Agroecology is the science and practice of applying ecological concepts, principles and knowledge to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.
As a science, agroecology includes the study of ecological as well as social and economic processes in farming systems. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, agroecology examines the roles and interactions among all relevant biophysical, technical and socioeconomic components of farming systems and their surrounding landscapes.
As a practice, farmers combine scientific inquiry with direct community-based experimentation, innovation and adaptation to the context-specific social and ecological realities of their environment.
Agroecology is also increasingly recognized as a growing social movement, epitomized by the visionary leadership, rich knowledge and engagement of peasant farmers across much of Latin America, Africa and Asia, as clearly articulated by the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina.
Agroecological farming supports the multifunctional dimensions of agriculture, which include not only food, jobs and economic well-being, but also culture, social and environmental benefits, and important ecosystem services such as pollination, natural pest control, nutrient and water cycling and erosion control.
- Increase ecological resilience, especially with respect to volatile weather conditions;
- Improve health & nutrition through more diverse, nutritious and fresh diets and reduced incidence of pesticide poisonings and pesticide-related diseases;
- Conserve biodiversity & natural resources (e.g. soil organic matter, water quality and quantity, crop genetic diversity, natural enemies of pests, ecosystem services and pollinator protection);
- Improve economic stability with more diverse sources of income, spread of labor requirements and production benefits over time and reduced vulnerability to single commodity price swings;
- Mitigate effects of climate change through reduced reliance on fossil fuel and fossil fuel-based agricultural inputs, increased carbon sequestration and water capture in soil; and
- Increase social resilience, equity & community capacity by increasing ecological literacy and social support networks.
Knowledge-intensive and inclusive
Agroecology recognizes the value of formal scientific research and of advanced technological innovation. It also values the importance of dialogue and collaboration between researchers, farmers, indigenous communities and historically marginalized groups. Indigenous knowledge systems and traditional farming practices often yield crucial site-specific insights, easily overlooked by lab-based research.
Examples of effective farmer-scientist collaborations and participatory learning processes include the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA), Farmer Field Schools, Community-based Integrated Pest Management, Plant Health Clinics, Brazilian farmer- to-farmer education programs, and agroecological studies in school and urban gardens.
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. This resilience can be accomplished through
- Physical and biological means :: Habitat and crop diversification, in situ conservation of local/indigenous seed and germplasm diversity, maintenance of natural enemies’ species diversity, increased carbon sequestration, improved water capture and retention, etc.
- 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 vulnerability and strengthen adaptive knowledge processes, etc.
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. Agroecological farmers also experienced lower economic losses as a result 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 5 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.
Fundamental changes in the world's agricultural systems are necessary if we expect to feed a growing population, on a warming planet with limited resources. The IAASTD named agroecological practices as being among the most likely to actually feed the developing world.