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Agriculture is under pressure to perform on World Food Day. As governments pay lip service to combatting climate change in the Paris Agreement, few of them are taking the real action necessary to reduce emissions. While just this month Hurricane Matthew, almost certainly made worse by climate change, battered Haiti and El Nino related drought is wreaking farming across South and East Africa.

Agroecology cools the planet

In this bleak scenario, one of the brightest rays of hope is that a dramatic change in our farming system can significantly reduce emissions and put an end to hunger. Agroecology – an agenda to focus on ecological farming in the hands of small food producers – is receiving mainstream support. Long practiced by small scale producer movements, agroecology is in the spotlight for its ability to sequester carbon and refocus our food system on feeding people rather than pursue an obscene race for profits. So why are we not in the midst of a major Government funded agroecological revolution?

The World Food Day call of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation gives one small clue – to ‘invest in farmers and rural development to combat the effects of climate change’. Sure, investment can be a game changer in agriculture but what kind of investment? By whom? To what end?

How trade and investment agreements block agroecology

As our new report shows, investing in agroecology requires a drastically different model than the agribusiness led version many Governments are currently pursuing.

In the rush to expand investment in agriculture, governments are falling over themselves to sign trade and investment agreements and court agribusinesses.

But trade and investment agreements focused on attracting agribusiness’ money are geared towards generating profits for these agribusinesses. This is being done by opening new markets through trade and investment liberalisation, using bilateral investment treaties (BITs), free trade agreements (FTAs), conditional loans, and aid agreements.

These deals undermine and supersede the sovereignty of states and actually hinder their ability to develop or protect their agricultural economies, or defend social and environmental interests. The backbone of current trade and investment agreements is comprehensive promotion and protection for agribusinesses’ profits even if this comes at the cost of states’ and peoples’ welfare.

A key instrument is Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) – secret arbitration courts that enable corporations to sue States for billions of dollars for implementing economic, social or environmental policies that may impede profitable activities. Mega corporations have already sued States for over 6 billion USD for implementing a range of domestic regulations. Mexico for example tried to tax high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sweetener linked with obesity – that was being dumped on them by the US agribusiness Cargill. The tax helped safeguard the Mexican cane sugar industry, consisting of hundreds of thousands of jobs from dumping of subsidized US HFCS. But Cargill challenged them under ISDS and won US$90.7 million.

Investment promotion policies are also often demanded, even from donor aid programmes. In 2012 the G8 launched their New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (G8NA), aimed at mobilising private investment in African agriculture. It requires sweeping changes to African states’ legislation to facilitate the entry of agribusiness. Mozambique, for example, is committed to “systematically ceasing to distribute free and unimproved [non-commercial] seeds to farmers except in emergencies”. In plain language this means with a stroke of a pen the G8NA would make farming with traditional seeds and farmer to farmer seed exchanges – a key aspect of agroecology – illegal.

Meanwhile the Prosavannah investment exchange between Brazil, Japan and Mozambique requires the acquisition of 14 million hectares of land in Mozambique from small scale producers. Brazilian agribusinesses will use this to produce monocultures of soy and palm oil. The same model of farming that is responsible for Brazils top spot in global pesticide use and deforestation.

The industrial food system is responsible for up to 57 per cent of climate emissions largely due to intensive agriculture and emissions from transporting food around the globe. At a time when countries should be relocalising their food systems and embracing agroecology these agreements are pushing for the opposite. A mega trade deal including 12 countries around the Pacific, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) includes extensive liberalisation of public procurement in countries, making it impossible to discriminate in favour of national or regional suppliers. Government procurement policies such as those intended to foster sustainable local food systems and local production would be illegal.

Recent research shows that land investment deals are also covered by these agreements so when local communities go to state courts to challenge land grabbing they could come up against investment agreements.

There is an alternative!

The agribusiness investment model is currently seen by many as a norm that is apparently unquestionable. However, small-scale food producer movements, supported by an increasing body of research, are demonstrating that an alternative exists.

Small scale food producers remain the most important and dynamic part of the food system: 70-80% of the food consumed in the developing world is produced by smallholder producers and workers. They play an especially vital role in feeding the most marginalised peoples, with significantly fewer resources.

Smallholders themselves are also the most important investors in agriculture, dwarfing any investment from agribusiness. Farmers in low- and middle-income countries invest more than $170 billion a year in their farms – about $150 per farmer. This is three times as much as all other sources of investment combined.

Global small scale producer movements are leading the charge on agroecology while agribusinesses are doing their best to pretend industrial farming and agroecology are the same.

Governments must make a courageous comeback

Thousands of small producers are already practicing agroecology. Yet to ignite the global shift in farming practices we so desperately need, governments need to step up. They must move away from a role of simply managing and facilitating corporate investments. Instead, states need to make a courageous comeback, implementing and financing the policies needed to encourage smallholder food production.

Such state interventions could include: providing security of tenure for small-scale food producers, creating agricultural banks and wage boards, managing supplies and minimum prices, using public procurement to promote agroecology, and providing social protection, infrastructure, and research and technical support for small-scale producers.

As governments meet in Rome this week (17 – 21 october 2016) to debate polices for food security and nutrition their first priority should be supporting the call of small-scale producers to invest in their markets and production.