Guiding the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems.
Today’s food and agricultural systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of food to global markets. However, high-external input, resource-intensive agricultural systems have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, biodiversity loss, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite significant progress in recent times, hunger and extreme poverty persist as critical global challenges. Even where poverty has been reduced, pervasive inequalities remain, hindering poverty eradication.
Agroecology is an integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems. It seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.
Agroecology is not an invention. It can be identified in scientific literature since the 1920s, and has found expression in family farmers’ practices, in grassroots social movements for sustainability and the public policies of various countries around the world. More recently, agroecology has entered the discourse of international and UN institutions.
What makes agroecology distinct?
Agroecology is fundamentally different from other approaches to sustainable development. It is based on bottom-up and territorial processes, helping to deliver contextualised solutions to local problems. Agroecological innovations are based on the co-creation of knowledge, combining science with the traditional, practical, and local knowledge of producers. By enhancing their autonomy and adaptive capacity, agroecology empowers producers and communities as key agents of change.
Rather than tweaking the practices of unsustainable agricultural systems, agroecology seeks to transform food and agricultural systems, addressing the root causes of problems in an integrated way and providing holistic and long-term solutions. This includes an explicit focus on social and economic dimensions of food systems. Agroecology places a strong focus on the rights of women, youth, and indigenous peoples.
What are the 10 elements of agroecology?
In guiding countries to transform their food and agricultural systems, to mainstream sustainable agriculture on a large scale, and to achieve Zero Hunger and multiple other SDGs, the following 10 Elements emanated from the FAO regional seminars on agroecology
Diversity; synergies; efficiency; resilience; recycling; co-creation and sharing of knowledge (describing common characteristics of agroecological systems, foundational practices, and innovation approaches)
Human and social values; culture and food traditions (context features)
Responsible governance; circular and solidarity economy (enabling environment)
The 10 Elements of Agroecology are interlinked and interdependent.
WHY ARE THE 10 ELEMENTS USEFUL AND HOW WILL THEY BE USED?
As an analytical tool, the 10 Elements can help countries to operationalise agroecology. By identifying important properties of agroecological systems and approaches, as well as key considerations in developing an enabling environment for agroecology, the 10 Elements are a guide for policymakers, practitioners, and stakeholders in planning, managing, and evaluating agroecological transitions.
Diversification is key to agroecological transitions to ensure food security and nutrition while conserving, protecting, and enhancing natural resources.
Agroecological systems are highly diverse. From a biological perspective, agroecological systems optimize the diversity of species and genetic resources in different ways
Intercropping combines complementary species to increase spatial diversity. Crop rotations, often including legumes, increase temporal diversity. Crop–livestock systems rely on the diversity of local breeds adapted to specific environments.
Increasing biodiversity contributes to a range of production, socio-economic, nutrition and environmental benefits. By planning and managing diversity, agroecological approaches enhance the provisioning of ecosystem services, including pollination and soil health, upon which agricultural production depends. Diversification can increase productivity and resource-use efficiency by optimizing biomass and water harvesting.
Agroecological diversification also strengthens ecological and socio-economic resilience, including by creating new market opportunities. For example, crop and animal diversity reduces the risk of failure in the face of climate change.
Mixed grazing by different species of ruminants reduces health risks from parasitism, while diverse local species or breeds have greater abilities to survive, produce and maintain reproduction levels in harsh environments. In turn, having a variety of income sources from differentiated and new markets, including diverse products, local food processing and agritourism, helps to stabilize household incomes.
Co-creation and sharing of knowledge
Agricultural innovations respond better to local challenges when they are co-created through participatory processes.
Agroecology depends on context-specific knowledge. It does not offer fixed prescriptions – rather, agroecological practices are tailored to fit the environmental, social, economic, cultural, and political context. The co-creation and sharing of knowledge play a central role in the process of developing and implementing agroecological innovations to address challenges across food systems including adaptation to climate change.
Producer’s knowledge of agricultural biodiversity and management experience for specific contexts as well as their knowledge related to markets and institutions are central in this process. Education – both formal and non-formal – plays a fundamental role in sharing agroecological innovations resulting from co-creation processes.
Building synergies enhances key functions across food systems, supporting production and multiple ecosystem services.
Agroecology pays careful attention to the design of diversified systems that selectively combine annual and perennial crops, livestock and aquatic animals, trees, soils, water and other components on farms and agricultural landscapes to enhance synergies in the context of an increasingly changing climate. Building synergies in food systems delivers multiple benefits. By optimizing biological synergies, agroecological practices enhance ecological functions, leading to greater resource-use efficiency and resilience.
While agroecological approaches strive to maximise synergies, trade-offs also occur in natural and human systems. For example, the allocation of resource use or access rights often involve trade-offs. To promote synergies within the wider food system, and best manage trade-offs, agroecology emphasizes the importance of partnerships, cooperation, and responsible governance, involving different actors at multiple scales.
Innovative agroecological practices produce more using fewer external resources.
Increased resource-use efficiency is an emergent property of agroecological systems that carefully plan and manage diversity to create synergies between different system components. For example, a key efficiency challenge is that less than 50 percent of nitrogen fertilizer added globally to cropland is converted into harvested products and the rest is lost to the environment causing major environmental problems.
Agroecological systems improve the use of natural resources, especially those that are abundant and free, such as solar radiation, atmospheric carbon, and nitrogen.
By enhancing biological processes and recycling biomass, nutrients and water, producers can use fewer external resources, reducing costs and the negative environmental impacts of their use.
Ultimately, reducing dependency on external resources empowers producers by increasing their autonomy and resilience to natural or economic shocks.
Agroecology thus promotes agricultural systems with the necessary biological, socio-economic and institutional diversity and alignment in time and space to support greater efficiency.
Enhanced resilience of people, communities and ecosystems is key to sustainable food and agricultural systems.
Diversified agroecological systems are more resilient – they have a greater capacity to recover from disturbances including extreme weather events such as drought, floods, or hurricanes, and to resist pest and disease attack.
Agroecological practices recover the biological complexity of agricultural systems and promote the necessary community of interacting organisms to self-regulate pest outbreaks.
Agroecological approaches can equally enhance socio-economic resilience. Through diversification and integration, producers reduce their vulnerability should a single crop, livestock species or other commodity fail.
Human and social values
Protecting and improving rural livelihoods, equity and social well-being is essential for sustainable food and agricultural systems.
Agroecology places a strong emphasis on human and social values, such as dignity, equity, inclusion, and justice all contributing to the improved livelihoods dimension of the SDGs. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems. By building autonomy and adaptive capacities to manage their agro-ecosystems, agroecological approaches empower people and communities to overcome poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, while promoting human rights, such as the right to food, and stewardship of the environment so that future generations can also live in prosperity.
Agroecology seeks to address gender inequalities by creating opportunities for women. Globally, women make up almost half of the agricultural workforce. They also play a vital role in household food security, dietary diversity, and health, as well as in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Despite this, women remain economically marginalised and vulnerable to violations of their rights, while their contributions often remain unrecognized.
In many places around the world, rural youth face a crisis of employment. Agroecology provides a promising solution as a source of decent jobs. Agroecology is based on a different way of agricultural production that is knowledge intensive, environmentally friendly, socially responsible, innovative, and which depends on skilled labour. Meanwhile, rural youth around the world possess energy, creativity, and a desire to positively change their world. What they need is support and opportunities.
Culture and food traditions
By supporting healthy, diversified and culturally appropriate diets, agroecology contributes to food security and nutrition while maintaining the health of ecosystems.
Agriculture and food are core components of human heritage. Hence, culture and food traditions play a central role in society and in shaping human behaviour. However, in many instances, our current food systems have created a disconnection between food habits and culture. This disconnection has contributed to a situation where hunger and obesity exist side by side, in a world that produces enough food to feed its entire population.
Agroecology plays an important role in re-balancing tradition and modern food habits, bringing them together in a harmonious way that promotes healthy food production and consumption, supporting the right to adequate food. In this way, agroecology seeks to cultivate a healthy relationship between people and food.
Cultural identity and sense of place are often closely tied to landscapes and food systems. As people and ecosystems have evolved together, cultural practices and indigenous and traditional knowledge offer a wealth of experience that can inspire agroecological solutions.
Sustainable food and agriculture require responsible and effective governance mechanisms at different scales – from local to national to global.
Agroecology calls for responsible and effective governance to support the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems. Transparent, accountable, and inclusive governance mechanisms are necessary to create an enabling environment that supports producers to transform their systems following agroecological concepts and practices.
Agroecology depends on equitable access to land and natural resources – a key to social justice, but also in providing incentives for the long-term investments that are necessary to protect soil, biodiversity, and ecosystem services.
Many countries have already developed national level legislation, policies and programmes that reward agricultural management that enhances biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services.
Circular and solidarity economy
Circular and solidarity economies that reconnect producers and consumers provide innovative solutions for living within our planetary boundaries while ensuring the social foundation for inclusive and sustainable development.
Agroecological approaches promote fair solutions based on local needs, resources, and capacities, creating more equitable and sustainable markets. Strengthening short food circuits can increase the incomes of food producers while maintaining a fair price for consumers. These include new innovative markets, alongside more traditional territorial markets, where most smallholders market their products.
Re-designing food systems based on the principles of circular economy can help address the global food waste challenge by making food value chains shorter and more resource-efficient. Currently, one third of all food produced is lost or wasted, failing to contribute to food security and nutrition, while exacerbating pressure on natural resources.
Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations: The 10 Elements of Agroecology: Guiding The Transition To Sustainable Food And Agricultural Systems. http://www.fao.org/3/I9037EN/i9037en.pdf
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