As a conceptual framework, agroecology is based on a set of guiding principles. Those principles are meant to help practitioners, policymakers and other stakeholders plan, manage and evaluate agroecological transitions. However, they do not constitute a set of practices or fixed rules of management. They are applied at different scales, involve different sectors, such as forestry, water management, land-use, and entail different degrees of complexity.
Different sets of principles
Different sets of principles have been developed by different actors and initiatives over the time.
The historical principles of agroecology by Altieri (Altieri 1995, updated in Nicholls, Altieri et al. 2016 with a 6th principle on immune system) had considerable influence on most approaches of agroecology. They are mainly focused on the ecological aspects of agroecosystems (see the sets of principles for more details). The historical principles pay particular attention to soil conditions, biodiversity, recycling of biomass and minimizing resource losses. They are borrowed from general ecological principles (Third World Network and SOCLA 2015).
Third World Network and SOCLA 2015:
- Networks: nature is a network of living systems nesting within other living systems that are interconnected
- Cycles: matter cycles continually through the web of life without generating waste
- Solar energy: this is the fundamental source of energy that drives all ecological cycles
- Partnership: exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive cooperation, not competition
- Diversity: all ecosystems derive stability and resilience through the richness of diversity
- Dynamic balance: an ecosystem is a flexible, ever-fluctuating network.
As of 2018:
Most recent approaches recognize the need to also include social, economic and governance aspects, as enabling environment for agroecology to thrive. A recent initiative of the FAO identified 10 elements of agroecology, emanated from the FAO multi-actor regional seminars on agroecology. In addition to the ecological elements of efficiency, recycling, diversity, synergy and resilience, this framework includes 5 other elements of responsible governance, circular and solidarity economy, human and social values, and culture and food traditions.
Another example is a recent publication by CIDSE (International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity) that identifies 24 principles to strengthen the narrative and advocacy on agroecology. The principles are split into four dimensions of sustainability: environmental, socio-cultural, economic and political. The predominance of non-environmental principles arise from the growing activity of agroecological social movements and the concerns to address barriers for smallholder farming and sustainable livelihood.
To learn more on different sets of principles on agroecology:
- FAO (2018): “10 Elements of Agroecology guiding the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems”.
- CIDSE (2018): “The Principles of Agroecology – Towards just, resilient and sustainable food systems”.
- Third World Network and SOCLA (2015): “Agroecology: key concepts, principles and practices”. Third World Network and Sociedad Cientifica Latinoamericana de Agroecologia. Malaysia.
- Altieri, M.A. (1995): “Agroecology: The science of sustainable agriculture“. Agroforestry Systems 35: 111-115
- Nicholls, C. I., Altieri, M. A., Vazquez, L. (2016): “Agroecology: principles for the conversion and redesign of farming systems”. Journal of Ecosystem and Ecography S, 5.
- Clements, D. R., Shrestha, A. (2004): “New dimensions in agroecology for developing a biological approach to crop production”. Journal of crop improvement, 11(1-2), 1-20.
- Dumont, A. M., Vanloqueren, G., Stassart, P. M., Baret, P. V. (2016): “Clarifying the socioeconomic dimensions of agroecology: Between principles and practices”. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 40(1), 24-47.
Other related sets of principles on sustainable food system:
- Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2004): “The Ecosystem Approach”, CBD Guidelines.
- Biggs, R., Schlüter, M., & Schoon, M. L. (Eds.) (2015): “Principles for building resilience: sustaining ecosystem services in social-ecological systems“. Cambridge University Press.
- Greenpeace (2015): “Ecological Farming The seven principles of a food system that has people at its heart”.