News, Systems Thinking

Q&A with Alison Blay-Palmer, UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies

7 October 2021

Ahead of the 49th Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), Lauren Baker, Senior Director of Programs, speaks to Alison Blay-Palmer, UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies about her work and our forthcoming side-event on bridging agroecology and biodiversity action. 

Lauren Baker: Alison, we’re very excited to work with you and partners to deliver a side-event at CFS-49. Before we dive into that, please can you tell us a little bit about the work you do?

Alison Blay-Palmer: The UNESCO Chair on Food Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies does research, supports action and shares knowledge about the amazing potential of sustainable food systems as they can transform food systems. This is crucial as under the dominant global food system over 3 billion people do not have access to a nutritious diet. This system generates more than one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, and it contributes to biodiversity loss. Yet, through agroecology and regenerative agriculture, communities can have access to more nutritious food, protect and promote biodiversity, address the climate crisis and safeguard fair livelihoods. 

LB: As Chair of the UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity, and Sustainability Studies, your role involves promoting research, communication, and learning about how food can help protect biodiversity and achieve sustainability. How have you seen awareness of the interconnections between food and biodiversity change since taking up the role? 

ABP: Since taking up the role in late 2019, I am encouraged to see that there is increasing global awareness about what agroecology and other regenerative food systems already achieve in the places where they are practiced. Relevant to our discussion next week: they protect agro- and other biodiversity and this is encouraging as regenerative agricultural practices can be taken up and immediately begin to transform our food system away from the biodiversity and climate crisis, and malnutrition. Also, where they are being used, there are more diverse diets so there is better nutrition and as these practices have co-evolved with local ecosystems, they are in sync with local cultures and ecosystems.

LB: What surprises you when it comes to what people still don’t know about the food-nature nexus? 

ABP: One surprise is the lack of awareness about how food can catalyze the change we need! The good news is there is a lot we can learn from the 500 million + agroecological small-scale farmers and their communities who are currently protecting and preserving agricultural and other biodiversity as they continue to steward the land-based on the knowledge that goes back countless generations.  

LB: 2021 has been heralded as a landmark year in advancing agroecology and (agro)biodiversity as pathways to transform food systems. What progress have you seen this year – if any! – and what more would you like to see happen?

ABP: There is increased recognition of agroecology as transformational. International meetings, like the UN Food Systems Summit, have galvanized a global movement to show the world the potential for widespread adoption of agroecology and other regenerative agricultural systems. The world is at a crossroads in so many ways. It is hopeful that we have agroecological practitioners to help us find a genuinely sustainable way forward so we have green, equitable, just and nutritious food systems for everyone.

LB: Tell us a little bit about the two new key frameworks — the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the CFS’ Policy Recommendations on Agroecological and other Innovative Approaches — and how they could have a catalytic impact on bridging agroecology and biodiversity? 

ABP: Both agreements can be reference points and platforms for change. In the past, we have seen how international agreements can be the platform for change as local communities and countries have the basis for action through international frameworks. These frameworks can set up the pathways for action and support communities. This is especially exciting when we think about the synergies we can achieve through building more nutritional food systems grounded in the protection of agricultural and other biodiversity.

However, there is much work to do to ensure that agricultural biodiversity truly takes its place in the GBF, as it currently is not. Also, we need to keep re-centring the discussions to keep the human rights and agency of family farmers (and other rights holders), as key pillars of policies and actions to transform food systems.

LB: A core topic of the CFS-49 next week is Gender and Women Empowerment, while a secondary topic is Youth. How does the focus on bridging agroecology and biodiversity impact these areas?

ABP: A focus on agroecology and biodiversity provides explicit opportunities for women and youth. Sustainable food systems can enable women and youth access to sustainable livelihoods that empower and enable them to earn fair incomes and access to healthy food through small-scale agroecological food growing, processing, and distribution. Fortunately, we have excellent examples of how this can happen – for example, the Beacons of Hope report, the CFS’ Policy Recommendations on Agroecological and other Innovative Approaches and research through the Laurier Centre for Sustainable Food Systems of course! 

LB: One of the Global Alliance’s 7 Calls to Action is that we must create enabling environments for agroecology and regenerative approaches to flourish. In your opinion, what are the keystone pieces or “infrastructure” that must be in place to unlock agroecology’s catalytic impacts?

ABP: A key piece is to track change so we know what is happening across food systems and make evidence-based decisions. This is tricky as food systems vary from one place to another so having a one-size-fits-all set of indicators is not only unlikely but impractical. However, it is possible to use the same guiding principles – e.g. healthy people and ecosystems that can translate into, for example, the number of species in a community diet, the soil and water quality, and incomes – so we know whether we are bringing about positive transformation. Tools such as True Cost Accounting can provide this crucial data.

LB: Your research and teaching combine your passions for sustainable food systems and community-based approaches. Another one of our 7 Calls to Action calls for inclusive, participatory governance as a key lever to transform food systems. Reflecting on this call to action, what is the role of agroecology in enabling good food governance?

ABP: Agroecology as a movement is founded in communities that are inclusive and diverse. This offers the opportunity for meaningful engagement through ground-up participation that can lead to relevant transformation. Change grounded in local knowledge through active participation empowers communities to steer themselves towards increased sustainability and feeds relevant, impactful information up to global policy and decision-makers so they can develop appropriate frameworks. The possibility for this type of local transformation can ground the kind of sustainable transformation possible through agroecology and other regenerative food systems.

LB: It’s the GA’s 10 year anniversary next year and as we prepare for that milestone, we’re reflecting on how the dialogue about food systems has changed and looking ahead to what’s next. What gives you hope for the future of food? 

ABP: Congratulations on nearing this important milestone and for all your achievements to date. I feel hopeful that there are so many people and communities that know how to bring about the change people and the planet need to get on track for a genuinely sustainable future. Many of the solutions are apparent. Now we need to act and time is of the essence.


– Ends

On Wednesday, 13 October 2021, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and partners will host Bridging Agroecology and Biodiversity Action: Coalitions, Evidence, Policy Frameworks at 49th Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS).