Expert Perspectives

Path Dependence and Carbon Lock-In in the Agriculture Sector

The Treadmill of Industrial Agriculture

It has become evident that conventional industrial agriculture, as practiced in high-income countries and many economies in transition and characterized by large-scale commodity monoculture, high inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, long supply chains, mass disposal, and a heavy emphasis on industrial meat production, is not sustainable. We urgently need to shift to a more sustainable food system characterized by diversified agroecological farming, shorter supply chains, nutrient recycling, less disposal, and less industrial meat production.

The question of how to produce enough food while addressing climate and biodiversity loss challenges has elicited two opposing responses: the “land-sparing” view, which promotes further intensification of agriculture based on the industrial model of agriculture, with the intention to save land and natural ecosystems for biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration, and the “land-sharing” view, which promotes diversification of agricultural landscapes and the application of agroecological principles to maintain biodiversity and sequester carbon in production systems. The IPES-Food report From Uniformity to Diversity (IPES-Food 2016) makes a strong case for the latter.

Many recent reports—including the IPBES report on Land Degradation and Restoration (IPBES 2018), the TEEB for Agriculture & Food report (TEEB 2018), the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES 2019), the report of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) on Agroecological and Other Innovations (HLPE 2019), the IPCC report on Climate Change and Land (IPCC 2019) and the Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 (GSDR 2019)—have recognized the important environmental, health, and social externalities of conventional industrial agriculture and pointed to the need to transform our food systems. Urgent changes are required in consumption patterns, in combatting food loss and waste, as well as in modes of production. These reports also recognize agroecology as an important pathway for  transformational change.

On the production side, diversified agroecological systems, as defined by the “ten elements of agroecology” adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO 2019), have the potential to meet future food demand while delivering important environmental, economic, and social co-benefits (Adidja et al. 2019; Badgley et al. 2007; IAASTD 2009; IPES-Food 2016; Prieto et al. 2015; Pretty et al. 2011; Pretty et al. 2018; Rodale Institute 2015; Styger and Traoré 2018; Virginia et al. 2018). Furthermore, agroecological approaches have proved able to simultaneously address specific climate hazards, enhance the resilience of farming systems to climate change, and improve the flow of a range of ecosystem services (Sinclair et al. 2019). They also have the potential to restore degraded land (FAO 2015), which represents about 25 percent of agricultural land. A recent study showed that an agroecology scenario could satisfy food demand in Europe and lead to a 36–47 percent GHG reduction in 2050 relative to 2010 (Aubert et al. 2019), provided a significant reduction in the consumption of animal products also occurs.

Despite this, the industrial model of agriculture is still promoted in low-income, agriculture-dependent countries and remains dominant elsewhere because, once established, it creates a strong path dependency on fossil energy and other expensive external inputs.

Seven Driving Forces of Lock-In

Seven lock-ins make a transformation of the dominant model of agriculture into a sustainable, low-carbon form of agriculture difficult.

The first lock-in is investment path dependency. Conventional industrial agriculture has become self-reinforcing through the investments it requires and the need to see a return on those investments. The specific skills, training, equipment, networks, and retail relationships that industrial agriculture requires are costly, and may no longer be relevant if a farmer shifts to a fundamentally different mode of production. Furthermore, agricultural subsidies, such as those in Europe, have tended to favor large-scale production and specialization of farming, with the majority of EU Common Agricultural Policy payments being made per hectare cultivated, further reinforcing this lock-in.

The second lock-in is export orientation in agricultural policies. Food systems have become more and more centered on export agriculture of a few commodities. The share of food traded internationally has increased from 15 percent in 1986 to 23 percent in 2009, but most food consumed around the world still does not cross international borders. Despite this, trade plays a disproportionate role in agricultural policies, fostering specialization in a few commodities mainly produced in monocultures.

The third lock-in is compartmentalized thinking. Conventional industrial agriculture is also locked in place by the highly compartmentalized structures that govern the setting of priorities in politics, research, and business. The “Green Revolution,” which brought major increases in productivity, focused on breeding crops highly responsive to external inputs and widely applicable. This model continues to dominate, even as the need to reconcile productivity growth with other concerns is increasingly recognized. Most agricultural colleges have developed siloed structures in which different disciplines do not interact closely. Classical agricultural research and education systems have thus evolved with little attention to the complex interactions between the natural environment and human society that underpin food systems. The gradual privatization of agricultural research has reinforced these trends. Policymaking structures are also highly compartmentalized and ill-equipped to respond to the crosscutting challenges in food systems, with different ministries (agriculture, environment, health, trade, etc.) developing in isolation policies that are often contradictory.

The fourth lock-in is short-term thinking. Both public and private interests are bound by the unforgiving time frames of political and business cycles, pushing short-term solutions. This places an emphasis on tweaking current frameworks rather than engaging in fundamental reform. Current political and business approaches, bounded by short-term cycles, are ill-adapted to provide the long-term support that would be needed to support the transition to diversified agroecological farming. The requirement for immediate results is therefore a key factor in locking in current systems.

The fifth lock-in is “feed the world” narratives. The vision underlying the policies of conventional industrial agriculture focus on food security understood in terms of delivering sufficient net calories at the global level, that is, “feeding the world,” despite the fact that hunger is primarily a distributional question tied to poverty, social exclusion, and other factors affecting access to—and affordability of—food. Narratives about feeding the world have nonetheless continued to be propagated, especially by agribusiness firms in the wake of the food price spikes of 2007–8 and the urgency they brought to questions of food security. These narratives claim that the same systems and actors driving the Green Revolution–style productivity increases of the past must remain center stage. For example, the G8’s “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition,” a development scheme launched in 2012 to deliver food security, declares its focus to be improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by integrating smallholders into agribusiness-led global supply chains as outgrowers. This ignores questions about price volatility as well as the livelihood stresses and power imbalances often exacerbated in these types of arrangements.

The sixth lock-in is the way success is measured. The performance of agriculture is mainly measured in terms of yields of specific crops, productivity per worker, and total factor productivity. On this basis, the efficiencies of highly specialized and increasingly large-scale farms have been highlighted by agriculture ministries and global institutions. But this does not incorporate ecological, social, and cultural variables, or consider the complexity of systems. Furthermore, the metrics most commonly referred to do not account for the high nutrient content of foods produced in diversified agroecological systems, nor do they capture these systems’ vast environmental and social benefits. Limiting the measures of success to these metrics also maintains the high-carbon model of agriculture in place.

The seventh and final lock-in is the enormous concentration of power in agribusiness. The way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue mainly to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political dominance, and thus their ability to influence the governance of these systems. The interests of these powerful actors converge around supporting conventional industrial agriculture. Dominant actors are able to bring their power to bear in various ways. With public sector research fading in its financial clout and ability to set trajectories, input agribusinesses are able to frame the problems and provide solutions such as new ranges of input-responsive crops, thus securing demand for their products, while ensuring that power and influence continue to flow their way. They also exert power by lobbying policymakers to ensure policy frameworks favorable to their business interests. For example, in 2015, agribusiness firms spent more than $130 million lobbying the U.S. Congress.

How to Unlock the Lock-Ins and Pursue a Low-Carbon Pathway

In contrast to conventional industrial agriculture, diversified agroecological farming can deliver simultaneous and mutually reinforcing benefits for productivity, the environment, and society. These alternative systems improve soil fertility and water retention and are particularly resilient to environmental stress. These systems have major potential to keep and sequester carbon in the ground, increase resource efficiency, and restore degraded land, turning agriculture from a major contributor to climate change to one of the key solutions. Diversified agriculture also holds the key to increasing dietary diversity at the local level, as well as reducing the multiple health risks from conventional industrial agriculture (e.g., pesticide exposure and antibiotic resistance).

A set of coherent steps can strengthen the emerging opportunities while simultaneously breaking the vicious cycles that keep conventional industrial agriculture in place. Together, these steps must shift the center of gravity in food systems, allowing harmful dependencies to be cut, agents of change to be empowered, and alliances to be forged in favor of change.

Recommendation 1: Develop new indicators for sustainable food systems

It is essential to adopt a broader range of indicators that matter to society. These indicators should cover long-term ecosystem health, total resource flows, sustainable interactions between agriculture and the wider economy, the sustainability of outputs, nutrition and health outcomes, livelihood resilience, and the economic viability of farms with respect to debt, climate shocks, and so on. FAO and partners are developing a set of indicators for sustainable agriculture.

Recommendation 2: Shift public support toward diversified agroecological production systems

Governments must shift public support away from conventional industrial production systems while rewarding the array of positive outcomes in diversified agroecological systems. Governments must implement measures that allow farms to diversify and transition toward agroecology. In particular, they must support young people who enter agriculture and help them adopt agroecological farming before they are locked into the cycles of industrial agriculture.

Recommendation 3: Support Short Supply Chains and Alternative Retail Infrastructures

Governments and local authorities should support and promote short supply chains to make them viable, accessible, and affordable alternatives to mass retail outlets, such as by repurposing infrastructure in cities to favor farmers markets. Governments should empower emerging initiatives linking farmers to consumers to allow farmers to make a decent income from diversified sustainable agriculture and offer healthy food to consumers. For example, Toronto, a municipal food policy leader, has a long history of working to ensure access to healthy, affordable, sustainable, and culturally acceptable food, among other ways by supporting farmers markets.

Recommendation 4: Use public procurement to support local agroecological produce

Public procurement should be used with increasing ambition to ensure sales outlets for diversified agroecological farms, while providing fresh, nutritious food and diversified diets for the users of public canteens, particularly schoolchildren, and thereby foster the transition to low-carbon agriculture. For example, the city of Copenhagen has decided that all public procurement should be at least 90 percent organic food, a target that was reached in 2017 without increasing the budget.

Recommendation 5: Strengthen organizations that support and adopt agroecology

Governments can support farmers’ groups, community-based organizations, and social movements that encourage the spread of agroecological practices and advocate for sustainable food systems, and ensure the participation of diverse civil society groups in global governance processes and forums. In the last two years, IPES-Food has supported farmers’ and civil society organizations in creating the Alliance for Agroecology in West Africa in order to foster the scaling-up of agroecology in the region.

Recommendation 6: Mainstream agroecology and holistic food systems approaches into education and research agendas

Public education and research agendas must be redefined around different priorities. Investments must be redirected to give farmers the tools they need to shift their production. The mission of university research should be redefined to prioritize the delivery of public goods, with clear rules and transparency regarding private funding. FAO and other international agencies should mainstream agroecology into all of their work in order to spread existing knowledge and fill the remaining gaps in our understandings. Research conducted by the CGIAR centers should be refocused on diversified agroecological systems and farmer participatory research. Several universities now offer masters programs in agroecology, and agroecology training centers have been set up in several West African countries. In 2018, FAO launched an ambitious “Scaling-Up Agroecology” initiative, involving several other UN organizations as well as different stakeholders.

Recommendation 7: Develop food planning processes and “joined-up food policies” at multiple levels

It is crucial to implement joined-up policymaking for food systems. Long-term, interministerial planning—reaching across political boundaries and transcending electoral cycles—should be supported, building on landscape management and territorial planning initiatives, where food security can be meaningfully targeted and understood in terms other than “feeding the world.” Food systems planning must be based on the broad participation of various constituencies and groups with a stake in food systems reform. At the global level, the Committee on World Food Security should advocate for coherent food policies and contribute to strengthening diversified agroecological food systems. In 2019, as a result of a three-year participatory process, IPES-Food published a report proposing a blueprint for a holistic food policy for Europe (IPES-Food 2019).

Recommendation 8: Address the concentration of power by reforming antitrust legislation

Antitrust legislation must be expanded so that it considers the impacts of mergers and acquisitions on production and processing, and is not based only on a limited understanding of consumer welfare. Antitrust regulation of the activities of a foreign company operating in another market should also be considered. The recent work at the UN Conference on Trade and Development presenting a model law on competition policy and a set of multilaterally agreed equitable controls of restrictive business practices should be noted.

Successfully addressing these intertwined and mutually reenforcing lock-ins will require a radical paradigm shift in food systems, in which harmful dependencies are cut, agents of change are empowered, and alliances are created in favor of change. In other words, the vicious cycles of industrial agriculture must be replaced with the virtuous circles of diversified agroecological systems.


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All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.