31.10.2022 |

IPES-Food rejects nebulous terms like ‘nature-based solutions’

Nebulous terms are being used in international summits (Photo: CC0)

At international climate, biodiversity and food summits, a growing number of green buzzwords are being used which rather obstruct than accelerate food system transformation. Agrifood corporations, international philanthropic organizations, and some governments are currently deploying the term “nature-based solutions” to ‘hijack’ the food system sustainability agenda, often bundled with problematic and unproven carbon farming and carbon offsetting schemes in partnership with major conservation groups. This is one of the key messages of a new policy brief published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), a group of experts co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and Maryam Rahmanian, an independent expert on agriculture and food systems. The briefing, written after an in-depth exchange between IPES-Food and researchers from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), analyses how the competing concepts of ‘agroecology’, ‘nature-based solutions’, and ‘regenerative agriculture’ were used at recent international events. “There’s a battle of ideas over the future of food systems. Very loose terms like ‘nature-based solutions’ are being bandied about in international summits without clear definitions, and they’re open to being mobilized in the interests of all kinds of agendas. At worst they are a cover for green grabs that undermine people's rights and threaten the land and resources they depend on,” said Melissa Leach, IPES-Food expert and Director of the IDS. She highlighted that with the UN climate conference in Egypt (COP27) fast approaching, we must be very careful about the use of these ambiguous terms and reject solutions that are not clearly defined.

According to the brief ‘Smoke & Mirrors: Examining competing framings of food system sustainability’, there is widespread consensus on the need to make food systems more sustainable, but how to pursue that objective is subject to much debate. In recent years, terms such as ‘regenerative agriculture’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ have gained popularity within global governance and international development spaces and among agrifood corporations. The authors explain that “these terms add to a growing collection of concepts and ideas that are often used as bywords for sustainable development in discussing the future of food systems, including sustainable agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, nature-positive food production, sustainable intensification, conservation agriculture” and so on. The paper focuses on three concepts, ‘agroecology’, ‘nature-based solutions’, and ‘regenerative agriculture’, considering their origins, evolution, and how they are used in debates on the future of food systems. The authors looked specifically at how these terms were deployed in the run-up to, at and in the follow-up to three high-level summit events in 2021 – the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) and at the UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP15). They also examined the usage of these terms in other policy and funding spaces (e.g. corporate sustainability schemes and development initiatives).

The researchers found that one controversial idea, ‘nature-based solutions’, is rapidly gaining traction in international summits. The term was very prominent at the UNFSS, contentious in some negotiations at COP26, and has gained a foothold in CBD – where it is being heavily promoted by some parties and strongly opposed by others in ongoing negotiations towards the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. At the UN Food Systems Summit, the term ‘nature-positive’ was preferred in earlier stages. Across summit literature, ‘nature-based’ and ‘nature-positive’ were used as generic prefixes together with a range of topics – “suggesting that the terms are being used in a loose and aspirational way and perhaps to mask the specific and highly-critiqued approaches (e.g., carbon offsets) being promoted by a number of proponents of nature-based solutions”, the authors write. Nature-positive food systems; nature-positive agriculture and nature-positive approaches, practices, and solutions are just some examples that appeared in summit documents and processes. The UNFSS was organised around five action tracks and track 3 is dedicated to “nature positive production”. IPES-Food criticises that the concept of ‘nature-based’ lacks an agreed definition and a transformative vision and is being used to maintain agribusiness as usual. It is a depoliticized concept that ignores inequalities of power and wealth that lead to unsustainability in food systems. Therefore, it falls short of the deep, structural, transformative change required to make food systems truly sustainable in all three dimensions – ecological, social, and economic. In addition, the term is often bundled with risky, unproven carbon offsetting schemes that entrench big agribusiness power. The result is thus a dilution of food system transformation.

By contrast, ‘agroecology’ – the second concept analysed in the paper – is a term given formal definition through democratic and inclusive governance processes, backed by years of scientific research and social movement legitimacy. The authors explain that agroecology offers a more inclusive and comprehensive pathway toward food system transformation because it connects social and environmental aspects of sustainability, addresses the whole food system, is attentive to power inequalities, and draws from a plurality of knowledges emphasizing the inclusion of marginalized voices. Agroecology is the only concept among the three that has attained clarity and conceptual maturity through a long process of inclusive and international deliberation. In 2018, following a 4-year consultative process, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) laid out the ‘10 elements of agroecology. This framework was a milestone in bringing agroecology into mainstream policy debate and establishing a holistic version of it that included social justice components. This conceptual maturity was consolidated the following year when the High Level Panel of Experts of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) translated these 10 elements into a set of 13 operational principles to guide agroecological food system transformation. At the UNFSS, agroecology was mentioned as a type of nature-based solution under action track 3, emerging as a ‘game-changing solution’ under this track. However, the brief concludes that agroecology is not used as an overarching framework in the three fora studied. Insufficient attention to agroecology and food sovereignty was among the reasons why hundreds of civil society groups boycotted the UNFSS, and its outcomes remain highly contested. Agroecology was largely absent from the main business of COP26 and was not mentioned in the CBD’s main outcome document to date, the Kunming Declaration.

The third concept, ‘Regenerative agriculture’, is less prominent in policy spaces, the briefing note finds. Sustainable food system actors use it to emphasize regenerating natural resources. However leading agrifood businesses (including Walmart, Pepsi and Cargill) are in some cases invoking ‘regenerative agriculture’ in their corporate sustainability schemes, often in conjunction with carbon offsetting schemes, stripped of social justice dimensions. “Regenerative agriculture is a term at a crossroads. Highlighting the principles it shares with agroecology (…) can help to reclaim regenerative agriculture from corporate co-optation and reinfuse it with conceptual clarity,” the authors write. The brief also presents a number of recommendations for policy actors, observers, and advocates in global governance spaces on food, climate, and environment. IPES-Food calls to reject solutions that lack definitions, exploit ambiguity and mask agribusiness as usual, while ensuring inclusive global processes to deliberate on socially and environmentally sustainable food system solutions. Business as usual through nature-based solutions, as expressed at the UNFSS, should be rejected in the upcoming climate conference in Egypt. “COP27 faces crucial decisions on agriculture. Rapidly transitioning to more sustainable and resilient food systems is vital if we are to limit global warming and prevent mass crop failures,” said Molly Anderson, IPES-Food expert and Chair in Food Studies at Middlebury College. She stressed that undefined terms like ‘nature-based solutions’ are being used to keep the focus on vague aspirations and this is just another form of greenwashing. “True food system solutions emerge through global, deliberative, democratic processes, and agroecology is the best solution that meets that criteria today,” she added. (ab)

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