Pablo Tittonell is Principal Research Scientist at Argentina’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONICET) in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, and holds a Professorship on Resilient Landscapes at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands.

“Scientists need to learn that real impact is not measured by numbers of citations, indexes or impact factors. Impact is measured by the capacity of our words and actions to provoke change.”

Our food system has faced many challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep us fed. By restricting mobility, international trade and transport, the crisis has seriously undermined one of the key pillars of food security: access to food. Depending on how long this crisis and the associated restrictions to mobility of goods and people last, other components of food security, namely availability, stability and utilisation of food, will also be seriously affected. 

COVID-19 has revealed – or rather, highlighted – the weakness of our globalized-industrial food system. Dominated by a few multinational corporations, it is characterised by uniform monocrops and industrial livestock, and highly dependent on non-renewable resources for production, transportation and distribution. 

Agroecology is the use of ecological principles and diverse sources of knowledge – local traditional, scientific, practical – for the design and management of sustainable food production landscapes. It offers opportunities to truly integrate nature and agriculture in a functional and mutually beneficial way and to design more robust and resilient food systems in the face of COVID-19 and other possible future crises. It promotes landscape restoration, alterative livestock systems that reduce the need for antibiotics, food sovereignty and the self-sufficiency of smallholder family farmers. 

Growing up and studying in Latin America, I’ve always had a bond to the agroecology movement, which I saw as the future for our food system. But the potential of agroecology to address the world’s most urgent problems became concrete to me during the decade or so that I worked in sub-Saharan Africa. The best examples of largescale farming I saw in Europe or the Americas were those applying principles of agroecology, even when farmers were not always aware of the term. 

Agroecology will mean a profound change in the way we do politics, business, science and activism. It’s about inclusive participation, the co-creation of knowledge and wisdom, democratisation. The time of ivory-tower scientists and all-powerful development agencies and policy-makers is over. So is the time for repeatedly diagnosing our food and environmental crisis: describing our problems, raising awareness and influencing policy-makers may all be necessary, but are not sufficient. We need to move towards action, towards transformative change. 

Concerned scientists – myself included – need to lean that real impact is not measured by numbers of citations, indexes or impact factors. Impact is measured by the capacity of our words and actions to provoke change. So far, agroecology has been expanding slowly, but firmly, without much support from policies, governments, corporations, international organisations, donors or academia. Agroecology is growing bottom-up. Let us join in and be part of the necessary change. The current COVID-19 crisis can be an opportunity to re-think our strategies.

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