Agroecology marries agriculture and ecology — using or mimicking natural ecological processes to help make farming more sustainable. The idea first appeared in the 1920s but about four decades later began gaining more popularity as a science and a practice and then, more recently, as a social movement. Today, supporters of agroecology seek to address issues of justice, equity and food insecurity, often by incorporating traditional Indigenous farming knowledge.
What Is Agroecology?
Agroecology is a farming practice that seeks to address the problems caused by conventional agricultural systems. Although these systems provide large volumes of food, they are resource-intensive and damaging to the environment, climate and biodiversity. Some advocates of agroecology highlight conventional food systems’ roles not only in exacerbating environmental and climate problems, but also in causing human and animal exploitation. This focus on human rights, and often also animal protection, differentiates agroecology from many other approaches to sustainable development.
The practice is often defined as a holistic approach to farming because it incorporates multiple elements beyond just soil and crops, considering wider ecosystem impacts and sociopolitical issues while building on findings from ongoing scientific research.
Agroecology is a strategy that applies ecological science to the design and management of agriculture — its principles and practices aim to enhance environmental resilience and sustainability while also preserving social integrity. Advocates see it as helping to solve a variety of problems caused by intensive farming systems, including flooding, soil degradation, malnutrition and obesity, as well as biodiversity decline.
In its explicit focus on the social and economic dimensions of agriculture, agroecology places a strong focus on Indigenous people, especially women and youth. Practitioners of agroecology are also motivated to protect small-scale local producers with site-specific knowledge that can improve farming without one-size-fits-all interventions. Because of its emphasis on communities and local resources, agroecology is able to provide contextualized solutions to site-specific problems, which ultimately helps to increase the autonomy and adaptive capacity of producers.
Agroecology is also characterized by its high level of sustainability. Instead of relying on industrial inputs, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, it seeks to optimize the naturally occurring interactions between the environment, plants, animals and humans to manage conditions like soil fertility and pest control. An alternative food system based on agroecological farming would consider natural resources, local wildlife and communities over the long term instead of producing the highest yield in the short term by whatever means necessary.
Why Is Agroecology Important?
Agroecology’s supporters see the practice as the basis of future food systems that are more sustainable in a variety of ways. Agroecology increases ecological resistance to volatile weather while increasing water capture in soil, which can help farms adapt to the effects of climate change. Agroecological advocates also say the practices help conserve biodiversity and natural resources as well as prevent land degradation and restore already degraded areas.
The practice also aims to improve human health outcomes for farm workers and agricultural communities by minimizing the use of synthetic chemicals, and by localizing diets, allowing communities to eat sustainable and healthy foods. Supporters also argue that agroecology can be used to improve economic stability. When natural elements are incorporated into agriculture, producers spend less on production costs, which can potentially translate to greater income.
The U.N. officially launched the Scaling Up Agroecology Initiative in 2018 to promote agroecological practices that support more healthy and sustainable food systems. This initiative aims to strengthen agroecology largely through building relationships between food producers, government bodies and other stakeholders, including consumers, research institutions and the private sector. As outlined by the U.N., agroecology can contribute to achieving several of the Sustainable Development Goals, including zero hunger, food security, nutrition and health, poverty alleviation, climate change resilience, biodiversity, youth engagement, gender self-determination and human rights.
What Are the Five Principles of Agroecology?
Agroecology systems are based on five principles: 1) recycling biomass and balancing nutrient flow and availability; 2) securing favorable soil conditions for plant growth through enhanced organic matter; 3) minimizing losses of solar radiation, water and nutrients by way of microclimate management, water harvesting and soil cover; 4) enhancing biological and genetic diversification on cropland; and 5) enhancing beneficial biological interactions and minimizing the use of pesticides. Over time, different parties have contributed various other principles, but these are the five original ideals.
How Does Agroecology Work?
Agroecology has a wide range of applications and cannot easily be reduced to a definitive set of practices. Practices tend to fall under the agroecology umbrella to the extent that people can use them to further agroecological goals.
To truly be considered agroecology, practices must rely on ecological processes rather than agrochemical inputs. Practices must not only be environmentally friendly, but equitable and locally controlled and adapted. Finally, agroecology practices must adopt a systemic approach as opposed to applying only specific and technical farming methods.
Overall, agroecology practices should be ecologically sound and both balance and enhance ecosystem services to ultimately benefit sustainable agriculture. All agroecology practices consider multiple aspects of the environment, and they are largely aimed at maintaining high levels of soil fertility, crop protection and productivity. General practices may include intercropping and planting cover crops, integrating livestock and trees into landscapes, using crops to provide pollinator habitats and pest control and even regeneration of trees from stumps.
In Kenya, farmers and researchers developed a strategy to control parasitic weeds and deter insects that can damage crops. Food crops are interplanted with insect-repellent crops, and insects are directed towards Napier grass, a plant that attracts insects. Farmers can use this method to repel pests without expensive or harmful pesticides. This strategy has been shown to increase corn yields and improve soil, while the insect-repellent plant desmodium also serves as fodder for livestock, increasing milk production. This system has been adopted throughout East Africa.
In Japan, farmers realized that ducks and fish did the work of pesticides and insect-repellents in rice paddies, while also acting as a source of protein for local families. Ducks consume weeds, which eliminates the need for labor-intensive weeding done by humans, and leave their droppings along the way which provide nutrients to the plants. This practice is also spreading quickly throughout East and Southeast Asia.
Agroecology has also been deployed in the U.S., the U.K. and throughout Latin America.
Criticisms of Agroecology
Agroecology does not adhere to a single definition or set of practices, which means results on any one farm or region can be challenging to replicate elsewhere. European and North American definitions of agroecology tend to be more narrow and refer to specific practices, whereas Latin American literature includes wider interpretations.
Ultimately, the absence of consistency in both the study and application of agroecology creates a gap in standardized methods and raises questions about the efficacy of the approach.
Agroecology is not a scalable practice that can match the output of industrial agriculture. If large-scale farms were to transition from conventional practices to agroecological ones, these operations would require significantly more land and resources to produce the same amount of food. Some food systems researchers argue for sustainable intensification instead, an approach characterized by maximizing yields as sustainably as possible to spare land and other natural resources.
What You Can Do
Debates over agroecology aside, there is widespread agreement that global food systems need to find ways to feed the world’s growing global population that minimize greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of environmental damage. One powerful way to do that is to shift to a more plant-rich diet. Broader food system goals that align with the ideals of agroecology include investing in food systems for the future, transitioning to fair farm economies and adopting policies that protect rural communities and promote justice for workers.