What is Agroecology? Why does is matter?

A new report from the FAO of a regional symposium held last year in Budapest on agroecology for food security and nutrition sets out the important concepts of agroecology and its importance in achieving sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Executive Summary

In September 2014, FAO organized the ‘International Symposium on agroecology for food security and nutrition’ in Rome. This was followed in 2015 by three regional symposia in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and the Pacific. To continue the development of this regional approach, a regional Symposium on Agroecology for Europe and Central Asia was held in Budapest from 23 to 25 November 2016, which was attended by over 180 participants from 41 countries in the Region. The Symposium participants formulated 37 recommendations to develop agroecology for sustainable food and agricultural systems in Europe and Central Asia

This summary reflects the discussions among participants on the following five topics:

»» Agroecological concepts, systems and practices,

»» Research, innovation, knowledge sharing and agroecological movements,

»» Agroecology and natural resources in a changing climate: water, land, biodiversity and territories,

»» Agroecology and sustainable food systems,

»» Public policies to develop agroecology and promote transition.

1. Agroecological concepts, systems and practices

Increasing land degradation, loss of valuable agrobiodiversity and pollinators, and climate variability were highlighted as significant threats to achieving food and nutrition security. The reduced number of farmers, and erosion of their incomes, was also presented as a serious issue in Europe. To ensure global food and nutritional security, two paradigms are often confronted:

»» Sustainable intensification can be presented as producing “more with less” or eco-efficiency, which is the maximisation of agricultural products per unit of inputs or natural resources. Sustainable intensification is usually obtained in highly specialised production systems through a gradual substitution of inputs with knowledge.

»» Agroecology is seen as an alternative paradigm, which is based on the increased use of biodiversity, of integrated production systems and diversified landscapes.

Agroecology is also close to the ‘Save and Grow’ paradigm (FAO, 2011), which addresses the crop production dimension of sustainable food management through an ecosystem approach that draws on nature’s contributions to crop growth, such as soil organic matter, regulation of water flow, pollination and biocontrol of insect pests and diseases. Agroecology goes beyond the agricultural production to embrace the whole food system.

At the heart of agroecology is the idea that agroecosystems should mimic biodiversity levels and the functioning of natural ecosystems. Such agricultural mimicry, similar to the natural models, can be productive, pest resistant, conserve nutrients and be resilient to climate change.

The practices that are conducive to the diversification of systems were considered to be the most strategic as they aim to reduce external inputs and enhance ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling, biological nitrogen-fixing, natural regulation of pests, pollination, soil conservation, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, water filtration and purification. Linking the animal sector with crop production was presented as crucial to an integrated and holistic approach.

The academic world forms a part of the roots of agroecology, its dynamics are more complex and are framed by social, economic and cultural dimensions. Agroecology is a living concept that is still being adapted to realities.

The re-composition of agroecology, which embraces the three above-mentioned components: science, a set of practices and social movements is now undergoing emerging consensus. An important detail concerning agroecology is related to the farmers’ place in a system as agroecology brings people to the centre.

During the Symposium, agroecology was presented as an inclusive approach that has the potential of including all food producers in their progress towards a more sustainable farming system.

2. Research, innovation, knowledge sharing and agroecological movements

Learning, education and knowledge sharing are central processes that can support the expansion of the practical and political aspects of agroecology and empower food producers. In agroecology research and learning processes, there is a shift from the classical transfer of technology models of research and development to a decentralised, horizontal, bottom up and participatory processes of knowledge creation, tailored to the unique circumstances found in rural, urban and peri-urban contexts.

As much knowledge is produced outside academia, it was strongly emphasised there is a need to support self-organized research that strengthens local organizations of farmers and their federations. This will have the advantage of strengthening the capacity of farmers and citizens and will facilitate transdisciplinary innovations to bridge different knowledge systems and horizontally spread agroecological innovations.

The request was made that the concept of innovation be perceived broadly to include technical innovations, as well as those that are conceptual, methodological, social and institutional, which are required to achieve agroecological transition and transformations.

The private sector was mentioned in relation to its role in fostering innovation and contributing to agroecological innovation. An example was given of companies that promote the preservation of nature by pursuing sustainable agriculture practices, while working towards minimalizing their environmental impacts and carbon footprints.

The links between agroecology and high and low-technological advances were considered to be of interest and that they should be studied. The debate was raised concerning the possible contradictions that may appear between technology and farmers’ autonomy, which is seen to be an important aspect of agroecology.

Moreover, it was considered important to ensure that innovations and outcomes of research remain in the public and collective realm. Open innovation and data are of increasing concern, as there are large gaps in political and ethical frameworks guiding data ownership.

3. Agroecology and natural resources in a changing climate: water, land, biodiversity and territories

The effect of climate change in Europe and Central Asia remains a primary issue. The region is suffering from the effects of climate change: water scarcity, salinity and extreme weather events. Agroecology is a possible solution, as it has the potential of adapting agroecosystems to climate change, as well as mitigating its effects.

The ecological strategy of agroecological systems comprises the replacement of fossil fuels by ecosystem services underpinned by biodiversity. Inputs requiring large amounts of fossil fuels for their production such as inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, and imported animal feed, are replaced. This is achieved by investing in biodiversity at all levels from soil to landscape and involving people collaboratively. The system relies on local resources and is intensive in its observations thinking and knowledge.

Highlighting the sociocultural aspects of farming systems led to the discussion of the environmental and social impacts of investments related to indigenous people and their right to land. Significant natural resources are often found within indigenous peoples’ territories of residence and economic activity.

The importance of the dynamic management of agricultural biodiversity (called in situ and on-farm), which has been developed throughout the world to renew agricultural biodiversity, was accentuated. In this respect, food producers are insisting on their right to have access to seeds, to exchange them and for peasants to widely develop breeding programmes to ensure food security.

4. Agroecology and sustainable food systems

It was recalled that over 80 percent of the food in the world is sold through local, peasant, regional and informal markets, demonstrating that it is not possible to rely on global markets alone to feed the world. Landscapes with small and medium-sized farms have demonstrated they are better able to support local economies and farmer’s well-being as compared to landscapes where there are larger export-oriented enterprises.

It was considered that, agroecology could potentially ensure access to a diverse and nutritious diet for people at all income levels. Growing evidence suggests that agroecology, by implying diversified farming systems, facilitates the diversification of diets for producers, households and consumers through the increased consumption of a range of important nutritional elements that are often missing in diets based only on the staple cereal crops.

Public procurement was seen as being one of the most significant opportunities, among actions governments may take to encourage adoption of agroecology. It was considered important that governments reinvest in agriculture, through public procurement programmes for agroecological producers, by adapting procurement protocols to the local realities of agroecological production. Further, governments have an important role to play in the development of innovative market models and have a key role in building local economies and markets, as they govern food chains. Also mentioned was support to innovations with, for instance, the creation of food councils at the local, regional and national level and the need for subsidies to establish local markets. It was also suggested governments could focus on regulating the market, thereby ensuring fair prices for farmers.

5. Public policies to develop agroecology and promote transition

The challenge is to address the lock-ins of the transition towards agroecology, especially in Europe where there is a high dependence on inputs and a strong role of input providers and the food chain sector in the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System.

The importance of having a universal framework, such as the Strategic Development Goals (SDGs), was recalled, where Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) is connected to achieving all other goals. Zero Hunger is considered to be the strongest leverage in dealing with, among others, health, education, climate, water, biodiversity, inequity, gender equality, decent work, sustainable communities, life on land and below water.

There has already been a change, as many agroecology initiatives have been developed and it is important to move beyond niche thinking. It will be valuable to develop opportunities that can overcome the constraints that prevent change, and to support the policies required to develop agroecological practices and progress in the design of agroecological systems. Several existing opportunities were presented and highlighted during the discussions that would facilitate transition to agroecology.

For conventional farmers and policy-makers, who question the economic performances of agroecological systems, it is important to prove that agroecology can be profitable and that agroecology goes beyond short-term performance and benefits society. Data show how diversified agroecological systems can compete with the productivity of conventional systems, and how they increase biodiversity and the resilience of the production system. It was emphasised that increased data on externalities is needed to reverse the dependency on subsidies that support conventional farming, despite the high cost to society. In this respect, farm performance parameters and measures of success should go beyond the common micro-economic parameters.

Performance assessments need to be designed and tested that are integrative, systems-based, taking multi-perspectives, are participatory and reflexive.

An urgent need was expressed to address the means and incentives that would encourage conventional farmers to move towards transformative change, instead of their stopping at an incremental change. These incentives are fundamental during the transition period when farmers must face uncertainty and the transition costs of readapting an ecologic and socioeconomic system.

Examples of policies, at the European and national levels, were presented that already harness and support transformation towards agroecology. These are the French Agroecology Project or the Organic Law in Romania. Regarding organic agriculture, it was recognized that organic farming is largely rooted in agroecological approaches, both in principles and actual practices, and it was recommended that the synergies and co-evolution within agroecology and organic farming be considered.

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