Highlighting the importance of power and governance in the debate on “innovation” in agriculture: A contribution to the HLPE process

Agroecology when articulated as a transformative approach to food system, is the most promising “innovation” (and set of “innovations”) at play at the global level. Yet, the current dominant innovation systems, in a wider disabling economic and political context, are containing, undermining and suppressing agroecology by supporting deeply problematic approaches to innovation largely constructed within a neoliberal-economic development paradigm.

A number of researchers at CAWR worked together to submit comments on the V0 draft of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) report on Agroecological Approaches and Other Innovations for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Our comments can be found below and more about the HLPE process can be found here.

The HLPE is the science-policy interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS). It aims to facilitate policy debates and inform policy making by providing independent, comprehensive and evidence-based analysis and advice at the request of CFS.

The HLPE elaborates its studies through a scientific, transparent and inclusive process. HLPE studies are the result of a continuous dialogue between HLPE experts and a wide range of stakeholders (whether public, private or from civil society) and knowledge-holders across the world, combining different forms of knowledge, building bridges across regions and countries, across various scientific disciplines and professional backgrounds.


Response to V0 of the HLPE Draft Report on Agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition

Submitted by: Colin R. Anderson, Chris Maughan, Elise Wach, Michel P. Pimbert and Julia Wright at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University (UK). See: www.agroecologynow.com and www.coventry.ac.uk/cawr


Snapshot Summary:The V0 draft has some interesting aspects but, in our opinion, needs significant improvement. Our comments suggest ways that the panel can address the more fundamental dynamics and contradictions necessary to enable sustainability transitions that can meet the SDGs, address climate change and confront food and nutrition insecurity. In this regard, agroecology when articulated as a transformative approach to food system, is the most promising “innovation” (and set of “innovations”) at play at the global level. Yet, the current dominant innovation systems, in a wider disabling economic and political context, are containing, undermining and suppressing agroecology by supporting deeply problematic approaches to innovation largely constructed within a neoliberal-economic development paradigm. Our more detailed comments, in the attached file, suggest ways that the panel can more deeply engage with this wider political and economic context within which innovation and agroecology are situated.



Introduction: Acknowledging the good

Version 0 of the HLPE report on agroecological approaches and other innovations goes some way to articulating an approach to innovation in agriculture that can help achieve the SDGs, address climate change and advance an agroecological approach to food systems. We commend the panel for including a great number of examples, initiatives and ideas that work towards this end.

We appreciate the distinction between innovation at a farm level and agroecology applied to food systems levels which resonates our own analysis of the need to address wider transformation of food systems to create more fundamental changes and nurture the enabling conditions for innovation that can meet the SDGs.

We were also pleased that the draft is rooted in the idea that ‘innovation derives its meaning within the framework specific contexts and needs’, and thus can only be understood as highly contingent on the needs of its particular users and developers and user-developers (especially family farmers and food producers).

We also commend the acknowledgement that innovation is more than just ‘technology’ and more than just ‘new things’, as this has been the dominant narrative in innovation theory for decades and patently incompatible with an agroecological approach.  The notion of retro-innovation and the acknowledgement of the importance of traditional knowledge and indigenous knowledge as fundamentally important and indeed with great potential for innovation in today’s context is incredibly important to highlight.

We appreciated the emphasis in the report on social processesof innovation, especially those led by farmers or otherwise conducted in a horizontal or ‘bottom up’ manner. It will be important to better situate these in the existing knowledge and innovation systems that, again, are deeply problematic because they largely support technology and profit driven innovations where the underlying is to meet economic benefits (that often accrue to those in the economic system that already hold power and are able to shape, harness and capture innovation for profit).

Mainstream approaches to innovation, which have unfolded in the neoliberal and productivist context, will always externalise the multiple functions and benefits of agroecological systems. Thus, the innovations that are derived from food producer led, agroecological systems, that can improve the ability of farmers and food systems to achieve multiple benefits to help achieve the SDGs, are largely unsupported and undermined by institutional innovation systems.


Our analysis of the shortcomings and areas for improvement

The V0 draft has a number of areas that, in our opinion, require much more development and improvement in the next version. These, we outline below in the following 7 main points.

1. Power and innovation:

First, we would like to see a more critical engagement with the politics of innovation and attention to power and equity. While some elements of the following four points are evident in the report, we argue they need more explicit development. For example, the report does mention power inequities (on p. 27, line 16) – emphasizing how agroecology possibly helps to address these, but goes into very little detail on how this relates to innovation and has no analysis of the wider power structures/cultures and how they relate to innovation. The following four sub-points could be used to strengthen the entire text, better framing the arguments within the wider political and economic landscape, but also particularly in section 2 which discusses innovation and innovation theory. The following points are based on work in progress (Anderson et al. Forthcoming).


1a. Addressing economic power in relation to innovation:

Innovation is deeply shaped by the power structures of society and the beneficiaries of innovation reflect the contours of power in society. Innovation, is largely couched in terms of the benefits of innovations for economic and technical gain. In this context, large and powerful actors have the capacity to invest in and control the rules of the game, enclose knowledge/innovation through intellectual property rights and gain vastly disproportionate access to institutional and societal resources for innovation development.


1b. Innovation and the politics of difference:

It is also important to note that ‘innovation’ like all social processes, will not have equal benefits in society, countries, territories, communities or within families. It is now an obvious point to note the vast inequalities that give shape to differential experiences of society and ‘innovations’ that are not attuned to these dynamics of exclusion and marginalisation, have a great risk of exacerbating inequality. The report should thoroughly address this by asking, ‘innovations for who and by who’ and ‘who is gaining and who is not from these innovations’ and, ‘how can we approach innovation in ways that deliberately address social, political and economic inequality’. For example, many innovations may consolidate the already unequal power of men within families, communities and society. Innovations may not be affordable for poor or landless farmers, providing further advantages to large capital-rich and landowning farmers, further pushing marginalised and landless food producers to the margins. This is clearly the case with capital intensive innovations like genetically modified seeds, robotization, etc. Figure 6 on p. 37 provides some insight into how the proposed framework for innovation might interface with inequity, especially the points under, “Social equity / responsibility” however this is to us to minor a treatment, and more attention is needed, again, to the extent to which innovations (agroecology, but especially ‘other innovations) often grossly fail to address these dimensions of power, to the detriment and marginalisation of the majority world.


1c. Dangerous, risky and toxic innovations: The report needs to advance the importance of precautionary approaches to innovation, introducing measures for accountability and safeguards that, over long periods of analysis and debate, contend with the risks of different innovations.

While this is, to some extent, addressed in section 3.2.5 Access to technology and innovation: who benefits?on p. 74, these points need to be made much earlier on and more centrally to the paper. The reality is that many risky and uncertain technologies, what might be classified as “other innovations”, are being advanced much more forcefully and systematically by powerful actors (see point a above) than agroecological approaches. The risk of these innovations is as important to discuss as the potential of agroecological and other alternative approaches being proposed and highlighted in the draft.

Innovations pose risks that manifest in different spatial, temporal and political dimensions: While some are acute and immediately obvious in the here and now, other risks are difficult to grasp and their impacts dispersed over space and time or reflect systemic risk that unfold over long periods of time with vast spatial implications. Thus, the deep and long-term implications of technologies and innovations must be taken into consideration.

Some risks of particular innovations may be obvious: what we can call obviously dangerous innovations(for example, a highly poisonous pesticides that have obvious health implications). On the other hand, there are innovations where the risks to health and environment are perhaps not immediate, but still visible in the current risk assessment approach (e.g. the uncertainty around the long-term impacts of technologies like gene drives or terminator technology once introduced into ecosystems). These we might refer to as risky innovations.

However, perhaps the most difficult to grasp, but possibly the most significant risk from innovations are those where the immediate and medium risks are difficult to see but where the long-term structural transformations of these innovations may have deeply problematic societal impacts. These potentially slow-burning toxic innovationshave negative impacts that manifest slowly over time in ways that are difficult to perceive but in the long-run pose massive societal risks.

For example, the catastrophic loses to biodiversity that the chemical revolution in agriculture had, would have been imperceptible to mainstream systems of institutional innovation of past, yet are obvious from a historical perspective. Today, for example, the implications of the automation and digitisation of agriculture for the structural transformation of agriculture and food systems is highly unknown. These technologies have some potential, for sure, to technically improve the efficiency of agriculture in highly mechanised and increasingly people-less systems. However, digital technologies are controlled by a very small number of corporations with significant influence over society, their power shaping and encroaching into all domains of life. This will almost certainly accelerate the concentration of power of corporations, undermining the ability of governments to regulate food systems and society, enabling the exodus of farmers (and humans in general) from the food system and arguably has unparalleled implications for the future governance and control over food systems. The implications of these fast-moving and difficult to understand technologies for ensuring people’s right to food, the viability of human-controlled food systems and the possibility for alternatives like agroecology require much more attention and caution.

This quote from an FAO document, may be useful in discussing innovation and risk in regards to agriculture and food systems (FA0 2018, p. 89):


Harnessing the positive contribution of innovation to SDGs also means recognizing that some forms of contemporary innovation can contribute to environmental degradation, are disruptive of livelihoods and exacerbate inequalities. The key questions, therefore, concern not how to encourage more innovation in more places, but which kinds of innovation need to be encouraged, where and for whom. Governments and partners should encourage innovation that particularly benefits smallholders by improving sustainability and resilience, raising incomes and reducing risks, including by creating new market opportunities and encouraging diversification, or by reducing natural resource depletion and degradation.

Also, recent publications by the ETC group (e.g. ETC 2018) and FIAN’s (2018) latest issue of the Food and Nutrition Watch publication on food in the digital age are important pieces of work to engage with.


1d. Recognising, valorising and harnessing People’s Knowledge – deepening the critique of unequal power in knowledge and innovation systems.While the acknowledgement of the importance of farmer-, indigenous-, peasant- knowledges is welcomed in the report (e.g. on p. 29, lines 10-30), there is also a need to more strongly analyse and denounce approaches to conceptualising and implementing innovation that excludes these knowledges and knowledge systems should be strengthened in the document. Many of the dominant notions of agroecology are indifferent towards, dismissive of, or indeed intentionally hostile towards, peasant, farmer-led and indigenous approaches to innovation. Expert knowledge systems are often based on an extractive logic that encloses this knowledge as raw material that, in its worst manifestation, amounts to bio-piracy and knowledge-piracy where knowledge/innovations are stolen, commercialised and often used against the interests of local knowledge holders from which the knowledge was extracted. There is a great deal of literature that deals with these issues, denouncing extractive practices of innovation led by experts/scientists and arguing instead for an approach to knowledge co-construction, innovation and wisdom based on cognitive justice (Pimbert, 2018; Posey and Dutfield, 1996) and epistemic justice. These literatures would be helpful for the panel in better analysing this aspect of power inequality in agricultural innovation systems.


2. Better articulating agroecology as an innovation or set of innovations: The document does not spend enough time talking about how agroecology itself approaches and enacts innovation. This is a vital issue which urgently needs a more substantial evidence base. As an alternative economic, ecological and social paradigm to industrial and capital-intensive agriculture, agroecology has engendered a distinct approach to innovation and indeed itself can and should be couched as an innovation. While the innovativeness of agroecology is increasingly recognised, the literature to characterise agroecology as an innovation is only in its infancy.

The V0 draft appears to set out to address this, not only by describing what agroecology is, but also by mapping how agroecological innovations operate, and in contrast to mainstream (neoliberal) approaches. The V0 draft has inadequacies in this regard. First, the document refers to ‘social interactions’ as important for agriculture (page 33) but we would encourage the HLPE to go beyond social interactions to consider social systems, including capitalism as well as ‘command and control’ forms of socialism. Next, the document does not make clear connections between its case studies its various schemas and typologies. The various figures, tables and case study boxes would greatly benefit from being more clearly linked and compared. The case studies (presented in boxes) could include an at-a-glance method of seeing the particular principles and approaches exemplified by each case study. This would also underline the context-determined nature of agroecological practice and help to develop an appropriately non-prescriptive typology. There is also too much attention paid to ‘other’ types of innovation – e.g. Sustainable Intensification, Right-based, etc. Why wasn’t agroecology itself described in the way the other 8 approaches were?


3. Re-formulating the typology: The document does not develop a workable typology for howagroecological innovation operates. It does offer a set of ‘principles’ (Table 1) and a ‘comparison table’ (Table 3) of the ‘9 approaches’ to FSN. However, these do not explicitly describe innovation processes and do not give an indication of how they might be used for this purpose.

We are left with a rather dense (but also simultaneously not detailed enough) description of cognate approaches to agricultural sustainability. The result of this ‘typology’ is not a useful abstraction of approaches, but an unwieldy digest of Sustainable Food System ‘movements’, which, in the end, tells us very little about how each approaches innovation.

Another problem here is the extent of redundancy in this typology – the authors put ‘sustainable intensification’, ‘organics’, ‘climate smart’, ‘agroforestry’ all as different approaches, but ultimately end up saying basically the same things about all of them.

This typology also suffers from what might be described as ‘category errors’ – the 8 ‘approaches’ outlined in Ch.2 aren’t comparable in the way the authors want them to be. We are presented with categories like ‘rights based’ next to ‘climate smart’ and ‘permaculture’. We felt that these describe characteristics at different levels in the food system – ‘rights based’ being much more abstract than CSA or Permaculture which are much more clearly defined practices or movements.

The authors appear to anticipate these problems by saying ‘we are not providing a hierarchical typology or classification of these approaches’, going on to cite the fact that innovation is place-based, heterogenous etc. While we generally support the idea that such innovations need to be situated, we would also argue that a typology (in order to be useful) should resign itself to the fact that it is an abstraction. Typologies of this kind exist and should be applied here also. To this end we suggest a reformulation of this typology or abandoning a typology approach altogether.


4. Better acknowledgement of peasant agroecology: The report needs to more thoroughly engage with the ideas being developed in civil society about the meaning and practice of agroecology – including the implicit views on innovation. The most effective way to do this is to engage with, and draw out further direct quotes from the Declaration on the International Forum on Agroecology. This will help to ensure that civil society understandings of innovation, food systems and agroecology are reflected in text in an unfiltered/unmediated way.


5. Continuing to expand the multidimensionality of innovation: The term ‘innovation’ can be more broadly defined to include conceptual, methodological, technical, organisational, institutional, social, and political processes. Some of this language is reflected for example in the Recommendations of the FAO symposium on Agroecology for Europe and Central Asia, held in Budapest (Hungary) over a year ago. The report can build on that to give a more multidimensional view on ‘innovations’ – one that moves the term away from narrow technical-economical -science based definitions.

Innovations can also be defined as involving processes of making transitions. And here the narrative on innovations could be linked with current patterns of hunger, marginalisation and vulnerability by emphasising the context (or regime) that limits or enables innovations and transitions they allow. In an unpublished report which the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience has prepared for the FAO’s Agroecology team we have proposed the following transitions domains as key for the quality and spread of agroecological practices and innovations:


Figure – Draft figure shows transition domains in study on sustainable food systems through agroecology. These domains are all highly influential in shaping agroecological practices/innovations and are determined by processes of governance. Source: Transitions to Sustainable Food Systems Through Agroecology. DRAFT 2018. Prepared for the Food and Agriculture Organization by the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University


This thought organising tool highlights the need to ‘think of innovations’ as intimately linked/ driven/contained/enabled by this wider context of enabling and disabling factors in what we have called interlinked transition domains (in above diagram, draft), which especially attend to issues of governance and power. This would help bring issues of increasing hunger, marginalisation and vulnerability more centre stage in the HLPE report e.g. by linking discussion of innovation (as process of making transitions) with access to land, seeds and water, governance and power within multiple transition domains. This approach could help more strongly differentiate ‘agroecology’ from the other ‘innovations’ discussed in HLPE draft.


6. The relationship between FAO and social movements:The section on agroecology as a social movement focuses on Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) as one of the main examples. This seems strange given that, from our understanding, GIAHS is an FAO, not a movement initiative. More generally, care needs to be taken not to equate FAO with social movement spaces/agency, and to more carefully present the relationship between FAO as an intergovernmental body (mostly beholden to governance by Nation States) and social movements. In the section on agroecology as a social movement, we recommend using another example to illustrate grassroots/social movement processes – perhaps focusing on popular education or grassroots transitions processes. Some possible references/examples to draw from in recent literature in Latin America (McCune & Sánchez. 2019), Europe(Anderson,et al. 2019) and internationally (Mier y Terán Giménez Cacho et al. 2018).


7. Salient dimensions: More salient dimensions could be included that move further away from the current productivist paradigm, however this would require some discussion of epistemologies as well as visions for the future. Other dimensions could then include spiritual and emotional nourishment, mental health, co-creation with nature and the rights of nature, many of which are implicit in indigenous farming systems and which are aspirations of contemporary agroecological systems (Posey, 1999).


8. Reconsideration of value chains: ‘Value chain’ approaches tend to relate to food commodification, with the ‘value’ being in solely or primarily economic terms.  Instead of recommendations for ‘value chains’, we encourage the panel to consider ‘alternative’ market arrangements or a food systems lens.  This might include models based on collaboration and shared risks, rewards and decision-making for producers, processors (where appropriate) and food citizens and considerations of environmental and social aspects of production.  Examples include cooperatives, community-supported agriculture and sustainable public procurement (Ferguson and Wach, 2017, Soldi 2018).



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