This week the water-stressed city of Cape Town hosts the bi-annual Adaptation Futures conference, where scientists, business leaders, and practitioners from the world of development and agriculture will come together to engage in ‘dialogues for solutions’ to the multifarious problems wrought by our rapidly changing climate.

As actors with different perspectives design modes of collaboration, the first questions to be raised are: who is at the dialogue table, who are the solutions for, who sets the terms, and what is at stake for whom? Knowledge producers and policymakers promote the uptake of ideas for societal change, yet it is worth noting that the inequality gap continues to grow as the economy is geared towards increasing wealth for the 1% of the world’s population (Oxfam, 2017).

As the number of hungry people rises – 815 million according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – we turn our attention to the dialogues on solutions for food, water and energy security in a world of finite resources and conflict, compounded by climate change.

It will become apparent that here too we need to interrogate what actor-networks – indeed what interests – are behind the narratives on ‘transforming’ agri-food systems required to move from discourse to action.

Recent statistics show that our food systems – the way we produce, transport, preserve and consume food – contribute 19% to 29% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Vermeulen et al., 2012), whilst projections show that climate change could have negative impacts on farming, driving food prices up. At the same time, rising temperatures, floods and droughts will hit countries of the Global South particularly hard, putting stress on their food systems. In the context of corporate capture, a radical new approach to food production is necessary. This is what agroecology and food sovereignty proponents have been demanding for three decades and, finally, governments’ and institutions’ historical reticence is starting to wane in the face of growing uncertainty about the future of industrial agriculture.

Despite the global commodification of food, local food producers (farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peasants, etc.) have developed their own solutions to food production where conventional approaches have been faltering. They have shown that agroecological innovations can contribute to alleviating a range of issues relating to food security and the management of natural resources. They have also been the first to employ resilient farming methods in response to adverse conditions produced by man-made and/or natural disasters. Indeed, community-engaged research shows that smallholders have long been proposing and testing agroecological strategies for dealing with climatic variability (see Miguel Altieri, Peter Rosset, Clara Nicholls and Paul Rogé).

Following in the footsteps of the Conference of Parties (COP23) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Adaptation Futures 2018 puts ‘transformative’ food and agriculture on the table. During the COP21 global climate change discussions, civil society activists and scientists already underscored that location-specific agroecological innovations in food production, which are the product of centuries of accumulated peasant and indigenous knowledge, can provide adaptation and mitigation measures. Therefore they should be supported rather than undermined by policy instruments and institutional frameworks.

Smallholder farmers’ organisations have challenged the mainstream narrative around input-dependent “sustainable intensification“, and “climate smart agriculture“: they state that they produce over 70% of the food consumed in the developing world, thereby contributing to poverty reduction (IFAD, 2013). In 2014, the International Year of Family Farming, the FAO organised the first International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutritional Security.

In his closing remarks, the Director General Jose Graziano da Silva said: “Today a window has opened in what for 50 years has been the Cathedral of the Green Revolution.” An uphill battle for the Civil Society Mechanism of the reformed UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) from the outset, that window has become a fast opening door.

The CFS’ High Level Panel of Experts recently launched an e-consultation on its upcoming report on agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture, and members of the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC), who had historically convened parallel forums, now officially attend FAO regional and international symposia to reiterate the importance of bottom-up and people-centred approaches. In November 2018, in the context of Agenda 2030 for “transforming our world” and the human right to adequate food and nutrition, the FAO will hold the Agricultural Innovation Symposium for Family Farmers: Unlocking the Potential of Agricultural Innovation to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, there is a flourishing of worldwide education spaces and dialogue surrounding the subject of agroecology (such as Masters programmes in England, Spain, and Latin America, institutes, schools of peasant agroecology including in West Africa and India, conferences on food sovereignty, and international schools for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing). This demonstrates a growing collaborative and participatory approach to research for societal change.

Therefore, a set of low-impact practices based on science and action, as this conference calls for, can be found in the discipline of agroecology. But what exactly is this set of practices that enhances the social and climate change resilience of farms and communities? Agroecology is not to be confused with ‘organic’ agriculture, as it goes beyond inputs and extension services, by mimicking the biodiversity levels of natural ecosystems in order to fight pests and conserve nutrients. Additionally, as disenfranchised rural communities struggle to make a decent living in the dominant profit-driven agricultural paradigm – witnessed for example in recent spates of large-scale land acquisition and investment for export-oriented agricultural corridors in sub-Saharan Africa – agroecology provides an ecological lens for agricultural systems that does not neglect the social aspects of smallholders’ everyday lives.

Professor Michel Pimbert, director of the UK Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) – which has just launched a new Masters in Agroecology, Water and Food Sovereignty – describes it as a culturally specific “alternative vision to conventional development and climate smart agriculture” (2017). It builds on the experience of farmers, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk, pastoralists and forest dwellers, as well as on their collective knowledge, and local taxonomies of soils, ecosystems, seed selections and, animal and plant breeding.

Pimbert highlights the transformative elements while also warning against the co-optation of the term by different interest groups, as the prolific use of ‘sustainability’ and ‘participation’ shows. Scholars Jahi Chappell (CAWR) and Mindi Schneider (ISS) question the mainstream sustainability model, which, under the guise of achieving food security, takes a siloed approach to the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of agri-food systems. Instead, in order to address the harm caused by industrial food production, they propose a tripartite yet rounded model for research and action, a “three-legged stool“, where the three interconnected legs are: agroecology, food sovereignty and food justice.

Agroecology – which strives to work holistically with nature – is indeed one of the six pillars of “food sovereignty”, a term that is used to denote a largely rural-based movement that rose up against the imbalances of WTO-led global trade liberalisation in the 1990s, and the global land-grabbing phenomenon. For La Via Campesina (LVC), the organisation of transnational agrarian activists who coined the term as a counter-narrative to ‘food security’, peasant agroecology is a building block in the construction of food sovereignty, and on par with equitable access to natural resources. They call for “public policies that support and promote agroecological transformation at local, national and regional scales; the alliance of farmers with conscious and responsible consumers, based on the need for a radical transformation toward a socially just food system.” (2014).

Just this month, LVC Southern and Eastern Africa members submitted an Open Letter against false solutions to regional Member States, calling for “recognition of Climate Justice as a core foundation for the development and implementation of real solutions to climate change” (June 13, 2018).

The demands of food sovereignty proponents are summed up in the Nyeleni Declaration, adopted at a gathering in Mali in 2007:

“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems… “

Agricultural biodiversity, with its innumerable species, varieties and breeds, is “sustained in the framework of food sovereignty“, illustrated by agriculturalist Patrick Mulvany (2017). The model it promotes steers away from input-intensive monocultures and GMOs, where large-scale cropping for export purposes does not provide as much employment as family farming and leads to the immiseration of rural areas, as scholar-activist Peter Rosset explained in 2003.

Ultimately, food sovereignty and agroecology, which are complementary and inseparable, are about social control and values, inclusion of voice and democratic participation in decision-making spaces by the most affected actors, especially smallholders and women. In other words, a human rights-based approach to the responsible governance of food systems.

As Adaptation Futures is being held for the first time on the African continent, these discussions should not be shied away from during this week’s conference. In the context of power differentials, a business-as-usual tinkering with sustainability is no longer an option. Transforming agri-food systems in the context of climate change adaptation calls for precisely that: transformation that places smallholders and conscious consumers at the centre of the social process.

Radical, transformational change entails prioritising social and environmental values in the face of profit-driven market logics, and it also implies an interrogation of ‘meanings’ and ‘interpretations’ attributed to the latest buzzwords in development and adaptation/mitigation, including the aforementioned new favourite: ‘transformative change’.

Katie Whiddon is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, UK. The core of her PhD is a collaborative research project with civil society organisations on the impact of global governance instruments on place-based struggles for access to natural resources, and the realisation of the right to food and food sovereignty in Nepal. Katie is also a translator, interpreter and editor specialising in human rights, and food and agriculture.