and programming. This broad range of approaches include a view that development interventions should engage with and prioritize the underlying constraining social structures and intersectional power dynamics that perpetuate gender inequalities at different scales. Gender transformative in this context refers to fostering the examination of gender dynamics and norms and intentionally strengthening, creating, or shifting structures, practices, relations, and dynamics toward equality. Application of such gender transformative approaches to development interventions could have positive effects on both the unequal gender relations and the sustainability of agricultural and development outcomes across scales. Indeed, linking development interventions with feminist objectives of challenging and changing unequal power relations and gender norms is the necessary pathway to realize a sustainable tomorrow.

In a recent article*, Karolin, together with Katarina Pettersson and Johanna Bergman Lodin, analyze how gender inequality is addressed in Rwanda’s current agricultural policy. The analysis shows that the policy’s gender mainstreaming efforts end up addressing the effects rather than the causes to gender inequality in agriculture, and that gender equality indeed becomes a means to achieve economic growth rather than social justice. The paper argues that the policy thereby risks reproducing and exacerbating existing inequalities, and suggests that it instead engages more with gender transformative approaches to challenge the underlying structures, gender norms, and unequal power relations that persist in Rwanda’s agriculture sector.

*Andersson, K., Pettersson, K., and Bergman Lodin, J. (2022). Window dressing inequalities and constructing women farmers as problematic – gender in Rwanda’s agriculture policy. Agriculture and Human Values, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-022-10314-5.

Improved methodological development of participatory epidemiology


This blog post was written by Erika Chenais, associate professor in infectious disease epidemiology at the National veterinary institute (SVA) and Klara Fischer, associate professor in rural development at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, SLU.

Drawing at a village

Participatory mapping with poverty ranking can be performed to assure that poorer people not are excluded from research in communities. Photo: Erika Chenais

Participatory epidemiology (PE) is a methodology initially developed in veterinary epidemiology research to collect epidemiological data in contexts where conventional quantitative data and statistics are unavailable. It has contributed to important new knowledge on animal disease in low-income countries, for example in the eradication of rinderpest* and the understanding of African swine fever transmission in the smallholder pig value chain.

PE has been praised for its ability to engage participants, visualise data and enable people with no or low levels of formal education to communicate their knowledge in ways that researchers can relate to and analyse. The veterinary application of PE stems from participatory methods and was first used in development cooperation to make projects better attuned to local needs and priorities and to investigate impacts of poverty. Historically PE has struggled with finding ways to simultaneously embrace the participation and knowledge of local livestock owners and applying methods and producing data that would be accepted and publishable in veterinary epidemiology journals. With increasing interdisciplinary engagement in recent years this has begun to change and there are now more and more studies that are guided by the participants own priorities and where suggested solutions are co-created according to these priorities and the local situation.

To stimulate this positive trend, and promote the furthering of PE as a participatory method we invited researchers from all disciplines interested in methodological development of PE to contribute to a special issue in Preventive Veterinary Medicine devoted entirely to this subject. The special issue is now published. The included articles stimulated methodological development and an academic debate about how power dynamics within communities and between participants and researchers as well as within the research community might impact information sharing and mutual understanding. Several of the published articles highlight the importance of that research embraces smallholders’ own priorities of animal health constraints, and call for an increased acknowledgement in the research community about that these priorities might not correspond with researchers’ priorities. Articles in the special issue show how embracing smallholders’ priorities can lead to more feasible and sustainable biosecurity measures, improved implementation of these, and in the end thus better disease control that can help smallholders improve animal health and escape poverty.

Individual interviews can be important for capturing perspectives of marginalised community members, such as herders. Photo: Erika Chenais

Moving forward, the articles indicate that the next step in the methodological development of PE, after successfully discussing participation, could be to call for greater interdisciplinarity. To be effective, interdisciplinarity needs to be present from project formulation and implementation to publication. Not only will this lead to methodological development, but more importantly to research outputs that are of greater local relevance and better scientific quality. The interest generated by these articles among social scientists and veterinarians interested in studying the societal aspects of animal diseases indicate that PE is developing in this direction.

You can read an introduction to the special issue here:

Power, participation and interdisciplinary tensions: Introducing a special issue on methodological developments in participatory epidemiology – ScienceDirect

And all articles are reachable here:

Preventive Veterinary Medicine | Participatory Epidemiology | ScienceDirect.com by Elsevier

*Rinderpest, also known as cattle plague, is a contagious viral disease affecting cloven- hoofed animals (mainly cattle and buffalo).