Q&A with Georgina Catacora-Vargas: Addressing and mitigating climate change through agroecology

Ahead of the Global Alliance’s Transformative Research and Action for Food Systems Convening taking place this week in Montpellier, France, Deputy Director Lauren Baker spoke to contributors to the Politics of Knowledge regional dialogues 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 Georgina Catacora-Vargas, President of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA), who is based in Bolivia.

Lauren Baker: Georgina, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. First, can you tell us a little bit about what you do and who you work with? How did you come to be involved in the Politics of Knowledge regional dialogue in Latin America? 

Georgina Catacora-Vargas: I work as a researcher and policy advisor in the fields of agroecology and sustainable food systems, biodiversity, and the biosafety of emerging genetic technologies used in agriculture. Currently, I am a tenure-track professor of agroecology at the Bolivian Catholic University’s Academic Peasant Unit “Tiahuanacu”. I became involved in the Politics of Knowledge regional dialogue in Latin America after being invited by the organizers to help plan a session involving various agroecology actors in policy and financing decision-making, two critical aspects for scaling it up.

LB: Through the Politics of Knowledge, we learned that there is an abundance of evidence that showcases the ability of agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways to repair our relationship with nature and build climate resilience. Yet, these approaches are not often raised as a pathway to address climate change. In your opinion, how can agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways address and mitigate climate impacts?

GCV: Agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways can address and mitigate climate impacts by restoring a wide range of ecosystem functions that are important for socioecological resilience. This is possible because their design and management foster biologically diverse production systems, which means that different species can coexist in the same place and at the same time, within and around the production plot. 

Such biodiversity has the ability to restore and improve ecosystem functions critical for climate adaptation and mitigation, such as temperature regulation and water cycling, as well as other ecosystem functions with significant socioeconomic implications, such as pollination, pest management, nutrient cycling, and others. Furthermore, there is evidence that such systems have the capacity to buffer extreme climate events and recover faster from them. All of these characteristics help to sustain livelihoods and build self-reliance, especially for those who are most vulnerable to climate change. Because of the property of being biologically diverse above and below ground (i.e., in the soil), greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, and carbon sequestration and nitrogen fixation are increased. Such resilience to climate change has significant socioeconomic implications, including contributions to stable, healthy, and diverse food systems, and increased resistance to (human and non-human) disease. As a result, agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways can all contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation in various forms.

LB: What do you think is the main opportunity for the mainstreaming of agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous foodways in climate policy-making? 

GCV: The multiple crises that are escalating over time call for a deep collective reflection on the sustainability of current mainstream food systems. In addition to the need for transformative change to address the underlying causes of those crises and their consequences, we need to foster strategies that can effectively contribute to restoring and conserving the health of ecosystems and people, while securing productivity and providing healthy diversified food. These characteristics are held by agroecology and Indigenous foodways, making them critical for establishing resilient food an increasingly fragile and uncertain climate and geopolitical contexts. ​​Climate change must be taken alongside other interconnected crises, such as biodiversity loss and health outbreaks, so holistic approaches can be integrated with social and ecological aspects of livelihoods – this is a critical opportunity to mainstream agroecology, regenerative, and Indigenous foodways in climate policy-making.  Another important opportunity to mainstream agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways is the growing citizen and consumer awareness of the effects of consumption choices on energy and material demands, greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, and human and ecosystem well-being. These reflections are critical to identifying opportunities for transformative change in public and private financing decision-making. 

LB: We know financing climate change mitigation and adaptation actions will be a hot topic at this year’s UNFCCC COP27. In your opinion, where and how should finance be directed towards agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous foodways?

GCV: The overarching principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in accordance with corresponding capabilities applies in the financing of agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways as strategies to address climate change. This recognizes that the major direct and underlying causes of climate change stem from unsustainable agriculture and food supply (e.g., industrial agriculture, factory-style husbandry, long-distance food transport, high-energy demanding inputs, and others) in order to meet the unsustainable and cheap food demand, which primarily originates in the Global North. Another interconnected aspect is the polluter pays principle, which, together with the preceding set of important ethical tenets, supports financial strategies that are restorative of the socioecological matrix, and support the well-being of many in a fair and dignified manner. Yet, securing funding for agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways is insufficient. Other financial measures, such as eliminating harmful subsidies and disproportionate support for conventional and other unsustainable and high-carbon-emitting production and consumption systems, are needed.

Another critical aspect of financing decision-making and procedures is putting rights holders first and implementing a territorial and human-rights-based approach rooted in relevant international law. Decisions on financing agroecology, regenerative, and Indigenous foodways will further require meaningful participatory approaches in which local actors define their financing priorities. In general, some relevant financing areas include capacity building in various sectors at different scales and spaces (from popular to academic), research to co-generate answers and alternatives to concrete challenges faced by local actors on the ground (particularly peasants, small-scale farmers, Indigenous peoples, and women), and participatory technical and social innovation in relation to food distribution and markets. To avoid misleading and co-oped processes, all of these need to be grounded in agroecology’s ecological, social, economic, and political principles, as well as its academic approaches (e.g., farmer to farmer, field schools, and participatory action research).

LB: Discussions on the Global Biodiversity Framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity have been intense this year. What is the relevance of this framework? And what role do agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and Indigenous foodways play in the global biodiversity agenda?

GCV: The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework discussed under the Convention on Biological Diversity is extremely important because it will set the international agenda, and therefore, the national and regional regulatory, policy, and financing frameworks for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use, access and benefit from sharing the use of these resources. Given the importance of biodiversity, a framework like this will have a significant impact on related issues like food, water, health, and climate governance. Agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and Indigenous foodways play an important role in the global biodiversity agenda due to their ability to restore and conserve biodiversity through sustainable use, while also supporting livelihoods, increasing self-reliance and enhancing resilience. A human-rights-based approach to biodiversity is critical in this process, and agroecology and Indigenous foodways provide an effective way forward to this.

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

GCV: Agroecology is an integral and multifunctional strategy for restoring biodiversity, establishing healthy and just food systems, addressing and mitigating climate change, and improving livelihoods, particularly for the vulnerable; as a result, agroecology is an urgent strategy for the present and a source of hope for the future.  

– Ends