As global weather patterns continue to shift and natural resources dwindle, how do we continue growing food in a way that supports us for generations to come? This is where agroecology comes in.
A term not as well known in the U.S. as it is around the world, "agroecology" is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. It is the science and practice of applying ecological concepts, principles and knowledge to the design and management of sustainable farms. It provides a robust set of solutions to the environmental and economic pressures facing agriculture today.
In short, agroecology is our best path forward for feeding the world.
The current industrial food system has gone off the rails, increasingly dependent on health-harming pesticides and other chemical inputs that degrade soil, threaten pollinator populations and pollute water. By shifting farming policies and practice to embrace agroecology, we can create a food system to sustain this and future generations — one rooted in productivity, resilience, equity and sustainability.
A better way forward
Agroecological farming recognizes the multifunctional dimensions of agriculture, as well as local and Indigenous knowledge and practices. This means farming that not only produces food, jobs and economic well-being, but also creates cultural, social and environmental benefits. Agroecology also protects and provides ecosystem services like pollination, natural pest control, nutrient and water cycling and erosion control.
- Increase ecological resilience, especially with respect to volatile weather conditions;
- Improve health and nutrition through more diverse, nutritious and fresh diets and reduced incidence of pesticide poisonings and pesticide-related diseases;
- Conserve biodiversity and natural resources such as soil organic matter, water, crop genetic diversity and natural enemies of pests;
- Improve economic stability with more diverse sources of income, spread of labor needs and production over time, and reduced vulnerability to commodity price swings; and
- Mitigate effects of climate change through reduced reliance on fossil fuels and fossil fuel-based agricultural inputs, increased carbon sequestration and water capture in soil.
Knowledge-intensive & inclusive
Agroecology recognizes the value of formal scientific research and of advanced technological innovation. It also values dialogue and collaboration between researchers, farmers, indigenous communities and historically marginalized groups. And it relies on deep knowledge of cropping systems and farm ecology: soil fertility, biological pest controls, seed varieties and more.
Indigenous knowledge systems and traditional farming practices often yield crucial site-specific insights, easily overlooked by conventional lab-based research. Examples of effective farmer-scientist collaborations and participatory learning processes include the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology, Farmer Field Schools, Community-based Integrated Pest Management, Plant Health Clinics and agroecological studies in school and urban gardens.
Resilient & adaptive
Agroecology improves the adaptive capacity of agroecosystems and reduces vulnerability to natural disasters, climate change impacts, and new and emerging environmental and economic system stresses and shocks.
A good example is the ability of small-scale farmers using agroecological methods to withstand the adverse effects of Hurricane Mitch. In the aftermath of the hurricane, agroecologically managed plots in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua retained more topsoil, field moisture and vegetation, and suffered less erosion than conventionally managed, resource-extractive farms.
Researchers found that this resilience was accomplished through both:
- Physical and biological means: Habitat and crop diversification, location-based conservation of local/indigenous seed and germplasm diversity, maintenance of natural enemies’ species diversity, increased carbon sequestration, improved water capture and retention, etc.; and
- Socio-cultural and political means: Diversification of farming systems and local economies; technical, legal and social support networks for small-scale farmers, rural communities and indigenous peoples that reduce socio-economic and political vulnerability — and strengthen adaptive knowledge processes.
Agroecological farmers also experienced lower economic losses than conventional farmers.
How to really feed the world
According to the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, agroecological farming is one of our best hopes for feeding a hungry world — especially under conditions of increasing social and environmental stress. The science behind this field of practice and investigation runs both deep and broad.
The UN- and World Bank-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) took place over five years, included over 400 scientists and development experts from more than 80 countries. PAN was a lead author on this report. Its major conclusion? "Business as usual is not an option" for world agriculture — and agroecological practices are most likely to sustain the world's population.
In 2014, in his final report as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter echoed the IAASTD, emphasizing that the world’s food systems must be “radically and democratically redesigned” to ensure a world free from hunger.
This can be done. It’s called food democracy and it's already happening all over the world.