— Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
Agroecological farming practices are place-based, powerful and productive. They restore ecosystem function, safeguard biodiversity, reduce soil erosion, protect public health, produce high-quality foods, and sustain rural communities and regional food economies.
Farmers around the globe have been cultivating and implementing these practices for generations. Here are a few on-the-ground examples that highlight the success and the promise of agroecology around the globe.
Ecological pest management in East Africa
The push-pull system of ecological pest management is transforming small farms in Africa. It illustrates agroecology's ingenuity, as well as the many economic, food security, health and environmental benefits of this approach.
Kenyan maize farmers have tripled their yields by intercropping maize with plants that repel pests, support natural pest predators and suppress weeds. One of the plants, Desmodium, is a nitrogen-fixing legume that is also used as fodder for animals. Inclusion of these plants in the farming system reduces synthetic pesticide use and augments livestock feed, providing families with additional milk and meat for consumption or sale.
Additional benefits include reduced run-off and soil erosion, enhanced soil fertility, improved food security and family nutrition, and increased household income. One hundred thousand farmers across eastern Africa have adopted this practice, with more doing so every day.
Resilient in the face of extreme weather
Hurricane Mitch was the most powerful hurricane of the 1998 Atlantic season. The hurricane unleashed gale-force winds and dumped tremendous amounts of rain on Central America, resulting in catastrophic flooding in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The floods claimed over 10,000 lives, displaced three million people and caused $6.7 billion in damages.
In the aftermath of the storm, farmers and scientists measured the hurricane's impacts on 1,804 conventional and agroecological farms, managed by over 15,000 Central American farmers. Guatemalan, Honduran and Nicaraguan farmers who had been planting diverse crops and building soil organic matter retained more topsoil, field moisture and vegetation, and faced fewer economic losses than did conventional farmers in the area.
Agroecological methods used included contour cropping (planting against the slope of hillsides), planting leguminous cover crops, agroforestry (planting trees on farmland for food, fuel, fodder and timber) and integrated pest management. These farms proved more resistant to hurricane damage than their conventionally managed counterparts' monoculture plots in the same area.
Field research demonstrated that the agroecological farms retained 20 to 40 percent more topsoil, had greater soil moisture content, experienced less erosion, and had lower economic losses than neighboring conventional plots. And because of crop diversification, agroecological farms in Nicaragua recorded net profits despite the hurricane. By the conclusion of the study, 90 percent of the conventional farmers who participated in the assessment indicated that they would like to adopt agroecological methods going forward.
Surviving market swings with dignity
In the Philippines, the Oray family (PDF) managed to transform its farm from an ecologically degraded monoculture of sugarcane — vulnerable to global commodity price swings — into an integrated and diversified farm with a variety of animal and plant components. The shift enabled them to survive the collapse of world sugar prices in the mid-1980s, when thousands of seasonal sugar workers lost their jobs and a famine followed.
The family developed skills by experimenting with drought-resistant indigenous species, nutrient cycles, soil fertility, ecological pest management, integrated crop-livestock systems and other ecological methods to improve resilience, sustain productivity and mitigate effects of climate change and water scarcity.
The Orays then helped establish a local farmers’ organization that subsequently tapped into MASIPAG, a national farmer-led network that promotes sustainable use and management of biodiversity, integrates farmer-scientist partnerships and emphasizes people’s control over the natural resources needed to farm.