Agroecology: time to think big
18 May 2018
Promoting an agroecological transition of the world’s food systems
When you think of agroecology, images of small-scale farming operations or traditional practices might come to mind, but in a newly published desktop review, Slow Food shines a light on the central role that agroecology can play in helping to feed the world. The study offers an overview of the research and data published to date on agroecology, with a specific focus on key issues such as whether the agroecological approach can be applied on a global scale, if it can respond to the challenge of food security in the world as well as be a response to climate change.
But what is agroecology? Agroecology cannot be defined exclusively as a scientific discipline or as a social movement or even as an approach to agriculture. It is, rather, a concept that intersects with all three. Specifically it can be defined as “the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems.” (Gliessman, 2007). The use of agroecology as a scientific term dates to the 1970s, but many of its solutions have been applied throughout history by rural communities around the world. This ancient body of knowledge has been systematically jettisoned or forgotten with the arrival of the so-called Green Revolution, which introduced a model of agriculture based on high levels of energy-rich external inputs, like the widespread use of synthetic agricultural chemicals and powerful machinery run on fossil fuels.
Agroecology in practice
One of the most interesting aspects of agroecology is the awareness that an agroecosystem is not influenced and determined exclusively by biological or environmental factors but also by important social factors (the involvement of local communities, for example, and the cultural context or the producer-consumer relationship), which require that the production system be interpreted not only from an agronomic point of view but also from a much broader perspective.
Slow Food’s Presidia projects are one example of agroecology in practice. The Presidia support small-scale traditional food products at risk of disappearing, promote local areas, revive old skills and processing techniques, and save native animal breeds and fruit and vegetable varieties from extinction. The producers of each Presidium agree upon a production protocol in which they set out their agroecological practices. At the end of April, Humberto Delgado Rosa, Director of the Natural Capital Unit of DG Environment of the European Commission, visited Slow Food Presidia in Sicily and saw firsthand what agroecological farming and the promotion of agrobiodiversity looks like, while demonstrating that it is feasible and promotes environmental, socio-cultural and economic sustainability.
From small to big scale
Slow Food’s report highlights how many studies have shown that introducing principles of agroecology into agricultural production systems can help to create a food system where there is a balance between available natural resources, the demands of society and agricultural production.
In the small-scale context, the application of agroecological principles significantly improves sustainability performance, including economic, in particular due to the increase in yields and productivity per surface area unit. Agroecological approaches, and diversification of crops in particular, ensure long-term productivity through the restoration of biodiversity and the entire range of ecosystem functions that support food production and human well-being (i.e. clean water, the circulation of nutrients and climate regulation).
In the long term and thinking on a larger scale of production, the food system must rely on transformative approaches that concentrate less on the imperative of supply and more on tackling different forms of inefficiency and the improper use of resources and waste. Without forgetting all those biological processes on the farm that make sustainable agricultural ecosystems productive and which require time in order to become established.
When it comes to feeding the planet, supporters of agroecology are critical of the fact that a “simple” increase in yields per hectare can lead to a solution for the problem of hunger and food security more generally. Significant results can be attained simply by increasing the incomes of small-scale farmers and achieving distributive justice (for example access to land and seeds, and identical access to resources for women and men) as well as reducing waste and post-harvest losses.
For these reasons, Slow Food supports a model of agricultural based on a rediscovery of the value of local agriculture, short distribution chains, and locally closed cycles of production and consumption. It is a model that prioritizes soil fertility, the presence of people in the countryside, the preservation of local genetic heritage and biodiversity protection. To learn more about the role of agroecology in the future of food, download Slow Food’s Position Paper on Agroecology.
Agroecology will be one of the issues that will be discussed during the two day EU Food and Farming Forum taking place in Brussels on May 29-30, where more than 200 food system actors from around Europe, including Slow Food, are coming together to design a Common Food Policy. For more information: www.eu3f.com
 Gliessman S.R., 2007. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL, USA.
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