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 like “regenerative agriculture” and “nature-based solutions” have gained popularity within global governance and international development spaces and among agrifood corporations.
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, zero-carbon agriculture, holistic resource management, and so on.
The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems seeks to inform debates on food system reform through policy-oriented research and direct engagement with policy processes around the world. Co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and Maryam Rahmanian, independent expert on agriculture and food systems, the expert panel brings together environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists, and sociologists, as well as experienced practitioners from civil society and social movements.
The meanings and usefulness of these terms are contested in policy spaces and academic spheres. The competition among alternative food system approaches and terminologies reflects not only a battle for ownership and clout but reveals fundamentally distinct understandings of sustainability and diverging views on what scale of transformation is needed to make food systems sustainable.
The terms used in these spaces are often contested precisely because they have real effects and material consequences. Yet, these contestations are not always obvious. They are sometimes deliberately concealed through the use of different terms as if they were interchangeable. Concepts can also be watered down until they can be used to imply almost anything positive or “sustainable”.
In the lead up to the COP27 international climate negotiations scheduled for 6–18 November in Egypt, where food systems are high on the agenda for the first time, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) has warned that a growing number of green buzzwords are being used to obstruct real food system transformation.
In a new briefing published with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, IPES-Food examines how, in the battle of ideas for the future of food systems, one controversial concept, “nature-based solutions”, is rapidly gaining traction. But the term lacks an agreed definition, transformative vision, and is being used to maintain agribusiness as usual. It is often bundled with unproven and risky carbon offsetting schemes that entrench big agribusiness power.
By contrast, “agroecology” is a term formally defined through democratic and inclusive governance processes, backed by years of scientific research and social movement legitimacy, but has been much more rarely invoked in international food, climate, and biodiversity governance spaces.
Although less common in global policy spaces, “regenerative agriculture” is used by many sustainable food system actors to emphasize the centrality of regenerating natural resources. Yet the term is also increasingly prominent in corporate-led sustainability schemes, and risks being narrowed to a limited focus on soil carbon.
The enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture among corporations and funders is not yet translating into global governance spaces, where the term is used rarely and superficially. This may reflect the fact that other terms like nature-based solutions and climate-smart agriculture are already being deployed in those spaces in a way that frames food system change in relatively limited terms. IPES-Food calls on governments and civil society to reject food system solutions that lack definitions, exploit ambiguity, and mask agribusiness as usual, while ensuring inclusive global processes to deliberate on and move towards socially and environmentally sustainable food system solutions.