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Agroecology – what is it and why does it matter?

News Section Icon Published 13/11/2012


We talk a lot about the problems of factory farming: about how it threatens us and the planet, as well as farm animals. But it’s also important to look at the alternatives to factory farming. Here’s one possible solution.

The challenge of feeding the world

Many argue that factory farming is needed to feed the world; that we need agriculture that focuses purely on quantity over quality. We know this isn’t the case. A recent food-security report from Compassion in World Farming (see our recent blog post for more information) showed that we can feed the world with humane-sustainable farming and use it to help restore and conserve the environments and societies in which we live. A true win-win situation.

But how to put humane-sustainable farming into practice?

So we know humane-sustainable farming can feed the world, but what is this exactly? Rule one is that there is no simple solution; humane-sustainable farming is a philosophy rather than a type of farming. The best approach will depend on a wide variety of factors, including regional diet, soil type, climate, topography, etc.

Despite this, one idea – "agroecology" – keeps cropping up, time and time again. But what is it, and why is it so special?

Defining agroecology

According to Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (20101): "agroecology outperforms large-scale industrial farming for global food security".

As the name suggests, agroecology sees agriculture from an ecological or holistic perspective. The University of Berkley (20002) writes that agroecology measures the overall performance of agriculture using a broad set of criteria, which includes "properties of ecological sustainability, food security, economic viability, resource conservation and social equity, as well as increased production".

In contrast, factory farming would tend to look at the situation from a much simpler perspective: how many raw materials are being used? How much "product" is being churned out? How can I reduce the inputs and maximise the outputs?

For a more visual comparison, take a look at this "Agroecology VS Industrial Agriculture" infographic (Christensen Fund, 20123)

A tried-and-tested method

The name may have changed over time, but the ideas behind agroecology aren’t exactly new. It used to be the way for many farmers, and still is today for many subsistence farmers worldwide. It makes total sense, of course – by looking after the land and recycling naturally obtained materials, subsistence farmers can reduce their dependence on increasingly expensive (and rare) materials, such as animal feed, fertilisers and pesticides. And, by keeping their soils robust and healthy, farmers increase the likelihood of being able to produce food year after year (a critical concern given the increasing risks of extreme-weather events).

The importance of livestock

And livestock often forms a critical part of the process. As stated in an All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology Briefing Paper (20114): "One example would be the traditional farm pig, which eats food leftovers and turns them into useful fat and meat, breaks in new ground, returns nutrients from the wider landscape to farm soils, reduces soil pests, and conditions compost".

Agroecology seems like a sensible way of farming that blends tried-and-tested techniques with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the natural world and our role within it. The trick will be to apply the thinking on a larger scale, which remains to be seen at the moment. We’ll keep you posted.

Our sources

  1. United Nations (2010), Right to Food: “Agroecology outperforms large-scale industrial farming for global food security,” says UN expert
  2. University of Berkley (2012), Agroecology in Action
  3. Christensen Fund (2012), Agroecology VS Industrial Agriculture
  4. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology (2011), Briefing Paper

Huge thanks to Christensen Fund for the images (cc)


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