13 Principles​ of Agroecology

Many different definitions and understandings of agroecology exist. In 2019, 197 countries approved the 10 elements of agroecology to guide FAO’s vision of agroecology. The elements resulted from a multi-stakeholder process organized by FAO. In the same year, the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) published the 13 principles of agroecology. The HLPE is a science-policy interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) aiming to facilitate policy debates and to provide independent, comprehensive, and evidence-based analysis. In 2017, the CFS requested the HLPE to produce a report on “Agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition.” In this report, the HLPE consolidated a list of 13 principles building on Nicholls et al. (2016), CIDSE (2018), and FAO (2018). These principles are now widely used by CSOs, NGOs, and researchers around the globe. Furthermore, the HLPE linked each principle to one of the three operational principles on sustainable food systems which they introduced in a report in 2016.

3 operational principles on sustainable food systems

The HLPE defined three principles that guide pathways towards a sustainable food system. While in some cases, trade-offs between the principles are necessary, there are strong synergies between them, which help to identify win-win solutions. For example, increasing resilience to climate change, animal diseases, and price volatility can facilitate investments and improve productive efficiency (HLPE, 2016). The interlinkages of the three operational principles highlight the need for a holistic food system approach.

Sustainable agricultural development is agricultural development that contributes to improving resource efficiency, strengthening resilience and securing social equity/responsibility of agriculture and food systems, in order to ensure food security and nutrition for all, now and in the future.
HLPE 2016

Improve Resource Rfficiency involves optimizing resource utilization to enhance economic returns, reduce negative environmental impacts, and uplift the social conditions of smallholders, pastoralists, and family farmers with limited resources or facing exclusion. By narrowing the yield gap between the highest and lowest agricultural performers in a region through adopting existing practices and new technologies, agricultural production can increase, benefiting livestock and animal feed production. This process has the potential to improve diets, nutrition, and economic well-being for vulnerable communities.

Strengthen resilience entails bolstering the ability to withstand and rebound from environmental, economic, financial, and animal disease shocks, while also promoting resource efficiency. This involves implementing measures to enhance adaptive capacity, risk management, and response to changing conditions. By building resilience, communities and agricultural systems become better equipped to endure challenges and uncertainties, ensuring sustainable and efficient resource utilization even in the face of adversity.

Secure Social Equity/Responsibility refers to the assurance of fairness and accountability in addressing a broad spectrum of social and ethical concerns within societies. It encompasses issues like income distribution, human rights, gender equality, social protection, and cultural preservation. It involves the responsibility of individuals, corporations, and collectives to protect the environment, promote human well-being, and enhance animal welfare. Achieving secure social equity/responsibility requires diverse and context-specific approaches, as norms and practices vary across countries and communities.

The thirteen principles of agroecology linked to  their operational principle of sustainable food systems. The inner circles of the figure show the main levers for a succesful transition.

13 principles of agroecology

In their report, the HLPE defines an agroecological approach to sustainable food systems to achieve food security and nutrition:

Agroecological approaches favour the use of natural processes, limit the use of purchased inputs, promote closed cycles with minimal negative externalities and stress the importance of local knowledge and participatory processes that develop knowledge and practice through experience, as well as more conventional scientific methods, and address social inequalities. Agroecological approaches recognize that agrifood systems are coupled social–ecological systems from food production to consumption and involve science, practice and a social movement, as well as their holistic integration, to address food security and nutrition.
HLPE 2019

Building on different sets of agroecological principles (Nicholls et al. 2016, CIDSE 2018, and FAO 2018), the HLPE aimed to find the smallest, non-repetitive but comprehensive set of principles and came up with the 13 principles of agroecology. While every agroecological principle is linked to one specific operational principle, oftentimes agroecological principles contribute to several operational principles.

The 13 principles and the 10+ elements of agroecology aranged according to the five level of food transition adapted from Gliesmann (2007). According to Gliessman’s 5 levels, a system is in line with basic agroecological principles if Level 3 has been reached. Level 4 and 5 are going beyond production and focus on socio-economic aspects such as re-establishing connections between growers and eaters and responsible governance.

  • CIDSE (Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité) (2018): The principles of agroecology. Towards just, resilient and sustainable food systems. Brussels.11 pp.
  • FAO (2018): The 10 elements of agroecology: guiding the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems. Rome.
  • Gliessmann (2016): Transforming food systems with agroecology. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 40(3), 187-189.
  • HLPE (2016): Sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition: what roles for livestock? A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome.
  • HLPE (2019)Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, Rome.
  • Nicholls, C., Altieri, M.A. & Vazquez, L. (2016): Agroecology: principles for the conversion and redesign of farming systems. Journal of Ecosystem & Ecography, S5: 010.