There are three typical ways to define agroecology: as a set of farming practices, as a scientific discipline and as a social movement.
Farming: Agroecological practices are based on ecological inputs and processes, as well as the provision of ecosystem services. Agroecological practices contribute to the different goals of sustainable agriculture: to provide sufficient food for a growing world population, not to be harmful to the environment and natural resources, to limit use of non-renewable energy, and to ensure economic viability for farmers and their communities. Organic farming, diversified crop rotations, biological pest control, extensive agro-pastoral systems and agroforestry are examples of farming method using agroecology.
Science: Increasingly, scientific disciplines and networks express concern about dwindling, finite resources such as fossil fuels, about (related) issues such as climate change, about soil, biodiversity, health and mores.
Although ‘business-as-usual’ is no longer an option, much mainstream agricultural thinking is focused on retaining the high input industrialized type of farming exemplified by ideas like ‘sustainable intensification’.
As a scientific discipline, agroecology studies are quite holistic: they study agroecosystems through an interdisciplinary lens looking at issues such as productivity, stability, sustainability and equitability. They consider issues related to agronomy,ecology, sociology, economics and politics at all relevant scales from the local level to the global level.
Social Movements: Many organizations, as well as many loosely networked individuals are working towards an agro-ecological food and farming future. Taken together, these can be seen, broadly speaking, as a social movement trying to make agri-food more resource savvy and thus genuinely sustainable in the longer term, more people and environment focused. These include the 150+ organizations who have signed up to the ARC2020 platform, large international organizations like Friends of the Earth, Slow Food and IFOAM, national organizations and Individual farmers and consumers: all can and do contribute to an agro-ecological future.
What Agroecology Is and What It Isn’t
So instead of the conventional, monoculture-based industrial approach which relies on external inputs, we need to develop sustainable, regenerative farming systems that improve the well-being of small-scale farmers, create diversity to make food production resilient to a changing and unpredictable climate, and produce sufficient food whilst enhancing biodiversity. Instead of marginalizing sustainable local food producers, we need to put sustainable local food at the center of our food supply, with small-scale producers feeding local communities, rather than being squeezed by industrial-scale global supply chains.
Agroecological farming is needed to preserve natural resources. This includes recycling nutrients and energy on the farm, rather than using external inputs; integrating crop and livestock farming; diversifying species (and therefore genetic resources); and focusing on the ways in which crops and livestock can mutually benefit each other, rather than on individual species. By using organic matter and improving the soil, farmers can promote better plant growth.This is an agro-ecology knowledge-intensive system, but the knowledge is developed by the farmer through understanding local conditions and experimenting.
Re-connecting farmers and consumers is important to help building vibrant local food economies. The aim is to support local producers, processors and retailers, and build links between consumers, local farmers and local food businesses. This means creating decentralized short supply chains, diversified markets based on solidarity and fair prices, and closer links between producers and consumers locally. Consumers should be able to purchase ecologically-produced food from small-scale producers. Short distance distribution models are also an important aspect for the closure of nutrient cycles, a basic need in agro-ecological farming practices. To return plant nutrients back into the loop, back to the soil, on the right spot, in the right composition and in the right amounts, is a complex issue. This complexity increases significantly over distance, so agroecology promotes closed production loop sand minimized external inputs. In this way local food economies answer the basic need for plant nutrients in agroecological farming practices.
There are a myriad of different systems offering ‘local food’ and ‘short supply chains’ in Europe, including farmers’ markets, ‘farm-gate’ sales, box delivery schemes, mobile shops, community supported agriculture, consumer-producer cooperatives and collective catering and canteens. Short supply chains are not just about reducing the number of intermediaries, about putting the consumer and the producer at the heart of deciding what is produced, how it is produced, and how to define the value.
Food distribution through short supply chains in local markets have been shown to increase income for producers, add value and generate greater autonomy for farmers, and to strengthen local economies by supporting more small businesses. This can improve the viability of small farms, reduces the carbon footprint from food distribution, and enhances household food security by giving people on low income access to good food and healthy diets, as well as encouraging stronger producer-consumer relationships.
Local food supply chains also create employment in rural areas and bring farmers into direct contact with consumers, encouraging the circulation of revenue locally, all the while enhancing social cohesion and making it more likely that farmers can stay farming. This helps foster a sense of community in rural areas, improving quality of life. It can also provide a basis for education on sustainability and ethical issues in urban areas.
What Makes Agroecology Distinct?
Agroecology is fundamentally different from other approaches to sustainable development. It is based on bottom-up and territorial processes, helping to deliver contextualised solutions to local problems. Agroecological innovations are based on the co-creation of knowledge, combining science with the traditional, practical and local knowledge of producers. By enhancing their autonomy and adaptive capacity, agroecology empowers producers and communities as key agents of change. Rather than tweaking the practices of unsustainable agricultural systems, agroecology seeks to transform food and agricultural systems, addressing the root causes of problems in an integrated way and providing holistic and long-term solutions. This includes an explicit focus on social and economic dimensions of food systems. Agroecology places a strong focus on the rights of women, youth and indigenous peoples.
Some Relevant Areas for Agroecology
- Production methods
Sustainability and diversity of farming systems, including:
- Re-connect crop and animal production in order to close nutrient cycles.
- Recycle biomass, optimise and close nutrient cycles and reduce dependence external inputs.
- Improve soil conditions, in particular improving organic matter content and biological activity of the soil.
- Integrate protection of biodiversity with production of food and promote and conserve the genetic diversity of crops and animals.
- Minimise resource losses by managing the micro-climate, increasing soil cover, water harvesting.
- Processing and distribution in an agroecology framework
- Delocalized and regionalized agroecological food systems that allow fair prices, create jobs and reconnect consumers to farmers.
- foods involving a minimum of industrialized inputs and processes.
- Decentralised and innovative community-led local development that empower people in food production and agroecology (access to land, CSAs, rural development, LEADER)
- Participation and decision-making
- Investigate existing power relations, decision-making processes and opportunities for participation in food systems. Strenghten the role of citizens and consumers in food systems ;
- Valorize the diversity of knowledge (local / traditional know-how and practices, common and expert knowledge) in the definition of research problems, the definition of people concerned, and in finding solutions.
- Community-based participatory research and innovation which will facilitate the development of diversified seeds and ecological production and distribution systems (by developing meaningful inter-disciplinary networks, involving a wide range of stakeholders to integrate local and traditional knowledge with formal scientific knowledge).
- Acknowledge the similarities and linkages between agricultural systems in the global North and South. The transition towards sustainable food systems demands integrated and simultaneous solutions in North and South.
- What’s important for consumers?
- Increasing awareness among consumers of the negative impacts of business-as-usual in agri-food, as compared to agroecology
- supporting systems that empower consumers, helping them become co-producers of the food they eat, in solidarity with other participants in the agri-food system.
- encouraging and being a voice for consumers, who are are not just consumers but also food citizens operating on the local, regional, national and international levels.