Agroecology: a global political guiding perspective?

Agroecology is a popular buzzword in food policy worldwide. It is based on a complex concept that journalist Jan Grossarth, with the support of the SEWOH partners, has examined and called into question.

Farming in Namibia (c) GIZ/Ralf Bäcker.

Dr. Jan Grossarth

Dr Jan Grossarth is a freelance journalist and book author. His main topics are ecology, agriculture, food security and related social issues. After having worked as a senior editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he was head of communications at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture (BMEL) in 2019. Since 2020, he has worked as a freelance journalist for "Die Welt", "Jüdische Allgemeine", among others, and is a research associate in a project on bioeconomy at LMU Munich.

Agroecology cannot be defined in one phrase. It would take some pages. As a political guiding perspective – perhaps because of its variety – it is suitable to pleasing everyone. The European Commission is relying on this approach as part of the Green Deal as its 10-year transformation plan, and the term is also mentioned in the Farm to Fork food strategy of the EU Commission. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has commissioned its leading experts from the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) to shed light on the approach in a 163-page report (the HLPE Report, 2019). The summary alone uses eleven key points in its definition. An agroecological approach, it says, “favours the use of natural processes, limits the use of external inputs, promotes closed cycles with minimal negative externalities and stresses the importance of local knowledge and participatory processes” – while also being designed to reduce social inequalities and to help the sciences to gain in importance. 

 

There is a major interest in agroecology also in African countries and in India. To put it casually, agroecology pleases everyone - partly also because its definition is less rigid than the large number of organic standards. Secondly, due to its approach of adapting to local conditions of agricultural cultivation, it seems more practicable than the path of increasing yields through agro-industrial intensification. This is a path which was recommended for Africa by international organizations for several decades, following the example of the “green” revolution of the North, which, at the time – from the 1950s onwards – still meant the increasing use of agro-chemicals. 

 

Not only did this approach have side effects in terms of health and the environment, but it often failed because of shortages. After all, how can intensification be successful if farmers lack money, fertilisers and pesticides? Agroecology proposes to intensify agriculture through a so-called enhancement of ecosystem services, while also continuing to permit “conventional” measures, such as demand-based fertilization. The two are closely connected, as are both the integration of the farmers’ local experience and science-based recommendations concerning the situation on the ground.

 

To put it casually, agroecology pleases everyone - partly also because its definition is less rigid than the large number of organic standards.

 

According to the HLPE Report, it is a “dynamic concept” and a “transdisciplinary science”, and it maintains “biological and ecological processes” in agricultural production; also, agroecology means embracing local knowledge. And it is a science, a social movement and “an innovative approach to food systems” (HLPE). To put it unkindly, it is a vague concept – or, to put it kindly, it is multifaceted.

 

Farmer Bowaré Beléme building a stone wall to prevent erosion in his field in Koumbia, Burkina Faso (c) GIZ/Jörg Böthling

When a guiding perspective pleases everyone, it is expedient to be suspicious. Perhaps it is so open to all kinds of interpretations that it is embraced by everyone, means something different to everyone and therefore does not provide any stimulation for change whatsoever. But change is necessary. The worldwide loss of animal and insect species has been documented many times, and there is no doubt that agriculture is the main cause (and, underlying it, the global rise in food and particularly meat consumption). Meanwhile, the “planetary boundaries” of the consumption of resources have been either reached or exceeded. The danger is that the multifaceted nature of the agroecological approach might invite cherry-picking. In principle, if applied “selectively”, it also leaves the door open for the application of pesticides and nitrogen fertilisers (HLPE Report, pages 37, 46 and 81 etc).

 

Representatives of organic farmers therefore emphasize that organic standards must always continue to be, as it were, the “heart” or covert nucleus of agroecology. The two approaches are also seen as closely connected by the German organization GIZ (2020): Organic farming as a defined standard has major overlaps with agroecology both as the path towards it and as the path beyond it, formulating sociocultural content in a broader sense (i.e. connectivity and fairness).

 

The question is whether it is understood like this everywhere. When asked about the importance of “agroecology” in their national agricultural policies, many experts from developing countries in Africa, from India and from other Asian countries actually talk about ecological agriculture. They use the term agroecology simply as a synonym of “organic”. Tanzania is currently working on a national organic agriculture strategy. Tunisia had one of the first training centers for organic farming early as the 2000s; in India there has been a rise in farmers using organic methods (not out of necessity but in a planned manner) and also in the proportion of domestic sales, via organic stores for the growing urban middle classes.

 

For “agroecology” in a modern sense, some countries, such as Brazil, already have farming subsidy schemes, or indeed state food purchase programs in a sociopolitical context. However, there are no broadly developed markets (yet) that reward this special approach, as in ecological agriculture. In this sense, agroecology is still more at the focus of government ministries and, even more so, of scientists who want to think more laterally than their own departments and disciplines. This is indeed also true of farmers who can see that the agricultural system has reached its limits – or that they themselves are among the losers.

 

Agroecology is well suited to connect practice, politics and science and to give direction to both politics and markets. This should not be underestimated.

 

It need not be a weakness that it is an open approach that can be adapted to suit each situation. It is certainly clearly distinct from “sustainable intensification” (HLPE, p. 63). Agroecology is thus labor-intensive, rather than capital-intensive, and widely linked to political and social aspects such as democratization, justice and human rights. On the agronomic level, it is therefore more nutrient-efficient and biodiversity-friendly, providing, among other things, according to the HLPE Report, “nutrient cycling; biological nitrogen fixation; improvement of soil structure and health; water conservation; biodiversity conservation and habitat management […]; carbon sequestration; biological pest control”, “diversification” in arable farming, “use of […] compost” (p. 36).
 
Implementation is now also on the agenda in European farming, but also in relation to foreign trade with the Americas, Africa and Asia. The EU Commission is demanding practical examples and examples of effective state incentives. They should come from member states, rather than being dictated “from above”, in Brussels. “Farm to Fork” should become more than just words on paper. Due to its complexity, agroecology can only provide practical political orientation if it “mentally” connects the many departmental policies (and is therefore translated into laws and funding programs). 
 
Livestock farming in Burkina Faso (c) GIZ/Jörg Böthling

After all, departmental policies are often contradictory. To put it bluntly, ministries of the environment are calling for and promoting the expansion of non-cultivated, protected areas. Ministries of agriculture are supporting the export of intensively farmed meat and crops. Ministries of health are taking steps to reduce meat consumption. And ministries of finance are still doing little or nothing to introduce tax and fiscal policies to “price in” the external environmental effects of agriculture. 

 

Yet all of this would be necessary, according to Brussels, if agroecology were to leave the “bubbles” of scientists, government advisors and the Commission. Only then would agroecology become the guiding star that connects the various heterogeneous “policies” or which aligns various bits of shavings in a single direction, like a magnet. 

 

It is not just various national areas of policy that are sending conflicting signals on incentives to the practical farming domain. Brussels tells us that this applies at the level of national ministries just as much as it does at the level of EU departments and at the level of member states. And it also applies at the level of the United Nations. Here, too, the health organization WHO (“less meat and sugar”), the agricultural organization FAO (“significant increase in harvests and agricultural intensity”) and the trade organization WTO (“no discrimination in trade”) have their commitments towards different and incommensurable rationales (i.e. rationales that are not connected by a shared ethical standard). Many framework providers are steering in different directions. It is very much the modern society described by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, with numerous perspectives existing side by side without communicating with each other. Experts are increasingly discussing whether this situation should continue or whether, in view of the pressing environmental crises of the Anthropocene, it might be possible – or indeed necessary – to proceed from “competition to integration”. But what are the fixed and most important pillars of agroecology?

 

The HLPE study (2019), published under the umbrella of the FAO, identifies 13 principles on which it is based. These are:

  • Recycling, primarily use of local nutrients and building materials
  • Reduction of inputs from outside the farm (fertilizers and chemicals)
  • Improvement of soil health
  • Improvement of animal health and welfare
  • Increase in biodiversity
  • Use of synergy effects within an ecosystem 
  • Economic diversification (placing smallholder farmers’ incomes on a broad basis)
  • Co-creation of knowledge: enhancement of co-creation and horizontal sharing of knowledge including local and scientific innovations
  • Social values and diets: building food systems based on culture, identity and tradition as well as social and gender equity
  • Fair prices for farmers, with fair treatment of intellectual property rights
  • Connectivity: ensuring that contact is as direct as possible and that routes are short between the producer and the consumer
  • Land and natural resource governance
  • Participation: social organizations and local government agencies participating in the value chain.

 

Female farmers harvesting apples and aubergines in Burkina Faso (c) GIZ/Michael Jooß

Again, this list shows, firstly, why nearly all stakeholders can find a point that matches their interests. Secondly, it shows the “spirit” of agroecology: subsidiarity. It means taking account of local cultural interests and respecting knowledge based on experience. Particulary herein an opportunity is provided: an opportunity to liberate experts in the sciences, corporations and public authorities from their stubbornness as function-holders and from their arrogant claim to have knowledge that is “objectively true”. Talking about “ecological communication” thirty years ago, Niklas Luhmann predicted a great future for the moralizing and indignant protest culture. And this culture has been back on the global stage at least since 2019 – through Greta Thunberg’s climate protests. However, there is a problem: The anger that is expressed in the actual street goes unheard in many “apparatuses”, where, at best, it is perceived as a disturbing background noise – with the exception of some political domains, or when it becomes part of the Davos speeches of managers. For agroecology to become effective, however, its principles must be broadly incorporated into food pricing and translated into law and regulations. 

 

On the other hand, their concerns will not go totally disregarded, as there are points of contact on all sides. It is a different matter with rigidly defined concepts such as ecological agriculture, which need not be of any interest to ministries of trade and finance, for instance. In some functional domains of society, such as agricultural or economic policy, organic farming even causes rejection (it lowers the availability of raw materials, slowdowning bioeconomic transformation by carrying the risk of price increases for raw materials). All this applies even more to a climate policy that implements quick carbon emission bans. In contrast to organic farming, agroecology does not necessarily say “less”. Instead, it says: let us do things “more intelligently”. Unlike organic agriculture, which puts the focus on growing food, the agroecological approach apparently tends to be more open to the concerns of the so-called bioeconomy, that renewable raw materials should increasingly replace fossil and mineral materials.

 

Unless the fiscal and financial governance framework is adjusted, no progress can be made. 

 

The importance of fiscal policy can be seen from an example from Brazil. Angela Cordeiro of the Agro Ecology Fund, a project partner at SEWOH initiative, reports from Brazil: “The banks here very easily lend money to expand livestock farming. But if you want to carry out an agroforestry project, for example, you face many difficulties.” The example illustrates that even if there were convincing cultivation techniques that kept yields stable and were beneficial for biodiversity and the soil, they would be of no use if production costs were higher and demand for the agricultural products were not. After all, there would be no interest in funding it. This means that the development of agroecological food systems must be supported by financial practices and laws, including socio-ecological regulations for lending, suitable foreign trade regimes (customs duties) and tax measures (“true cost accounting” and reduced VAT for agroecological products). Much of this is tentatively mentioned in the Green Deal papers of the EU Commission.

 

Finally, the decisive success factor is the level of the actual farmers themselves and the level of consumers. They are the ones who have to buy the “agroecological” products, both in wealthy countries and in countries that are not quite so wealthy yet. More than 90 per cent of academically published knowledge on agricultural science methods is therefore irrelevant to smallholder farmers because it is not practicable, says, for example, Fergus Sinclair, who heads the Department of Forestry Science at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi. This is why one approach in agroecology is to make science “transdisciplinary”. It means starting with a specific local issue, involving a variety of disciplines and definitely being, above all, solution-focused.

 

So agroecology is also expected to bring about a scientific revolution – and, to some extent, to heal the divisions in our fragmented society:

 

“Transdisciplinarity overcomes a dichotomy that frequently separates social movements and science,” says Sinclair, “by looking for solutions to real world problems, involving whatever disciplines are relevant, equitably including local stakeholders and their knowledge in the research process, and allowing methods to evolve to get to solutions quickly." Agroecology puts political decision-making and markets on a scientific basis, while otherwise placing science under an obligation to take a practical perspective. 

 

Africa will need to increase its harvests and at the same time stop the loss of woodlands, wildlife, insect life and soil quality, all of which has its roots in agricultural use. As early as 2011, the African Union decided that agroecology would be a more appropriate way forward than a continued attempt at “conventional” intensification. At the time, however, only 5 out of 55 member states had any support schemes for organic agriculture at all - and most of them were on a very small scale, reports Simplice Nouala-Fonkou, the head of the African Union’s Division of Agriculture. Today, he says, there is an increasing but still low commitment of governments to organic agriculture and agroecology. And there is a demand for promoting schemes with practical suitability. “The issue needs to be mainstreamed,” says Nouala-Fonkou. One idea (that has also been formulated by scientists) is that, as well as input-funding programmes, African countries should set up an ecological support pillar. The EU agricultural support system would be the example. Others are calling for exclusively agroecological subsidy programmes.

 

One example of an agroecological innovation is the intensified “rediscovery” of traditional cultivation methods such as crop rotation, growing crops in proximity to one another (multi-cropping) and their improvement, e.g. the multi-cropping of peanuts and millet. This is being monitored by scientists looking at a variety of factors, such as productivity and the impact on the local soil ecosystem. Another example is the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) in many African and Asian countries, which is led by WorldFish and implemented in partnership with Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands, James Cook University in Australia and the University of Greenwich, UK. Small-scale aquaculture farms are created in villages, where farmers “refine” grain into fish. This does not consume drinking water but is based on groundwater or occurs in rivers, lakes and ponds. Plant residues serve as fish feed, and the dirty water is used as fertilizer for the fields. The next step is to grow, ideally, more than just corn, but a variety of fruits, and in between push and pull crops that attract useful insects or distract eating insects, thus enabling pesticide-free agriculture. Taken together, such examples show that agroecology is a tangible utopia. 

 

Bibliography

  • EU-Commission (2019), Farm to Fork Strategy, For a fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly food system. Brussels, p. 16-19.
  • FAO (2015), Report of the Regional Meeting on Agroecology in Sub-Saharan Africa. Dakar. 
  • Grossarth, Jan (2018), Die Vergiftung der Erde, Metaphern und Symbole agrarpolitischer Diskurse seit Beginn der Industrialisierung. Darin: Die kulturelle Wende der Agrarökologe, S. 159-166. 
  • HLPE (2019), Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. Rome.
  • Wezel, Alexander, et al. (2009), Agroecology as a science, a movement and a practice. A review, in: Agronomy for sustainable development, 29-4, p. 503-515.

 

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