Agroecology, similar to sustainable farming, is a scientific framework that integrates ecological concepts and human’s socio-economic system into agricultural productions. It aims to increase the interaction between plants, animals, and the environment for food security and nutrition. By utilising natural processes and limiting the use of chemicals, it allows agriculture to be more environmentally friendly while maintaining a stable supply of food with the use of sustainable measures. Thus, it plays an important role in minimising the environmental harm caused by food production as well as achieving multiple UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Agroecology is a scientific discipline, studying how different components of the agroecosystem interact. It entails a set of practices targeted at optimising and stabilising yields through sustainable farming methods. It is also a social movement that promotes social justice, pursuing multifunctional roles of agriculture, nurturing identity and culture as well as enhancing the economic development of rural areas. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), “agroecology helps support food production and food security and nutrition while restoring the ecosystem services and biodiversity that are essential for sustainable agriculture.” Agroecological farming practises include but are not limited to the following: poly-cropping, crop rotation, integrated crop and livestock system and beneficial insect predators. These can combat problems caused by the current agricultural system, including extensive deforestation, water scarcities, decrease in biodiversity, soil depletion and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Modern food production has undergone massive development to feed the rapidly increasing global population, but our intensive agricultural system comes at a high ecological cost. For instance, the misuse of pesticide degrades soil quality and can lead to desertification. Consequently, more problems like the loss of biodiversity and the homogenisation of soil crops arise, a domino effect that further damages our environment and contributes to the intensifying of global warming. In addition to the environmental dangers posed by modern agriculture, the socio-economic needs of resource-poor farmers in rural areas have also been neglected. While some benefit from using purchased inputs such as synthetic fertilisers that increase yield gains, other small-scale farmers become vulnerable to debt for purchasing such products, especially those who live in places where climates are unstable which makes farmers more susceptible to crop failure. Adopting agroecological approaches enables farmers to develop appropriate local farming strategies for maintaining soil fertility that are environmentally sustainable (i.e. integrated soil fertility management that combines the use of organic and inorganic amendments) while at the same time being economically viable for them.
In order to encourage countries to work towards sustainable agriculture and food systems on a global scale, the FAO identified 10 guiding principles of agroecology that highlight the important properties in implementing an agroecological system: 1) diversity, 2) co-creation and sharing of knowledge, 3) synergies, 4) efficiency, 5) recycling, 6) resilience, 7) human and social values, 8) culture and food traditions, 9) responsible governance and 10) circular and solidarity economy. These 10 elements are interdependent, making it vital for policymakers, practitioners and various stakeholders to be holistic when planning, managing and evaluating agroecological measures.
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In relation to the above 10 guidelines by the FAO, the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) further consolidated a comprehensive “list of 13 agroecological principles that contributes to food security and nutrition directly and indirectly: 1) recycling, 2) input reduction, 3) soil health, 4) animal health, 5) biodiversity, 6) synergy, 7) economic diversification, 8) co-creation of knowledge, 9) social values and diets, 10) fairness, 11) connectivity, 12) land and natural resources governance and 13) participation. Taking principle 9 as an example, building a food system based on the culture, identity, tradition, social and gender equity of local communities encourages the provision of healthy, diversified, seasonally and culturally appropriate diets, which impacts nutrition. Principles 7, 8, 10 and 11 promote a just food system that addresses problems like wages and working conditions. By creating a fairer agricultural system, farmers’ livelihoods can be improved through increasing the proportion of value-added agriculture (concerned with producers capturing a greater share of revenue), decreasing the proximity between local producers and consumers and eventually enhancing local economies.
More and more farmers are shifting from chemical intensive single-crop farming to agroecological production methods to develop sustainable agriculture and build more resilient rural livelihoods. The MagosVölgy Ecological Farm in Hungary successfully puts agroecology into practise, utilising local resources for a more sustainable farming. The founders adopted intercropping methods and are financially supported by the FAO. Working together, the ecological farm is able to connect to markets, share agroecological information and techniques with other practitioners and maintain a small-scale sustainable food production for urban people. In 2016, they produced around 30 species and 100 varieties of organic vegetables with the use of environmentally friendly techniques, like using compost-mulch permanent beds and planting disease-resistant fruit trees.
The director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, José Graziano da Silva, called for actions towards healthier and more sustainable food systems. He says, “We need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process.” It is, therefore, imperative for every stakeholder, especially policy makers, to engage in creating a more harmonious future and to work together towards ensuring sustainable food production.