Solutions from connections

10 elements of agroecology that can guide us toward sustainable food systems

Agroecology is a concept and a practice of managing and boosting nature’s own ecological processes to improve productivity. It is both a science and a social response. ©FAO


More with less. This is the challenge and the mantra for our future. There will be many more of us in the years to come. We will go from a population of 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion in 2050; yet, with our current rate of usage, there will be less fresh water, less arable soil, less available land for agriculture or clean, fruitful seas for fisheries. This is calling into question how we are doing things now and pushing us to find solutions for the future.

The answers don’t have to involve high-tech machinery or expensive system overhauls. In fact, some of the most promising solutions come from the connection between nature and farmers, in particular family farmers. Harnessing the power of nature by mixing modern science with traditional and indigenous knowledge of food producers and farmers is part of the idea behind agroecology.

Agroecology is both the concept and practice of managing and boosting nature’s own ecological processes to improve productivity and avoid farming griefs, such as pest infestation, disease or degradation.  Focusing on plants, animals, humans, the environment and the system as a whole, agroecology is a science and a social response, connecting the knowledge and practices of farmers and food producers from all corners of the globe. Uniquely, agroecology is about making sure our food systems - the way food is grown, sold, traded, marketed and consumed – are made fairer and more sustainable in the future.

The 10 elements of agroecology are meant to guide us toward the transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems. These interlinked and interdependent elements are as follows:

1. Diversity: By using varied agricultural production systems such as agroforestry (incorporating trees into farming systems) or polycultures (a wide variety of crops in the same space), agroecology contribute to a range of production, socio-economic, nutrition and environmental benefits.

2. Co-creation and sharing of knowledge and practices, science and innovation: Agroecology depends on context-specific knowledge. Knowledge plays a central role in the process of developing and implementing agroecological innovations to address challenges across food systems. Through the co-creation process, agroecology blends global scientific data with the traditional, indigenous, practical and local knowledge of producers.

Agroecology blends global scientific data with the traditional, indigenous, practical and local knowledge of food producers. Left: ©FAO/Riccardo Gangale; Right: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

3. Synergies: When designing an agricultural system, all of its aspects, such as crops, animals, trees, soils and even community involvement, should be taken into consideration. Creating synergies between pieces of a system helps them to function better, leading to improved soil fertility, natural pest regulation and increased crop productivity.

4. Efficiency: Efficiency starts with not wasting resources. By more efficiently using inputs to agriculture (such as seeds, soil, energy, nutrients), agroecology uses fewer external resources, reducing costs and negative environmental impacts. This has the knock-on effect of conserving precious resources like water, protecting biodiversity and even reducing the costs of production. 

5. Recycling: Nature reuses what it produces. By imitating natural ecosystems, agroecological practices support biological processes that drive the recycling of nutrients, biomass and water within production systems. This process of recycling can be enhanced by certain actions, such as introducing livestock and using manure as fertilizer as one example; however, recycling at all levels is key to self-sustaining, self-correcting systems.

6. Resilience: Enhancing ecological and socio-economic resilience, agroecological systems have a greater capacity to recover from disasters such as drought, floods or hurricanes, and to resist pest and disease attack. Through diversification, producers reduce their vulnerability in the case that a single crop or commodity fails. Reducing dependence on external inputs increases producers’ autonomy and reduces their vulnerability to economic risk.

7. Human and social values: Agroecology places a strong emphasis on human and social values, such as dignity, equity, inclusion and justice, all contributing to sustainable livelihoods. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems. Agroecology seeks to address inequalities by creating opportunities for women and youth.

8. Culture and food traditions: Agriculture is part of humankind’s heritage, with food traditions playing a central role in society. However, in many places, there is a disconnection between food habits and culture. This has contributed to a situation where hunger and obesity exist side by side. Agroecology plays an important role in reconciling tradition and modern food habits, bringing them together in a harmonious way that promotes local, seasonal food and healthy, diversified and culturally-appropriate diets that deliver good nutrition while reducing the food industry’s carbon footprint and protecting ecosystems.

Agroecology can help us transition to sustainable food and agricultural systems. ©FAO

9. Responsible governance: Transparent, accountable and inclusive governance mechanisms on different scales are necessary to create an enabling environment that supports producers to transform their systems. Equitable access to land and natural resources is not only key to social justice, but also essential to providing incentives for long-term investments in sustainability.

10. Circular and solidarity economy: Local solutions are at the core of agroecology. This includes supporting local markets and economies that offer fair and sustainable livelihoods to its community members. Agroecology seeks to shorten food circuits by decreasing the number of intermediaries, thereby increasing the incomes of food producers while keeping prices fair for consumers.

Though there are many elements of agroecology, interconnectedness is one of its basic principles. When any one piece is out of place, the system deteriorates. Producing more with less means making better use of what we have. That is what agroecology promotes for creating a world without hunger.

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*This story is an update of one first published on 02/04/2018.

2. Zero hunger