As the threat of climate change, natural resource scarcity and declines in the provision of the majority of ecosystem services continue, agroecology is increasingly being explored as an option for addressing the stress conventional farming systems put on the environment. To date, however, agroecology is still a niche farming method, relatively underutilised in agricultural development, policy and research despite growing evidence of its benefits for both productivity and sustainability. A new paper by Laura Silici at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) explores what agroecology is, why it is not yet being scaled-up to any significant degree and recommends future action for integrating this social and ecological movement into modern farming systems.
Agroecology is defined as “an ecological approach to agriculture that views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices”. The paper explains that it consist of three facets:
1) The scientific study of whole agricultural systems including social and environmental factors within and beyond the scale of the farm;
2) The range of techniques developed from ecological concepts to build resilience and sustainability which can be put into practice; and
3) A social movement, which explores the ways in which agriculture may better serve society.
The benefits of agroecology are numerous arising from the multifaceted approach to managing agro-ecosystems, which allows for exploration of synergies and trade-offs, thus addressing social, environmental and economic objectives. Agroecological farming systems are also found to be more resilient to stresses in the environment such as climatic events, pest outbreaks and environmental degradation. Due to diversity of crops being grown productivity may be higher overall and losses across one crop do not necessarily lead to complete crop failure. Agroecology has also been linked to food sovereignty, allowing farmers to save on synthetic or market-bought inputs and reducing their dependence on national or global markets and prices. Beyond this is also being more widely researched and explored by a variety of organisations in the pursuit of sustainable farming production and consumption systems.
Often associated with lower yields, when compared to conventional agriculture, agroecology may limit the yield potential of farming systems, perhaps displacing agricultural production elsewhere. But there is substantial evidence, particularly in developing countries where farmers may neither utilise intensive technologies or agroecological methods, that agroecology can significantly increase yields without the environmental and economic costs associated with conventional monocultures. Badgley et al (2007) found that alternative agricultural practices in developing countries could provide sufficient yields for food security without more land and, given that such methods are typically labour-demanding, without causing economic motivation for agricultural expansion. Similarly, in an assessment of 286 projects introducing sustainability measures to (mainly) small-scale farms in developing countries, yield increased by an average 79% for a variety of farming systems and crop types (Pretty et al, 2006). Similarly a review of 40 initiatives employing a variety of agroecological practices found average crop yields to increase by 113%. Additionally there is much evidence supporting the environmental benefits of Agroecology such as carbon sequestration, improvement of soil fertility and structure, enhanced pollination and pest control.
The paper then turns to what is holding back the widespread adoption of agroecology, citing its knowledge- and management-intensive nature and its requirement for high levels of labour as potential barriers. More broadly market policies and subsidies favour conventional agriculture and distort the market away from alternative agricultural practices. In particular the report highlights the distinction made between conventional and alternative agriculture, stating that the distinction is not a clear, nor perhaps a beneficial, one. Reducing the polarisation between the two approaches as well researching the broader benefits of agroecology beyond yield alone and addressing the constraints farmers’ face, such as insecure land tenure and lack of access to extension services, in adopting agroecological methods are suggested as ways forward. A societal broadening of the definition of what is efficient and productive to include benefits beyond the financial is also urgently needed.
What the paper fails to consider is where agroecology is and is not suitable. It is not a one size fits all solution and, if yield penalties result from the implementation of agroecological methods, can perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Some believe the shunning of more technological approaches locks farmers into subsistence farming rather than developing a more profitable farming business. On the other hand the broader environmental benefits and, in some instances, steadily increasing yields due to the building up of natural resources and ecosystem services cannot be dismissed easily. Agroecology may also be more accessible to smallholder farmers in developing countries that perhaps lack access to technologies linked with intensification.