What is agroecology?

Agroecology is the science and know-how behind sustainable agriculture. It borrows from both the scientific tradition of ecological sciences and the traditional knowledge and expertise of small-scale farmers, especially women and Indigenous farmers. 

With agroecology, small-scale farmers can grow good food without harming the environment by using their two most important assets: diverse locally-adapted seeds, and the knowledge and brain power of their community.

A grassroots science

Growing food ecologically through the practice of agroecology is knowledge-intensive. It requires a lot of careful observation, experimentation and creative problem solving on the farmers’ part. 

In industrial agriculture, the development of knowledge tends to follow a “top-down” delivery model, where institutions and agronomists conduct research, then teach farmers new methods to use in their fields. 

In contrast, agroecology sees farmers’ knowledge of their local ecosystems and crops as a starting place, and builds on it with the scientific method: observation, making a hypothesis, testing it, then learning from the results.

We support this in our programs by supporting farmer-led experimentation in the field, farmer-to-farmer learning exchanges and collaboration between farmers and academic researchers. We also support community initiatives that give farmers the tools they need to grow good food ecologically and to make a better income, like community seed banks or micro-entreprises.

A solution put forward by farmers and peasants

Agroecology was identified by the global farmers’ movements who coined the term food sovereignty as the best model to grow food and to protect the autonomy, livelihoods and dignity of small-scale farmers:

Agroecology does this by:

  • Promoting low-cost local alternatives to commercial seeds, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. This keeps their input costs low and helps them stay independent from corporate supply chains outside of their control.
  • Taking into consideration the need to rebuild local food systems in order to encourage vibrant local cultures and economies. Agroecology discourages export-driven agricultural policies, and instead encourages policies that give local farms the chance to supply local markets with both fresh products and locally-transformed ones.
  • Giving a special place to the expertise of women farmers and Indigenous farmers, who tend to hold the most traditional knowledge about their local seeds, territories and ecosystems. Valuing this knowledge results in greater gender equality, and progress towards decolonizing food systems.

A growing movement

Today, agroecology is increasingly recognized by governments and institutions as an effective approach to reducing hunger and injustice, improving nutrition, conserving natural resources and helping agriculture mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In his 2011 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, found that “today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavourable environments.”

Since then, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization hosted two International Symposiums on Agroecology in 2014 and 2018, and governments around the world are slowly starting to adopt policies to support agroecology.

Many barriers remain to the development and spread of agroecology around the world. These barriers take different forms depending on whether the region’s starting point is industrial agriculture, or subsistence agriculture. In general, barriers include a lack of information in farming communities and agricultural institutions, tenuous land tenure for small-scale farmers, a lack of supportive infrastructure and investment for small-scale farming and local food systems, and policies that work against agroecology.

Supporting SeedChange is one way in which you can help address these barriers.

What’s the difference between ecological agriculture and organic farming?

Organic food is produced through agricultural techniques that aim to replenish soil fertility and avoid the use of toxic synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Organic agriculture also aims to increase biodiversity, ensure the welfare of farm animals, and reduce negative environmental impacts of agriculture.

In most countries around the world, farmers must adhere to a specific set of standards in order to be “certified organic”. When you buy organic products certified by the Canadian Organic Standards, you have a guarantee that they were grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or genetically engineered seeds (GMOs).

In contrast, agroecology is not a standardized practice or set of approaches. Like organic farming, agroecology discourages the use of toxic chemicals and genetically modified seeds and has a strong focus on biodiversity. But its focus as an approach is to find agricultural practices that work best in a particular ecosystem and farm. Agroecology’s core principles include:

  • maximizing biodiversity
  • recycling locally available natural resources to enhance soil fertility
  • emphasizing interactions and productivity across the agricultural system

Further reading:

Breaking away from industrial food and farming systems: seven case studies on agroecological transition (10.2018), International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food)

Building an Agroecological Movement in Canada:  Report from the 2018 Field School and Research Summit (08.2018) Bryan Dale, Julia Laforge and Charles Z. Levkoe

Who Will Feed Us? (10.2017), ETC Group

From Uniformity to Diversity (06.2016), International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food)

Report: Agroecology and the Right to Food. (05.03.2011) Olivier De Schutter, UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems (2010), Hannah Wittman, Annette Aurélie Desmarais and Nettie Wiebe.