Agroecology is a solution to the food systems and climate change crises

The UN Conference on Trade and Environment (UNCTAD) launched its Trade and Environment Review 2013 on 18 September 2013 (see TWN Agriculture Info: Making Agriculture Truly Sustainable for Food Security in a Changing Climate, 19 September 2013). The report highlights the drastic changes needed in agriculture to combat hunger and environmental degradation.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food contributed a commentary on ‘Agroecology: A Solution to the Crises of Food Systems and Climate Change’. He explores how agroecology, which is the application of the science of ecology to agricultural systems, can result in modes of production that are more resilient, highly productive and sustainable. It therefore contributes to the alleviation of rural poverty, and thus, to the realization of the right to food.

Among the benefits of agroecology highlighted:

* Agroecological techniques have a proven potential to significantly improve yields.

* Agroecology has the potential to increase the incomes of small-scale farmers as well as contributes to rural development.

* The diversity of species on farms managed following agroecological principles, as well as in urban or peri-urban agriculture, is important to improve nutrition.

* Agroecology can support the provision of a number of services to ecosystems, including by providing a habitat for wild plants, supporting genetic diversity and pollination, and water supply and regulation.

* Agroecology strengthens resilience to climate change and also contributes to mitigating climate change.

The commentary is reproduced below. The Trade and Environment Review 2013 is available at

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Commentary VI: Agroecology: A Solution to the Crises of Food Systems and Climate Change

Olivier de Schutter

UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food


The food price hikes of 2008 and 2011–2012 were partly the result of weather-related events linked to climate change, and partly due to the dependence of food production on fossil energies that caused a merger between food and energy markets as well as the financialization of food markets. The current efforts to reinvest in agriculture should take into account the need to improve the resilience of food systems so as to reduce their vulnerability to extreme weather events and to the increasingly volatile prices of non-renewable fossil energies. This article explores how agroecology, understood as the application of the science of ecology to agricultural systems, can result in modes of production that are not only more resilient, but also both highly productive and sustainable, enabling them to contribute to the alleviation of rural poverty, and thus, to the realization of the right to food.

A. Reinvesting in agriculture

The food price spikes of 2008 and 2011–2012 prompted governments to start reinvesting in agriculture, a sector that has been neglected in many developing countries for the past 30 years. However, investments that increase food production will not make significant progress in combating hunger and malnutrition if they do not lead to higher incomes and improved livelihoods for the poorest – particularly small-scale farmers in developing countries. And short-term gains will be offset by long-term losses if they cause further degradation of ecosystems, thus threatening the ability to maintain current levels of production in the future. The question, therefore, is not simply how much, but also how the investments are made. Pouring money into agriculture will not be sufficient; the imperative today is to take steps that facilitate the transition towards a low-carbon, resource-conserving type of agriculture that benefits the poorest farmers.

Agroecology can play a central role in achieving this goal (De Schutter, 2010a; De Schutter and Vanloqueren, 2011). It is possible to significantly improve agricultural productivity where it has been lagging behind, and thus to increase production where it needs most to be increased (i.e. primarily in poor, food-deficient countries), while at the same time improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and conserving ecosystems. This would also slow the trend towards increasing urbanization in the countries concerned, which is placing stress on their public services. Moreover, it would contribute to rural development and preserve the ability of succeeding generations to meet their own needs. In addition, the resulting higher incomes in the rural areas would contribute to the growth of other sectors of the economy by stimulating demand for non-agricultural products (Adelman, 1984).

B. The diagnosis

Since the global food crises, most of the focus has been on increasing overall production using methods consistent with classic Green Revolution approaches. The crises have been attributed to a mismatch between supply and demand, reflecting a gap between slower productivity growth and increasing needs. A widely cited estimate is that, taking into account demographic growth as well as changes in the composition of diets and consumption levels associated with growing urbanization and higher household incomes, the overall increase in agricultural production should reach 70 per cent by 2050 (Burney et al., 2010).

However, apart from the fact that this estimate takes the current demand curves as given and does not consider the leakages and waste in the current food systems (UNEP, 2009), the focus on increasing production may not adequately consider the fact that hunger today is not so much a consequence of stocks being too low or to global supplies being unable to meet demand; rather it is due to poverty. It is their lack of purchasing power that makes it difficult for the poorest segments of the population, including marginal small-scale farmers who are often net-food buyers, to withstand economic shocks such as those that result from sudden increases in the prices of basic food commodities. Increasing the incomes of the poorest is therefore the best way to combat hunger. Investment in agriculture is needed, but it should not only foster production to meet growing needs; it should also reduce rural poverty by boosting the incomes of small-scale farmers. Only by supporting small producers will it be possible to help break the vicious cycle that leads from rural poverty to the expansion of urban slums, in which poverty breeds more poverty.

In addition, agriculture must not compromise on its ability to satisfy future needs. The loss of biodiversity (Esquinas-Alcázar, 2005; Swanson, 2005), the unsustainable use of water, as well as the degradation and pollution of soils and water, undermine the continuing ability of the earth’s natural resources to support agriculture. Climate change, which translates into more frequent and extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, and less predictable rainfall, is already severely affecting the ability of certain regions and communities to feed themselves, and it is destabilizing markets. The change in average temperatures is threatening the ability of entire regions, particularly those where rain-fed agriculture is practiced, to maintain their existing levels of agricultural production (Stern, 2007; IPCC, 2007b). Less fresh water will be available for agricultural production, and the rise in sea levels is already causing the salinization of water in certain coastal areas, rendering that water unsuitable for irrigation purposes.

As is well known, current agricultural practices are exacerbating this situation in a number of ways. For instance, deforestation to enable the expansion of cultivated areas, represents a major source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (accounting for 17 per cent of total anthropogenic GHG emissions), while methane (CH4) emissions result from rice paddies and livestock digestion (accounting for 14.3 per cent of emissions). Another GHG emission is nitrous oxide (N2O), which is produced in particular through the Haber-Bosch process of fabricating nitrogen-based fertilizers (accounting for another 7.2 per cent) (Allen et al., 2009; Meinhausen et al., 2009).

Agroecology is increasingly seen as one way to address these considerable challenges. A wide range of experts within the scientific community and international agencies such as the FAO and Bioversity International (2007), and UNEP (2005) view it as a way to improve the resilience and sustainability of food systems (IAASTD, 2009a; Wezel et al., 2009a). It is also gaining ground in countries as diverse as Brazil, France, Germany and the United States (Wezel et al., 2009).

C. Agroecology: mimicking nature

Agroecology has been defined as the “application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems” (Altieri, 1995; Gliessman, 2007). It seeks to improve agricultural systems by mimicking or augmenting natural processes, thus enhancing beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of agrobiodiversity (Altieri, 2002). Common principles of agroecology include recycling nutrients and energy on farms, rather than augmenting nutrients with external inputs; integrating crops and livestock; diversifying species and genetic resources in the agroecosystems over time and space, from the field to landscape levels; and improving interactions and productivity throughout the agricultural system, rather than focusing on individual species. Agroecology is highly knowledge-intensive, based on techniques that are not delivered top-down but developed on the basis of farmers’ knowledge and experimentation [1]. Its practices require diversifying the tasks on the farm and linking them to the diversity of species (including animals) that interact at field level.

A variety of techniques have been developed and successfully tested in a range of regions that are based on this approach (Pretty, 2008). Integrated nutrient management reconciles the need to fix nitrogen in the soil by importing inorganic and organic sources of nutrients and reducing nutrient losses through erosion control. Thus it also builds up soil organic matter, which enhances soil fertility and can bind significant amounts of carbon in the soil. Agroforestry incorporates multifunctional trees into agricultural systems. Water harvesting in dryland areas enables the cultivation of formerly abandoned and degraded lands, and improves the water productivity of crops. The integration of livestock into farming systems, such as dairy cattle, pigs and poultry, including using zero- grazing cut and carry practices, provides a source of protein to families while also fertilizing soils. The incorporation of fish, shrimps and other aquatic resources into farm systems, such as into irrigated rice fields and fish ponds, provides similar benefits. These approaches involve the maintenance or introduction of agricultural biodiversity as a result of the integration of diverse crops, livestock, agroforestry, fish, pollinators, insects, soil biota and other components.

Such resource-conserving, low-external-input techniques have a huge, yet still largely untapped, potential to address the combined challenges of production, combating rural poverty and contributing to rural development, while also preserving ecosystems and mitigating climate change.

1. Agroecology as a response to supply constraints

Agroecological techniques have a proven potential to significantly improve yields. Pretty et al. (2006) compared the impacts of 286 recent sustainable agriculture projects in 57 developing countries covering 37 million ha (representing 3 per cent of their cultivated area). They found that the interventions increased crop productivity on 12.6 million farms by an average of 79 per cent, while also improving the supply of critical environmental services [2]. A large- scale study by Foresight (2011a) on Global Food and Farming Futures, commissioned by the Government of the United Kingdom, which reviewed 40 projects in 20 African countries where sustainable intensification was developed during the 2000s, reached similar conclusions [3].

2. The potential of agroecology to increase the incomes of small-scale farmers

One advantage of agroecology is its reliance on locally produced inputs. Many African soils are nutrient-poor and heavily degraded, and therefore need replenishment. Adding nutrients to the soil can be done by applying not only mineral fertilizers, but also livestock manure or by growing green manures. Farmers can also establish what has been called a “fertilizer factory in the fields” by planting trees that take nitrogen out of the air and “fix” it in their leaves, which are subsequently incorporated into the soil (World Agroforestry Centre, 2009). Agroecology

reduces the dependence of farmers on access to external inputs – and thus on subsidies – and on local retailers of fertilizers or pesticides as well as on local moneylenders. Diversified farming systems produce their own fertilizers and pest control systems, thus reducing the need for pesticides (De Schutter, 2004). The local availability of adapted seeds, planting materials and livestock breeds also offers multiple advantages, both for the farmer and for ensuring the supply of the required diversity of such materials for major crops such as maize, rice, millet, sorghum, potato and cassava (De Schutter, 2009a). This is particularly beneficial to small-scale farmers – especially women – who have low or no access to credit, and also lack capital and access to fertilizer distribution systems, particularly since the private sector is unlikely to invest in the most remote areas where communication routes are poor and where few economies of scale can be achieved.

3. Agroecology’s contribution to rural development and to other sectors of the economy

Agroecology contributes to rural development because it is relatively labour-intensive and is most effectively practiced on relatively small plots of land. The initial period is particularly labour-intensive because of the complexity of the tasks of managing different plants and animals on the farm and of recycling the waste produced, but this higher labour intensity of agroecology diminishes significantly in the longer term (Ajayi et al., 2009) [4]. And although it is seen by many as a liability of sustainable farming, especially where governments give priority to labour-saving measures, the creation of employment in the rural areas in developing countries may in fact constitute an advantage if linked to productivity gains. Indeed, it could present an enormous advantage in the context of massive underemployment and high demographic growth in many developing countries. It would also respond to the urgent need to slow down rural-urban migration, as activities in the services sector in the urban areas appear unable to absorb the excess labour. Growth in agriculture can be especially beneficial to other sectors of the economy if it is broad-based and increases the incomes of a large number of farming households, rather than leading to a further concentration of incomes in the hands of a few relatively large landowners who rely on large-scale, heavily mechanized plantations (Adelman, 1984).

4. Agroecology’s contribution to improving nutrition

The approaches espoused by the Green Revolution in the past focused primarily on boosting the production of cereal crops – rice, wheat and maize – in order to prevent famines. However, these crops are mainly a source of carbohydrates and contain relatively few proteins and the other nutrients essential for adequate diets. Yet, of the over 80,000 plant species available to humans, these three crops supply the bulk of our protein and energy needs today (Frison et al., 2006). The shift from diversified cropping systems to simplified cereal-based systems has thus contributed to micronutrient malnutrition in many developing countries (Demment et al., 2003). As a result, nutritionists now increasingly insist on the need for more varied agroecosystems, in order to ensure a more diversified nutrient output from farming systems (Alloway, 2008; DeClerck et al., 2011). The diversity of species on farms managed following agroecological principles, as well as in urban or peri-urban agriculture, is an important asset in this regard.

5. Agroecology and climate change

Agroecology can support the provision of a number of services to ecosystems, including by providing a habitat for wild plants, supporting genetic diversity and pollination, and water supply and regulation. It also strengthens resilience to climate change which is causing more extreme weather-related events. Resilience is strengthened by the use and promotion of agricultural biodiversity at ecosystem, farm system and field levels, made possible by many agroecological approaches (Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research, 2010). Agroecology also puts agriculture on the path of sustainability by delinking food production from a reliance on fossil energy (oil and gas). In addition, it contributes to mitigating climate change, both by increasing carbon sinks in soil organic matter and above-ground biomass, and by reducing CO2 and other GHG emissions through lower direct and indirect energy use.

D. Scaling up agroecology

There is a clear and urgent need for a reorientation of agricultural development towards systems that use fewer external inputs linked to fossil energies, and instead use plants, trees and animals in combination, mimicking nature instead of industrial processes at the field level. However, the success of such a reorientation will depend on the ability to learn faster from recent innovations and to disseminate what works more widely. Governments have a key role to play in this regard. Encouraging a shift towards sustainable agriculture implies transition costs, since farmers must learn new techniques and revitalize traditional and local knowledge, moving away from the current systems that are both more specialized and less adaptive, and have a lower innovation capacity (Pretty, 2008). In order to succeed in implementing such a transition, the spread of agroecology should be directed at the farmers themselves, who will be its main beneficiaries. Thus farmer-to-farmer learning in farmer field schools or through farmers’ movements should be encouraged, as in the Campesino-a-Campesino movement in Central America and Cuba (Degrande et al., 2006; Holt-Giménez, 2006; Rosset et al., 2011).

An improved dissemination of knowledge by horizontal farmer-to-farmer means transforms the nature of knowledge itself, which becomes the product of a network (Warner and Kirschenmann, 2007). It should encourage farmers, particularly small-scale farmers living in the most remote areas and those eking out a living from the most marginal soils, to work with experts towards a co-construction of knowledge, ensuring that advances and innovative solutions will benefit them as a matter of priority, rather than only benefiting the better-off producers (Uphoff, 2002a).

This is key to the realization of the right to food. First, it enables public authorities to benefit from the experiences and insights of the farmers. Rather than treating smallholder farmers as beneficiaries of aid, they should be seen as experts who have knowledge that is complementary to formalized expertise. Second, participation can ensure that policies and programmes are truly responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups, as those groups will question projects that fail to improve their situation. Third, participation empowers the poor – a vital step towards poverty alleviation, because lack of power is a source of poverty, as marginal communities often receive less support than the groups that have better connections with government. Moreover, poverty exacerbates this lack of power, creating a vicious circle of further disempowerment. Fourth, policies that are co-designed with farmers have greater legitimacy, and thus favour better planning of investment and production and better uptake by other farmers (FAO and IIED, 2008). Participation of food-insecure groups in the policies that affect them should become a crucial element of all food security policies, from policy design to the assessment of results to the decision on research priorities. Indeed, improving the situation of millions of food-insecure smallholder farmers cannot be done without them.


[1] Agroecological research combines modern science with local knowledge. In Central America, for instance, the coffee groves that grow under high canopy trees were improved by identifying the optimal shade conditions for minimizing the entire pest complex and maximizing the beneficial microflora and fauna, which improved yield and coffee quality. Such good practices are developed through a trial-and-error process by coffee-growers, but identifying conditions for success in order to promote their dissemination may benefit from the knowledge of experts (Staver et al., 2001).

[2] The 79 per cent figure relates to the 360 reliable-yield comparisons from 198 projects, but the results were wide ranging, with 25 per cent of the projects reporting a 100 per cent increase or more.

[3] However, it should be pointed out that not all these projects comply fully with the principles of agroecology.

[4] Research on agroforestry in Zambia does not support “the popular notion that agroforestry practices are more labour intensive” (Ajayi et al., 2009: 279).