This article is the third in a three-part series examining the complex ethical, historical, and environmental dimensions of “feeding the world.” Part I of this series explored the urgency of inclusive food system transformation and key differences between the current industrial-agriculture system and sustainable approaches. Part II explored why focusing on comparative yields is a misleading way to evaluate the global potential of sustainable food production. Part III compares and contrasts leading alternative models of food production, evaluating their transformational potential and their contributions to enhancing the public good.
Over the past decade, with the growth of worldwide calls for a more just and sustainable agricultural system, numerous alternative models of agriculture have gained mainstream attention. Endorsement by policymakers, funders, farmers, development agencies, and movement groups has helped many of these models mature into widespread use.
However, not all alternative agricultural models have the transformative potential to place the global food system on a better path. Divides are emerging between agro-industrial alternative models that seek to improve—rather than replace—conventional industrial agriculture and systemic replacement models that represent true paradigm shifts toward the achievement of the “common good.”[i] Other approaches lie somewhere in between, expressing potentially transformative goals while propping up aspects of business-as-usual industrial agriculture.
These approaches are not equivalent in their value or integrity, nor in their ability to adequately and equitably feed the world. Agro-industrial alternatives prioritize “food security,” often interpreted as increasing yields sufficiently to feed a projected global population of 9.7 billion by 2050 without altering consumption trends. Alternatives that follow this approach do not question the underlying economic and agronomic basis of industrial agriculture, which for nearly a century, has relentlessly pursued maximum yields for the financial benefit of agribusiness, regardless of harm to food system stakeholders—animals, farmers, food system workers, communities, consumers, and the environment. These interests have suffered severely from agribusinesses’ monolithic strategies of intensive mechanization, agrichemical use, monocrops, and human and animal exploitation. Industrially compatible alternative models seek to reduce the harms of industrial agriculture by refining its practices.
By contrast, a systemic or “common good” perspective seeks benefits for all food system stakeholders, rejecting conventional industrial agriculture due to its decades of inability to support the wellbeing of any stakeholder group other than agribusiness corporations. Instead of food security, a common good systems approach prioritizes “food sovereignty”— defined by the global Indigenous farmers’ association La Via Campesina as “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.” Since 1996, food sovereignty has become a core element of international policymaking and has helped drive both global and regional movements and a growing body of theory and practice. Transformative alternative models seek a comprehensive replacement of industrial agriculture’s profit-driven paradigm.
Over the past two decades, the development of alternative models on both sides of this divide has created a rich and wide-ranging body of research and practice to inform a sustainable, ethical, compassionate, and resilient food system. Determining how to sustainably and ethically feed a growing global population requires understanding the strengths and weaknesses of leading alternatives to conventional industrial agriculture: agro-industrially compatible approaches, approaches with mixed potential, and truly transformative approaches rooted in the common good.
“It is no longer possible to look at food, livelihoods, health, and the management of natural resources separately… Achieving zero hunger will only be possible through holistic and integrated approaches that respect human rights.”
—FAO, “What Is Agroecology?”
INDUSTRIALLY COMPATIBLE MODELS
Over the past two decades, climate-smart agriculture (CSA) has become a cornerstone of rural development projects in the Global South. It is a pillar of the development strategies of the UN, FAO, and World Bank as well as of other international and national agencies. CSA views sustainable agriculture purely in terms of its usefulness for climate change mitigation and adaptation, applying a technical, solutions-focused approach at the level of production. Proponents of CSA have selectively incorporated some sustainable practices, such as cover cropping and agroforestry, into mainstream industrial farming.
Strengths of climate-smart agriculture
The CSA agenda has introduced climate mitigation and resilience into development models and driven a growing body of research on climate change adaptation strategies for food systems. When implemented with a “common good” perspective, CSA represents an important improvement over industrial agriculture. Overall, it has expanded policy discussions to embrace a more climate-sensitive approach to agriculture.
Concerns with climate-smart agriculture
CSA’s apolitical approach to the global food system reinforces existing policy agendas, including corporate dominance of food and agriculture, and glosses over structural issues of power, inequity, and access. In fact, CSA has been adopted by agribusiness and agrichemical organizations such as the International Fertilizer Association, and is accused of enabling agribusiness greenwashing. It embraces agrichemicals, intensive practices, patents on seeds, and other hallmarks of industrial agriculture. Civil society organizations and Global South farmers often strongly oppose this approach.
Recent research has begun to illuminate CSA’s limitations and question the sustainability of an agricultural model focused strictly on climate impacts.
“Ignoring issues of procedural justice (who gets to make the decisions and how) and distributive justice (who has access to the food produced and under what circumstances) is ignoring both the established science and the need for democratic justice that will bring us into a truly food secure and food sovereign future.”
—M. Jahi Chappell
Sustainable intensification of agriculture (SIA) seeks to balance the agro-industrial imperative of increasing agricultural yields to meet increased food demand without increasing agriculture’s adverse environmental impacts or converting additional non-agricultural land. SIA does not promote any specific vision of agricultural production or recommend design components, emphasizing ends rather than means. It presumes that significant interdisciplinary academic research and practical research are needed to identify the best solutions.
Strengths of sustainable intensification
SIA is more systemic than other industrially compatible models in that it acknowledges the needs for “farm, community, and biosphere resilience” and for understanding the “planetary boundaries” of food production.
Concerns with sustainable intensification
SIA’s tight focus on intensifying production diverts attention from addressing the true roots of food insecurity. Hunger stems not from producing too little food—world agriculture already produces more than enough food for everyone—but from economic, social, and agricultural structures that restrict food availability and access. In addition, SIA extrapolates future food demand from current consumption trends, neglecting the vital role of demand-side dietary modifications, especially reduced meat consumption.
While notably systemic and interdisciplinary, SIA retains the yields focus of conventional industrial agriculture, relies on problematic assumptions, and neglects existing solutions and non-academic sources of agricultural knowledge and innovation. In the words of M. Jahi Chappell describing sustainable intensification, “ignoring issues of procedural justice (who gets to make the decisions and how) and distributive justice (who has access to the food produced and under what circumstances) is ignoring both the established science and the need for democratic justice that will bring us into a truly food secure and food sovereign future.”
Agro-industrial initiatives will lead the world down a blind alley at a time when it desperately needs alternatives that serve the common good over the long term.
MODELS WITH MIXED POTENTIAL
Conservation agriculture (CA) is an agronomic management approach focused on resource conservation, soil protection, and biodiversity enhancement. FAO has promoted CA since around 2000; it has been applied extensively on small-scale farms in Africa and South Asia with the aim of improving food security. Unlike agricultural models that include a full accounting of the common good, CA permits the use of agrichemicals. In wealthier economies with larger, more consolidated farms, it may be complemented by precision agriculture, an industrial approach that uses technologies such as satellite imagery, robotics, and infotech to precisely match inputs to the needs of each plant.
Strengths of conservation agriculture
CA seeks to minimize inputs as much as possible through soil improvement and other techniques, substantially reducing farmers’ production costs while benefiting the environment. It has been shown to reduce climate risks to agriculture, improving yields 30–140% under drought conditions. It is considered universally applicable to all agricultural landscapes and is used as a basis for sustainable intensification (examined in detail above).
Concerns with conservation agriculture
CA and precision agriculture have high barriers to entry—high capital costs, lengthy capacity-building, and labor-intensive management. Training and onsite iteration may take a farmer five to seven years to complete. Recent studies have found that many farms in Africa are abandoning the model. One study cautioned of a disconnect between developers’ and funders’ enthusiasm for CA and farmers’ actual needs and constraints.
While CA contributes meaningfully to addressing some concerns of industrial agriculture, it requires greater support for farmers at all points along the value chain, and its co-optation by industrial agriculture has diluted its original innovative value.
Organic agriculture has no globally standardized definition, but the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements identifies four basic principles: health, ecology, fairness, and care. Organic production avoids synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), promotes ecological sustainability through traditional practices, and can produce safer food. Informed by uncredited Indigenous practices but popularized in early twentieth-century England, organic agriculture had, by 2019, spread to 187 countries, with over 70 million hectares of land under organic cultivation and a global market estimated at $40 billion. It is growing rapidly in the US, where from 2016 to 2019 alone the number of certified organic farms grew 17%, to 16,500, and retail sales of organic products grew 31% to nearly $10 billion. Food in the US can be labeled “organic” only if it adheres to a robust set of standards developed by the National Organic Program (NOP) and certified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Strengths of organic agriculture
Organic agriculture practices increase environmental and human health, enhance farmer wellbeing, and challenge many of the basic assumptions of dominant industrial agriculture. Organic agriculture can equal or exceed the yields of conventional agriculture under certain conditions—including drought, where it may outperform conventional farming by up to 40%. It can be applied on farms of any size and enables small farms to sell premium products.[ii]
Concerns with organic agriculture
By design, organic retail products cost 10–20% more than conventional equivalents. This price premium helps to offset steep transition and certification costs and makes organic transition an attractive option for some farmers but also limits access for lower-income consumers. Organic production also fails to prioritize animal wellbeing despite ethical and environmental calls to reduce global meat consumption. Depending on implementation, organic agriculture can be entirely compatible with concentrated, industrial, exploitative farming. In the US, successful organic certification of agribusiness production models that merely substitute organic inputs for synthetic inputs without changing their approach to agriculture at a more systemic level has raised concerns about the adequacy and integrity of USDA organic certification as a tool for delivering food systems transformation.
Organic agriculture, while representing a more systems-aware approach to food production with transformative potential, can fall far short of righting the wrongs of industrial agriculture. Its contribution to the common good depends on the spirit of its implementation.
Regenerative agriculture, by some definitions, aligns broadly with agroecology’s systems philosophy and some of its practices, with the addition of a stronger focus on restoring degraded systems, especially topsoil, and the centering of meat production in many influential regenerative framings. In 2022, the mapping project regen.earth documented 370 regenerative projects on five continents, and groups in Brazil, India, and elsewhere plan to commit millions of acres to regenerative methods. The Rodale Institute and sustainability-minded companies including Patagonia have launched Regenerative Organic Certified™, a certification scheme that adds regenerative benchmarks to USDA’s organic certification.
Strengths of regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture has been praised for focusing more on quality of outputs than does organic, which may over-focus on “policing inputs.” It can be practiced at any scale, including restoration of entire ecosystems. Like organic, it can command higher price points for farmers.
Concerns with regenerative agriculture
The definition of “regenerative agriculture” is indistinct and variable, encapsulating several contradictions: it is often presented as an antidote to industrial agriculture’s harms, yet is being deployed by major agribusiness corporations. Moreover, despite calling itself a climate solution, the public image of regenerative agriculture has become increasingly animal-centric; advocates of animal-based regenerative agriculture often fail to fully acknowledge the high costs of producing and consuming animals, including climate damage. The World Resources Institute found regenerative agriculture’s carbon sequestration potential “at best modest” and found reducing emissions from cattle, manure, and fertilizers a much more potent mitigation pathway. Finally, regenerative’s social vision is generally limited to forging links between farms and local communities—far short of agroecology’s systemic vision of farmer and community empowerment.
Regenerative agriculture is generating important ideas and influence. Its limitations are significant, especially its central valorization of meat production and its unproven claims of climate benefit. These challenges, along with regenerative’s susceptibility to industry co-optation, may negate its potential as a common-good alternative model.
“Agroecology is the answer to how to transform and repair our material reality.… We see agroecology as a key form of resistance to an economic system that puts profit before life.”
—Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology (2015)
A TRANSFORMATIVE COMMON-GOOD MODEL
The term “agroecology” refers to a worldview, a science, and a practice. As a worldview it centers farmer empowerment, community control of food production, humans’ interdependence with the natural world, and dignity, equity, inclusion, and justice for both producers and consumers. As a practice, it integrates scientific expertise with Indigenous farming methods. A 2020 literature review identified thirteen design principles of agroecology: animal welfare; biodiversity; co-creation of knowledge; connectivity; economic diversification; fairness; input reduction; land and natural resource governance; participation; recycling; social values and diets; soil health, and synergy.
Agroecology is one of the most rapidly growing alternatives to industrial agriculture, championed by agrarian movements in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. FAO has endorsed agroecology as key to a sustainable global food system and provides technical assistance to nations transitioning to it. Agroecology is also the flagship agricultural model of the food sovereignty movement, led by Indigenous farmer groups like La Via Campesina, which stated in its seminal 2015 Nyéléni Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology that, “agroecology is the answer to how to transform and repair our material reality.… We see agroecology as a key form of resistance to an economic system that puts profit before life.”
Strengths of agroecology
Agroecology is unique in its whole-system approach to the common good. Its recognition that food production occurs within complex social and economic webs—which equally need to be sustainable—may be considered the model’s core strength and the reason for its wide uptake. Also, the foregrounding of Indigenous knowledge systems and the communities that practice and develop them differentiates it from many other forms of sustainable agriculture. Finally, agroecology is not subject to formal certification (as are organic agriculture and permaculture, for instance), allowing rapid, locally customized, peer-to-peer dissemination of its principles and practices among regions and cultures.
Concerns with agroecology
Agroecology’s intentional lack of formality leaves it open to debate about its exact meaning and the risk of being diluted or co-opted. Some proponents advocate for integrating agroecology into conventional agriculture; others reject this as a refutation of its core purpose and a co-optation of its transformative potential. Agroecology’s future in the Global North, where food production is dominated by industrial agriculture, is a feature of this debate.
Agroecology is widely recognized as the most comprehensively sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. It has informed many other leading models (including regenerative agriculture, organic agriculture, conservation agriculture, and permaculture) and provides important guidance for building a common-good food system.
SUPPORTING A TRULY SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEM
Evidence is increasingly clear that a truly sustainable, widely beneficial agriculture system capable of nourishing a growing global population in a time of climate change requires systemic transformation rooted in the common good. Not all approaches to alternative agriculture can deliver benefits for the full range of food system stakeholders and beneficiaries.
Policymakers and funders need to understand the unsustainability of industry-led agricultural approaches and reject initiatives that perpetuate agribusiness control over global food systems. Such initiatives threaten to lead the world down a blind alley at a critical time when it desperately needs alternatives to business-as-usual. At the multilateral level, the UN must deepen its commitment to systemic solutions, especially agroecology, and reverse its slide toward agribusiness-coopted approaches. In the US and globally, diverting agricultural subsidies away from industrial agriculture and toward smaller-scale, ecological, plant-based production will help to safeguard the wellbeing of animals and people, achieve universal access to nourishing food, and build robust agricultural supply chains that strengthen social and economic inclusion throughout the global food system.
[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term “common good” in this context to describe an inclusive distribution of food system benefits to all related stakeholders and interests. These include, but are not limited to, animal wellbeing, environmental protection, farmers’ wellbeing, food system workers’ wellbeing, consumer wellbeing, and the health and wellbeing of all people.
[ii] Although organic products are more expensive than conventional equivalents, the price gap has been shrinking since 2019 as prices for conventional food rise and more large grocery chains stock private-label organic lines. A 2022 market analysis found that private-label organic items were about 15% more expensive than regular food—down from 23% nine months before.
 Philip McMichael, “Shock and Awe in the UNFSS,” Development, 64 (2021): 162–171, doi.org/10.1057/s41301-021-00304-1.
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 See endnote 2.
 See endnote 2.
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 See endnote 6.
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 See endnote 1.