Agroecology

The analyses of the IAASTD show the need for an agro-ecological evolution in agriculture, food production and consumption. Since its origins 10,000 years ago, agriculture has always adapted to its respective environmental conditions. It is only in the past 100 years that the development and use of fossil energy sources allowed one part of the world’s population to replace existing practices, which involved careful interaction with nature, with the use of machinery and modern chemicals. Over the past 60 years, this has led to an unprecedented global transformation and exploitation of natural habitats, along with regional agricultural and food systems. Today the consequences of this transformation have become a central problem of humanity.

It may seem absurd to millions of farmers in developing countries that agroecology - the adaptation of agriculture to natural conditions and cycles, as well as to local needs - is treated like a new science, a social movement or even as a “romantic niche”. These farmers' daily bread depends on whether they use the locally available resources optimally to be able to make a living. They measure the efficiency and sustainability of their cultivation systems in terms of the edible yield of their plots of land, as well as the ability to cope with natural disasters and crop failure. Since the 1980s, agroecology as a scientific discipline, practical skill and economic concept for success has received growing support worldwide. The IAASTD attributes a crucial role to agroecology in shaping the future of sustainable agriculture, demonstrating that it has now arrived at the heart of scientific and political debates.

Agro-ecological approaches

Agro-ecological concepts are primarily based on traditional and local knowledge, and its corresponding cultures. Agroecology combines this knowledge with the findings and methods of modern science. The strength of agroecology lies in the combination of ecological, biological and agricultural sciences, along with medicine, nutritional and social sciences. It incorporates the knowledge of all stakeholders."It is this continuing indigenous capacity for place-based innovation that has been almost entirely responsible for the initial bringing together of the science, knowledge and technology arrangements for what have become over time certified systems of agroecological farming such as organic farming (...) and variants such as permaculture. Systems such as these are knowledge-intensive, tend to use less or no externally supplied synthetic inputs and seek to generate healthy soils and crops through sustainable management of agroecological cycles within the farm or by exchange among neighbouring farms. (...)
Recent comprehensive assessments conclude that although these systems have limitations, better use of local resources in small-scale agriculture can improve productivity and generate worthwhile innovations and agroecological/organic farming can achieve high production efficiencies on a per area basis and high energy use efficiencies and that on both these criteria they may outperform conventional industrial farming. Despite having lower labour efficiencies than (highly mechanized) industrial farming and experiencing variable economic efficiency, latest calculations indicate a capability of producing enough food on a per capita basis to provide between 2,640 to 4,380 kilocalories/ per person/per day (depending on the model used) to the current world population. Their higher labour demand compared to conventional farming can be considered an advantage where few alternative employment opportunities exist." (Global, p. 67)
Their practical contribution to solving complex problems with the help of locally available resources is crucial. Apart from water, soil and sun, other resources that are particularly important are the natural and cultivated diversity of plant species and varieties, along with the knowledge of people and communities on how these plants interact. The IAASTD documents a wealth of both new and old examples of successful agro-ecological adaptation, and describes the enormous potential of agroecology: It can contribute to directly increasing yields, protecting resources, reviving the local economy and improving health, prosperity and resilience. >>more

Facts & Figures

Agroecology has three facets. It is: 1. a scientific discipline involving the holistic study of agro-ecosystems, including human and environmental elements
2. a set of principles and practices to enhance the resilience and ecological, socio-economic and cultural sustainability of farming systems
3. a movement seeking a new way of considering agriculture and its relationships with society.

Agroecology is both a science and a set of practices. It was created by the convergence of two scientific disciplines: agronomy and ecology. As a science, it is the 'application of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.' As a set of agricultural practices, agroecology seeks ways to enhance agricultural systems by mimicking natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the ecosystem.

In Cuba, it is estimated that agro-ecological practices are used in 46-72% of peasant farms, generating over 70% of the domestic food production. This equates to 67% of roots and tubers, 94% of small livestock, 73% of rice, 80% of fruits and the majority of honey, beans, cocoa, maize, tobacco, milk and meat production.

A study by Pretty et al., released in 2011, analysed 40 projects in 20 countries where sustainable intensification has been developed during the 1990s and 2000s. These projects included agroforestry, soil conservation, integrated pest management and horticulture. By early 2010, the projects had benefited 10.39 million farmers and delivered improvements on around 12.75 million hectares. By combining the use of new and improved varieties and new agronomic-agroecological management, crops yields per hectare have increased on average by 2.13-fold.

Sales of organic products in the United States rose to $35.1 billion in 2013, up 11.5% from the previous year's $31.5 billion and the fastest growth rate in five years. Fruit and vegetables account for $11.6 billion in sales, up 15% from 2012.

On average, organic farms support 34% more plant, insect and animal species than conventional farms, according to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The researchers looked at data from 94 previous studies covering 184 farm sites dating back to 1989 and found that this effect has remained stable over time.

A meta analysis assessing 114 cases of organic farming in Africa showed that conversion of farms to organic methods increased agricultural productivity by 116%. This figure rose to a 128% increase for projects in East Africa. In Kenya, maize yields increased by 71% and bean yields by 158%.

A report by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the right to food, drawing on an extensive review of the scientific literature published in the last five years, arrived at the following findings: Agroecology raises productivity at field level; agroecology reduces rural poverty; agro-ecological methods contribute to improving nutrition and to adapting to climate change.

Institutions

Civil Society

Literature

Videos: Agroecology

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Click on the image to watch the video

Interview with Peter Rosset (Via Campesina) about agroecology

M. Altieri: Why is agroecology the solution to hunger&food security?

Can organic feed the world?

Graphics

  • UNEP Peat distributionUNEP Peat distribution
  • UNEP CO2 emissions from land use changeUNEP CO2 emissions from land use change
  • UNEP Natural resource treeUNEP Natural resource tree
  • UNEP Energy cost of out-of-season vegetablesUNEP Energy cost of out-of-season vegetables
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