A sustainable, holistic approach to agriculture
Agroecology is a topical subject with rather unclear contours.
Agroecology is often presented as an integrated solution that reconciles two central challenges that agriculture faces today:
feeding a growing population while conserving natural resources.
It is also related to global changes sweeping the globe, such as
- climate change
- biodiversity decline
- land use changes
- health and labour issues.
In sum, it is mainly a sustainable approach to agriculture. As any real world solutions, it is not a silver bullet and it involves trade-offs between its social, environmental and economic benefits it can offer.
Agroecology first appeared within the scientific literature in the 1930s. From the 60s, this field of research has increasingly broadened its vision…
Agroecology evolved as a general framework based on a set of principles and as a range of practices that can be used in different combinations to enhance the resilience and sustainability of farming systems. Various approaches have emerged over the years and in various regions of the world on what agroecology is. Most approaches have in common the following elements.
Agroecology generally aims at strengthening Sustainability, addressing Food Security and advancing the Sustainable Development Goals.
Agroecology is an integrated approach that considers together the different elements the food system, from the seed and the soil, to the table. It integrates different sectors and actors through a holistic vision.
Agroecology has three facets, it is both a science, a set of practices, and a social movement.
Agroecology is mainly about applying ecological concepts, principles and knowledge to agricultural production rather than relying on external toxic inputs.
Agroecology takes into account the long term impacts of farming systems.
Agroecology initially emerged as the combination between agronomy and ecology. It also integrates social, political, economic processes, joining political ecology, ecological economics and ethnoecology among the hybrid disciplines. Agroecology also brings together non-scientific actors, in particular farmers.
Agroecology proposes a new model for food systems that require a paradigm shift, not just marginal improvements.
as opposed to input-intensive: Agroecology requires a deep knowledge on how food systems function. It combines local and scientific knowledge.
rather than a fixed set of practices: Agroecology is neither a defined system of production nor a production technique. The set of practices implemented in a given location should be adapted to the environment and socio-economic context.
A few current definitions
Check the list of definitions to discover definitions from various organisations (public institutions, intergovernmental organisations, civil society, and research community).
One of the broadest definitions
The integrative study of the ecology of the entire food systems, encompassing ecological, economic and social dimensions
or more simply
the ecology of food systems
“Agroecology: the ecology of food systems” 2003
One of the broadest definitions by Francis, C., Lieblein, G., Gliessman, S., Breland, T.A., Creamer, N., Harwood, R., Salomonsson, L. et al. (2003) Journal of sustainable agriculture, 22(3), 99-118
The internationally agreed definition
A scientific discipline, a set of practices and a social movement. As a science, it studies how different components of the agroecosystem interact. As a set of practices, it seeks sustainable farming systems that optimize and stabilize yields. As a social movement, it pursues multifunctional roles for agriculture, promotes social justice, nurtures identity and culture, and strengthens the economic viability of rural areas. Agroecology is an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems.
The internationally agreed definition
The initial, historical definition
Agroecology is the application of ecological principles to agriculture
“Agroecology, the Scientific Basis for Alternative Agriculture” 1983
The initial, historical definition by Altieri, A.M. (1983) Division of Biological Control, University of California
Various Interpretations of Agroecology and Points of Divergence
Many discourses still co-exist on agroecology. The main points of divergence that are frequently raised are:
most approaches are focusing on the agroecosystem as the focal unit for implementation, while other frameworks are considering the whole food system from the production to the transformation and consumption of food.
many approaches consider that farmer’s experience and knowledge is core to the design of new practices. At the other end of the spectrum, scientific approach and other formal forms of knowledge are put forwards.
The social movement associated with agroecology generally seeks a new way of considering agriculture and its relationships with society. However, many different interpretations are found on what constitutes the focus of those new relationships. For instance some movements put an emphasize on shortening food value chain, on poverty reduction and developing rural areas, on fostering farmer’s role in society, or on justice, equity and improved rights.
A sustainable rural society requires a transition from our current systems. Some debate remains on which steps should be followed. For instance, should we start with incremental shifts within predominantly industrial systems? Can subsistence agricultural systems avoid traditional modernization and directly transition to integrated agroecological systems? Another debated point remains on the role of science to drive the transition in food system. The role of formal science, as a top-down approach, can be opposed to the bottom up nature of many peasant movements and the role of local knowledge.
Agroecology provides a toolbox of practices; farmers can select those which are best adapted to their production system, leading to a continuum of agroecological approaches. Most systems cannot integrate all the elements of agroecology. Still it is not agreed if agroecology can be practiced along other conventional practices that have large ecological impacts.
To learn more on agroecology and its interpretations:
- Silici, L. (2014): “Agroecology: What it is and what it has to offer”. IIED Issue Paper, London.
- Méndez, V. E., Bacon, C. M., & Cohen, R. (2013): “Agroecology as a transdisciplinary, participatory, and action-oriented approach”. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 37(1), 3-18.
- Bernard, B., Alexandra Lux, A. (2017): “How to feed the world sustainably: an overview of the discourse on agroecology and sustainable intensification”. Regional Environmental Change 17.5: 1279-1290.
- Wezel, A., Soldat, V. (2009): “A quantitative and qualitative historical analysis of the scientific discipline agroecology”. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. 7, 3–18.
- Third World Network and SOCLA (2015): “Agroecology: key concepts, principles and practices”. Third World Network and Sociedad Cientifica Latinoamericana de Agroecologia. Malaysia.
- Gliessman S. (2016): “Transforming food systems with agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems”. 40:3, 187-189.
- Tomich, T. P., Brodt, S., Ferris, H., Galt, R., Horwath, W. R., Kebreab, E., and al. (2011): “Agroecology: a review from a global-change perspective”. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 36, 193-222.