The global agriculture and food systems are not delivering as needed on several critical sustainable development goals (SDG). Unfortunately, various studies indicate the same.
According to one of those surveys, 2021 saw 702-828 million hunger-struck people and 924 million people enduring food insecurity at severe levels. Adding insult to injury, about 670 million people will still remain undernourished in 2030.
On the flip side, modern agriculture – evolved throughout the 20th century – has enabled at-scale food production but at a high environmental cost. Today, some environmental burdens, including soil quality degradation due to massive pesticide usage, homogenization of soil crops, and loss of biodiversity, exist partly due to intensive agriculture. Not surprisingly, the scientific community agrees with that.
These numbers and trends hint at a pressing need for a worldwide switch to sustainable agriculture ensuring food and nutrition security for all while reversing ecological damage and embracing climate change.
Rising in prevalence among farmers, agroecology presents an alternative agricultural paradigm where eco-friendly concepts and processes are applied to farming.
What is Agroecology?
Agroecology is about integrating ecological and social principles into designing and managing agricultural production systems. It blends scientific and local expertise to optimize interactions between humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems. Simultaneously, it addresses the need for socially equitable food systems wherein people decide what they eat and how and where it is produced.
Agroecology’s essence lies in the understanding that an agricultural system should replicate the local ecosystem with complex structures, healthy nutrient cycles, and optimal biodiversity.
To meet this feat, agroecological practitioners promote crop diversification with techniques, such as regenerative agriculture, organic farming, and certain aspects of permaculture, that contribute to sustainable development.
Diversity addresses the socioeconomic, ecological, genetic, and nutritional heterogeneity of agricultural systems. Biodiversity builds a protection layer against environmental variations as numerous species react differently to these variations and hence collectively contribute to more stable ecosystem services.
Agricultural diversity is divided into two major categories:
- Vertical diversity: When crops are interfused with trees and shrubs to establish multiple strata.
- Spatial diversity: Uses strategies such as intercropping – wherein farmers nurture complementary species together – and crop rotations over time to achieve temporal diversity.
Such crop diversity improves soil health, water conservation, pollination, and biologically controlling pests and diseases. At the same time, reintroducing traditional crops with better nutrient profiles enhances health outcomes. Moreover, countries exhibiting a higher crop diversity experience flexible local markets and provide growers with a broad array of revenue-creating opportunities.
Co-creation and Sharing of Knowledge
Diversification of agricultural systems must be guided by the co-creation and sharing of knowledge and practices, science, and innovation. This is another key element that drives decision-making in agroecology.
Agroecology combines traditional and indigenous knowledge with scientific expertise to create more resilient production systems.
Tried-and-true local techniques plus scientific knowledge offer the best guidance on what livestock, crops, and trees to include in the farm, where to station them, and how to manage them.
Through co-creation, agroecology fosters active participation among community members, including
- People having conventional and native insights on agricultural biodiversity and management experience for particular circumstances,
- Practical knowledge of traders and producers associated with markets, and
- Worldwide scientific knowledge and methods.
The prevalence of the multidimensional nature of several agricultural and food system challenges and the limited success of sectoral approaches to tackle them underlines the need for integrated, holistic, greater-than-additive interactions – called synergies – to address multiple dimensions altogether.
Synergies happen between components in managed ecosystems at the:
- field level (nutritional benefits of cereal-legume intercropping),
- farm level (positive effects of organic matter management on reduced soil erosion, soil structure, and carbon storage), and
- landscape level (system diversification impacts on pollination and biological control of pests and diseases).
Integrated systems, for instance, rice cultivation in Asia supports aquaculture and tree growth. Such mutually beneficial synergies offer ecologically sound solutions for soil erosion, nutrient cycling, and pest control.
Rethinking agricultural and food systems, keeping diversity and synergies at the center, helps increase resource-use efficiency. The principle of efficiency prefers the mindful and calculated usage of natural resources to costly and unsustainable inputs, as in industrial food production.
Sustainability-centered transformations move from input-heavy systems to knowledge-based agricultural and food production systems to further improve productivity while reducing reliance on external inputs.
Recycling in agroecology farms emulates ecological processes at all scales to curb pollution, waste, and nutrient loss. For instance, forests housing deep-rooted trees take up nutrients that go unused by annual crops, and organic materials undergo recycling through composting.
Recycling is integral to circular agriculture and food systems, enveloping not just the farm scale but also the matter and energy circuits at regional as well as sectoral scales.
Leveling up biological processes and recycling nutrients, biomass, and water boost producers’ profitability by consuming fewer external resources while fine-tuning production, thus minimizing expenses and negative ecological impacts.
Furthermore, closing nutrient and waste cycles strengthens agroecology farms’ resilience to market and climate fluctuations.
Human and Social Values
Human and social values enable concerted efforts and social capital creation to sustain our lifestyles.
Agroecology is based on context-specific knowledge. It does not provide fixed prescriptions – instead, agroecological methods are tailored to fit the socioeconomic, environmental, cultural, and political contexts.
Besides, agroecology prioritizes human and social values – equity, dignity, inclusion, and justice (gender and intergenerational disparities) and access to decent jobs – all contributing to better livelihoods. It places the needs and desires of those who produce, supply, and consume food at the core of food systems.
By establishing autonomy and adaptive capabilities to manage agricultural and food systems, agroecology beefs up people’s capacity to survive hunger, poverty, and malnutrition. Simply put, agroecology empowers people to become their own agents of change.
Culture and Food Traditions
Agriculture and food are essential elements of human heritage. Culture and food traditions – developed owing to long-standing human-environment linkages – have been instrumental to society and influencing human behavior underpinning agroecological shifts.
Generally, rural people lie at the heart of food and nutrition security as important keepers of information about food production, processing, and supply in many contexts. However, they lack equal access to land and natural resources as well as control over decision-making.
By empowering rural populations and supporting healthy, diversified, and culturally appropriate diets, agroecology strengthens food and nutrition security while maintaining the health of ecosystems and their agrobiodiversity.
Furthermore, it helps rebalance legacy and modern food habits, enabling healthy food production and consumption while endorsing the right to adequate food.
Responsible governance – from communities to nations – entails accountable, transparent, and inclusive laws that empower producers and consumers, especially while reinventing food and agricultural system processes.
Case in point, equal access to land and natural resources is both critical to social justice and a strong impetus for long-term investments essential to preserve soil, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.
Responsible governance at various levels concurrently supports territorial/niche markets by branding agroecological yield and, therefore, rewarding agricultural management that enhances regenerative production through optimizing biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Circular and Solidarity Economy
Circular and solidarity economies reconnect producers and consumers versus industrial agriculture, which separates these two parties through long supply chains. This agroecology element runs on closed-end processes within natural ecosystems, prioritizing waste avoidance, resource-use efficiency, sharing, recycling, and reusing.
Shortening food value chains and boosting tailwind opportunities for local markets enable healthier diets and improve farmers’ income while endorsing fair selling prices.
Summing Things Up
Agroecology has become a buzzword over the recent past, and the main question is: can agroecological farming help meet SDGs?
A growing heap of reports says yes – the technique can be a crucial response to guide the sustainable transformation of food systems. In taking up the task, agroecological approaches strengthen the sustainability of every food system component, from the soil and the seed to the table, including economic viability, environmental knowledge, and social justice.
Furthermore, they combine the global concern of ending hunger and poverty with locally implemented reforms and boost both participation and mobilization of native actors and their expertise.