Agroecology: agriculture as a force for good

Pieter writes*

What if we could simultaneously (i) lower our environmental impact while cooling the planet; (ii) improve social equity in the food industry; and (iii) still feed the estimated 10 billion people living on planet Earth in 2050? I argue that addressing each of these challenges requires a transformation of the agricultural sector from using the green revolution approach to methods based on the principles of agroecology. Below, I will briefly compare ways that green revolution agriculture and agroecology impact the environment, social equity, and food production. I realise that in doing this in such a short piece I will inevitably make a caricature of both approaches, and I apologise for this.

In short, green revolution agriculture prioritises yield maximisation of a single monoculture through intensive land and chemical use; while agroecology [pdf] prioritises the ability of farmers to feed themselves and their community by producing a wide variety of crops making use of natural cycles rather than chemical inputs. While there are many ways in which agroecological systems contribute to the environment (e.g. creating habitats for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and preventing soil erosion), as well as ways in which monoculture farms harm the environment (e.g. destroying natural habitats, relying on fossil fuels, and putting unsustainable pressures on land), I will focus on table 1 taken from Altieri (1999):

Table 1: Performance of traditional, modern, and agroecological potato-based production systems in Bolivia.

The table compares a sample of traditional low-input (in this context referring to old peasant agriculture), modern high-input (referring to green revolution agriculture), and agroecological systems in Bolivia for a single crop: potatoes. It shows that yield ha-1 is highest in the high-input farms, though it should be noted that the agroecological system produced multiple crops, and therefore might have a higher total yield. More importantly, table 1 expresses that agroecological systems used no fertiliser and produced substantially more (30.5 potatoes) output per unit of energy, compared to green revolution agriculture. The latter used 200 kg ha-1 of fertiliser, and produced only 4.8 potatoes per unit of energy. Thus, while green revolution farming actively contributes to harming the planet through the consequences of fertilisers and energy consumption, agroecology rejects these practices while actively contributing to the planet by, among other things, restoring habitats for biodiversity and sequestering carbon.

Besides creating a production process that has a positive impact on the environment, agroecology also tackles inequalities that are persistent in the current food system. The food industry is shaped as an hourglass: there are many peasants and farmers at one end; with monopolies in each of the three sectors – input supply (seeds, machinery, chemicals), processing and retail, in the middle; and many consumers at the other end. In consequence, power is concentrated at the food corporations, which results in situations where, for example, grain seeds for are only sold to farmers if they also purchase the associated pesticides and fertilisers (input); or, prices are set and farmers either accept or lose any chance at making a revenue (processing); or, Tesco and Walmart setting private standards that need to be complied with by suppliers shifting the cost of government regulations on these suppliers (retail). Agroecology, by promoting the production of food for local consumption, tries to bypass the food corporations in the middle of the hourglass and directly delivers food to consumers. This allows peasants to earn higher income. In addition, by replacing chemical and technical inputs with natural processes, farmers reduce their dependency on the inputs provided by corporations. Agroecology is therefore a more socially equitable form of agriculture.

Recently, scientists, politicians and industry representatives are sounding the alarm bells, warning that global food production needs to double by 2050 [pdf] to feed everyone on the planet. So, given the rejection of the green revolution technology and intensification, will agroecology be able to provide the necessary amount of food? First, Altieri & Nicholls (2012) [pdf] argue that the world today already produces the amount of food necessary to feed 10 billion people, but that currently the majority of industrially produced crops feed biofuels and animals. Second, Altieri & Nicholls note that small scale peasant agriculture already accounts for at least 50% of agricultural output for domestic human consumption. This, despite the fact that the majority of peasant production suffers from productivity declines associated with degraded land due to pesticide use, failed harvests due to high vulnerability to shocks, and more, all associated with the consequences of green revolution agriculture. In addition, their data suggest that agroecological interventions in conventional agriculture in 57 different countries in the Global South resulted in an average crop yield increase of 79%. Third, agroecological farming is less vulnerable and more resilient to shocks. Machin Sosa et al. (2010) [pdf] studied crop loss and crop recovery in Cuba following hurricane Ike in 2008 and found that agroecological farms had 50% crop loss, compared to 90-100% in monoculture farms. They also concluded that the recovery rate of vegetation in the former was substantially higher than in the latter. In a world that will increasingly experience variable and extreme weather events, agroecological farms will be better prepared and produce more food.

Bottom Line: Transforming agriculture from green revolution principles to agroecological principles can result in a positive impact on the environment and a more equitable food system, while not coming at the cost of reduced food production to feed a growing human population.

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

5 thoughts on “Agroecology: agriculture as a force for good”

  1. Hi Pieter,
    Very much enjoyed your blog post and I’m greatly intrigued by agroecology! As someone who hasn’t heard of the concept before, I’d be curious to hear more on what the actual practices are and an elaboration on “producing a wide variety of crops making use of natural cycles rather than chemical inputs”.

    Also, when you discuss the use of delivery to bypass food corporations; how have these delivery services functioned? For example, do they also incorporate farmers markets/centralized places for consumers to come pick up their food or is it a door-door type delivery service? I can imagine the latter would require some man power, so thinking that could be difficult for smaller scale farms (as another pressure on the system).

    Similarly, this strikes me as something that would work well in rural areas (to feed local communities), but how would that transfer into cities when the sheer demand is much higher? Would local production suffice in urban dense areas (take NL for example)?

    All in all, really interesting topic and looking forward to hearing more about it as the course continues!

    1. Hi Jacinta, an example of your first question would be to introduce natural enemies of certain pests rather than spraying pesticides. These natural enemies can be attracted by increasing certain types of vegetation, which has the added benefit of improving biodiversity. About your second question, I would think of, like you say, farmers markets and the like. It is true that this probably is easier in rural areas, and to be honest, I think it requires urban communities to be more aware of food production processes and that they change their approach to how they get access to food, for example by farming (a little) themselves.

  2. Hi Pieter,
    You blog post couldn’t have been posted at a more opportune time, when the UN high level report revealed today that more than 1 million species face extinction threats owing to our interference with the way the nature is supposed to work.
    I understand the concept of agro-ecology as I come from a small town (not so small anymore though) near the national capital of New Delhi in India. I grew up picking guavas and mulberries at my grandparents place.
    However, when I worked at a grassroots non-profit I saw the effects of green revolution era practices’ damage to the ecology and environment first hand in the early 2000s India.
    My question is similar to the earlier one. I understand that crop rotation or planting several crops at the same time shall result in great benefits to the nature, how can the lower yield be compensated in such cases for the ever increasing world population.

    1. Hi, your question will be the most important one my paper needs to answer. For now, I would say two things. First, that in a context of climate change, it won’t be long before the yield advantage of monocultures will disappear, because they will be more vulnerable and less resilient to the effects of climate change. Second, instead of focusing on yield, we should focus on the distribution of food we currently produce. I know the former seems like the easier solution, but it might not actually be one.

  3. Hi Peter,

    I’m curious about the food increase numbers you present. As you note, numerous studies show that we already produce sufficient food and we merely allocate it improperly in order to sustain 10 billion. But if this is at most an allocation problem, why wouldn’t price signals fix the market? As the population grows, prices for food rise. This induces a profit incentive, and with it the production of relatively more food than ethanol. Why do we think we need to solve this problem with a change in agricultural production techniques?

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