What is agroecology?

ID-100203114As 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. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Sharp rise in FAO Food Price Index, FAO

Spreading the word about the no-till agricultural revolution, IIED

On the road to Paris 2015: Towards a new global climate deal, Friends of Europe

Fake Meats, Finally, Taste Like Chicken, The New York Times

‘How DFID Learns’. Or doesn’t. UK aid watchdog gives it a ‘poor’ (but the rest of us would probably do worse), Duncan Green, Oxfam

Realising the Promise of Agriculture for Africa’s Transformation, PAEPARD

Global food security: could wheat feed the world?, The Guardian

Commentary Series – This Land is Our Land, Global Food for Thought

3 Graphics To Explain The Present And Future Of Climate Change, Forbes

Climate signals, growing louder, The New York Times [Read more…]

A Paradigm Shift for Agriculture: The Case for SRI

cubanrootPerhaps the greatest change in mindset in human history was from the belief in a Ptolemaic or geocentric view of the universe (Earth at the orbital centre of all celestial bodies) to a Copernican or heliocentric (the sun at the centre).

Today the world is facing many threats not least the need to feed an ever increasing population amid severe resource constraints. World food production per capita peaked in 1984 and if we are to achieve global food security we require, according to Norman Uphoff, political scientist at Cornell University and lead of the SRI-Rice group, a similar paradigm shift.

Presenting his case for the use and adoption of Systems of Rice Intensification at the International Institute for Environment and Development on 4th July, Uphoff explained the dire need for a change in mindset in agriculture: from an egocentric view, placing humans as the producers of food and manipulators of nature, to a heliocentric, whereby humans capitalise on the power and resources of natural systems while accepting their role within the system rather than outside. So often we view food production systems as closed, whereby inputs and outputs are measurable, linear and proportional but in doing so we neglect the biology of these systems. We fail to understand the myriad of ecological relationships that combine to create the food on our plate.

For decades the Green Revolution has allowed food production to keep pace with population growth, based on two pillars:

1) The improvement of genetic potentials of crop and animal genotypes; and

2) Greater application of external inputs.

But today we are seeing declining returns to this form of farming. In China where the application of 1kg of nitrogen fertiliser to crops would result in a 20kg increase in rice yields we are now seeing an increase of only 1 to 5kg. Despite this failing to maintain the momentum of past productivity trajectories, Uphoff explains that many agronomists are still arguing for current farming methods, only slightly improved. He believes we need a greater focus on the ecological sciences. In particular the contributions of plant roots and soil biota to crop health, and research into how to get more productive phenotypes from existing genotypes through making beneficial changes in crop environments. And SRI does just that. What’s proven to be a rather controversial method of farming rice and other crops, and seemingly dismissed by many research institutions, has yielded impressive results. [Read more…]

Connecting Farmers to Markets Through Ethical Partners

Smallholder farmers, estimated to number some 500 million, are often disconnected from formal and export food markets. But new opportunities for linking retailers in Europe and the US with producers in Africa are emerging.

Some of the barriers smallholder farmers face in making these connections, as discussed in a new paper authored by Abbi Buxton and Bill Vorley of the International Institute for Environment and Development, include the high standard of products retailers require, timely delivery of products, and certification.

The paper discusses a four year project, which investigated new business models to address these barriers. The project was in collaboration with the Sustainable Food Laboratory, Catholic Relief Services, Rainforest Alliance and The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project examined four different value chains, this paper, the first in a series of four, looked at flowers in Kenya. [Read more…]