Q&A with Marie-Christine Cormier-Salem, Agropolis Fondation: Investing in sustainable, equitable, and secure food systems

Ahead of the Global Alliance’s Transformative Research and Action for Food Systems Convening this September, Deputy Director Lauren Baker spoke to contributors to the Politics of Knowledge workstream to understand how they are taking action to advance agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways where they live or work. In this interview, Lauren speaks to Marie-Christine Cormier-Salem, Director of Research at Agropolis Fondation and Scientific Expert at Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), who is based in France. 

Lauren Baker: Marie-Christine, thank you for talking with us. Let’s dive in – can you tell us a little bit about Agropolis Fondation, what you do, and who you work with? What are you interested in a transformative research and action agenda for food systems? 

Marie-Christine Cormier-Salem: Agropolis Fondation is a French scientific cooperation foundation that supports research, training and innovation around three main strategic issues: 1) Climate change: adaptation and mitigation; 2) Conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity; 3) Responsible production and consumption. Set up in 2007 by five French public research and training institutions, Agropolis Fondation relies on an internationally renowned scientific network, with 41 research units divided into five disciplinary fields (Plant biology; Biology of plant biotic interactions; Agronomy and agroecosystem management; Food and non-food processing sciences; and Social sciences and agriculture-society interactions). Our main mission is to contribute to a sustainable agricultural and food system, especially through the promotion of agroecological approaches. Agropolis Fondation works in collaboration with a wide variety of organizations, including research centers, ministries, farmer’s organizations, NGOs and private companies. Combined with interdisciplinarity, inclusiveness, and multi-stakeholders dialogue, this strong partnership approach especially with partners in the South are key elements of our strategy toward building a more sustainable food system.

LB: Through the Global Alliance’s work on the Politics of Knowledge, we learned that some funders choose to distance themselves from agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous foodways – voicing their skepticism about viability, profitability, and scalability. What would you say to other funders and/or donors to change their minds?

MCCS: Being a scientific cooperation foundation, we work very closely with researchers from various disciplines (such as agronomy, genetics, ecology, economics, sociology, and anthropology) to analyze how agroecology and regenerative agriculture practices have positive impacts on society. Our role as a funder of scientific programmes is to continue building evidence while underlying potential trade-offs. We believe that a funders choice to support programmes on agroecology and regenerative agriculture should be more and more informed by science and less and less by political or economical considerations. 

LB: Critics of agroecology also say agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous foodways are unbankable. Yet, we know from our work that “Western science and financing structures too often exclude and/or ignore other forms of knowledge, tending toward simplification, generalization, and reducing complexity.” What creative investment strategies have you seen that deliver sustainable, equitable, and secure food systems?

MCCS: The term ‘bankable’ mainly refers to economic and financial criteria and completely ignores the social and environmental aspects. Yet, these aspects are the heart of the principles of agroecology. While private impact funds are investing more in projects that put forward agroecology approaches and practices, it is still a fraction of what it should be to start changing things on the ground. Public actors are becoming more aware of the importance of supporting this transition – and I would say this is transformation because transformative changes are required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In Montpellier for instance where Agropolis Fondation is based, local actors are investing in sustainable and equitable food systems that heavily rely on agroecology principles.

This is why the Foundation supports interdisciplinary, but even more so transdisciplinary or intersectoral research. It has thus launched a call for projects on innovative co-learning between all forms of knowledge, whether scientific or local. 

LB: When it comes to decision-making about the future of food, where do you think the evidence gaps are that hold back transformative action and change?

MCCS: Changing the system in which a multitude of actors operate at various levels takes a lot of time. While there is a lot of research on the technical solutions, there seems to be much less on the trade-offs related to the technical solutions and also on how to unlock the system and play on the different levers. A good example is the reduction of pesticides where the main constraints are in how to unlock the system and find incentives (not only economic and financial) for the actors to do things differently. Another example is how food insecurity is more a matter of dissymmetry in access to resources, inadequate distribution and therefore lack of governance, from local to international scales, and not strictly speaking insufficient agricultural production. To sum up, the issues are less technical than political.

LB: If you could describe or sum up agroecology in one sentence, what would you say? 

MCCS: Agroecology is about respecting the soil, the biodiversity, the food, and the culture and therefore about respecting life in its diversity. 

— Ends