Agroecology as Innovation

By Timothy A. Wise, a Senior Researcher on the Land and Food Rights Program at Small Planet Institute and a researcher at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. He is the author of Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food (New Press, 2019). Originally published at Triple Crisis

Recently, the High Level Panel of Experts of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its much-anticipated report on agroecology. The report signals the continuing shift in emphasis in the UN agency’s approach to agricultural development. As outgoing FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva has indicated, “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.”

The commissioned report, “Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition.” Two years in the making, the report makes clear the urgent need for change. “Food systems are at a crossroads. Profound transformation is needed,” the summary begins. It stresses the importance of ecological agriculture, which supports “diversified and resilient production systems, including mixed livestock, fish, cropping, and agroforestry, that preserve and enhance biodiversity, as well as the natural resource base.”

It is not surprising, of course, that those with financial interests in the current input-intensive systems are responding to growing calls for agroecology with attacks on its efficacy as a systematic approach that can sustainably feed a growing population. What is surprising is that such responses are so ill-informed about the scientific innovations agroecology offers to small-scale farmers who are being so poorly served by “green revolution” approaches.

One recent article from a researcher associated with a pro-biotechnology institute in Uganda was downright dismissive, equating agroecology with “traditional agriculture,” a step backwards toward the low-productivity practices that prevail today. “The practices that agroecology promotes are not qualitatively different from those currently in widespread use among smallholder farmers in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa more broadly,” writes Nassib Mugwanya of the Uganda Biosciences Research Center. I have come to conclude that agroecology is a dead end for Africa, for the rather obvious reason that most African agriculture already follows its principles.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the new expert report shows, and as countless ecological scientists around the world can attest, agroecology brings much-needed innovations to prevailing smallholder practices. With a long track record of achievements in widely varying environments, the approach has been shown to improve soil fertility, increase crop and diet diversity, raise total food productivity, improve resilience to climate change, and increase farmers’ food and income security while decreasing their dependence on costly inputs.

The failing policies of the present

The predominant input-intensive approach to agricultural development can hardly claim such successes, which is precisely why international institutions are actively seeking alternatives. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is the poster child for the promotion of input-intensive agriculture in Africa. At its outset 13 years ago, AGRA and its main sponsor, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, set the goals of doubling the productivity and incomes of 30 million smallholder households on the continent.

There is no evidence that approach will come anywhere near meeting those worthy objectives, even with many African governments spending large portions of their agricultural budgets to subsidize the purchase of green revolution inputs of commercial seeds and synthetic fertilizers. National-level data, summarized in the conclusion to my book Eating Tomorrow, attests to this failure:

  • Smallholders mostly cannot afford the inputs, and the added production they see does not cover their costs.
  • Rural poverty has barely improved since AGRA’s launch; neither has rural food insecurity. Global Hunger Index scores remained in the “serious” to “alarming” category for 12 of the 13 AGRA countries.
  • Even in priority crops like maize and rice, few of AGRA’s 13 priority countries have seen sustained productivity increases.
  • Production increases for maize in Zambia have come as much from shifting land into subsidized maize production as from raising productivity from commercial seeds and fertilizers.
  • There is no evidence of improved soil fertility; in fact, many farmers have experienced a decline as mono-cropping and synthetic fertilizers have increased acidification and reduced much-needed organic matter.
  • Costly input subsidies have shifted land out of drought-tolerant, nutritious crops such as sorghum and millet in favor of commercial alternatives. Crop diversity and diet diversity have decreased as a result.

recent article in the journal Food Policy surveyed the evidence from seven countries with input subsidy programs and found little evidence of sustained—or sustainable—success. “The empirical record is increasingly clear that improved seed and fertilizer are not sufficient to achieve profitable, productive, and sustainable farming systems in most parts of Africa,” wrote the authors in the conclusion.

Agroecology: Solving farmers’ problems

 Branding agroecology as a backward-looking, do-nothing approach to traditional agriculture is a defensive response to the failures of Green Revolution practices. In fact, agroecological sciences offer just the kinds of innovations small-scale farmers need to increase soil fertility, raise productivity, improve food and nutrition security, and build climate resilience.

Do these innovations sound backward looking to you?

  • Biological pest control – Scientist Hans Herren won a World Food Prize for halting the spread of a cassava pest in Africa by introducing a wasp that naturally controlled the infestation.
  • Push-pull technology – Using a scientifically proven mix of crops to push pests away from food crops and pull them out of the field, farmers have been able to reduce pesticide use while increasing productivity.
  • Participatory plant breeding – Agronomists work with farmers to identify the most productive and desirable seed varieties and improve them through careful seed selection and farm management. In the process, degraded local varieties can be improved or replaced with locally adapted alternatives.
  • Agro-forestry – A wide range of scientists has demonstrated the soil-building potential of incorporating trees and cover crops onto small-scale farms. Carefully selected tree varieties can fix nitrogen in the soil, reduce erosion, and give farmers a much-needed cash crop while restoring degraded land.
  • Small livestock – Reintroducing goats or other small livestock onto farms has been shown to provide farmers with a sustainable source of manure while adding needed protein to local diets. Science-driven production of compost can dramatically improve soil quality.

These innovations and many others are explored in depth in the new U.N. report, the full version of which will be available in English in mid-July, other FAO languages in September. Those advocates of industrial agriculture would do well to read it closely so they can update their understanding of the sustainable innovations agroecological sciences offer to small-scale farmers, most of whom have seen no improvements in their farms, incomes, or food security using Green Revolution approaches. Many farmers have concluded that the Green Revolution, not agroecology, is a dead end for Africa.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Thanks for this, it annoys me all the time when an inappropriate distinction is made between ‘science’ or ‘technology’ and ‘tradition’. The early farmers who created maize and potatoes from unlikely and barely edible wild plants using patience and constant trial and error were, by any epistemological standard ‘scientists’, just as the peoples who created incredibly clever and elaborate soil and water conservation methods from the Himalaya to the Amazon to make unlikely places fertile were superb engineers and hydrogeologists. Many ‘modern’ techniques are little more than more sophisticated ways to eat your own seedcorn – they only work by destroying soil built up over generations or by using grossly unsustainable amounts of fossil fuels or by running down groundwater levels.

    For all the urgent challenges facing us, I don’t think there is one more important than making agriculture sustainable. The knowhow is there – the problem is that its not just a simple case of applying what we know – its also facing down a huge industry created on the basis of ensuring that this knowledge is destroyed.

    1. Steve H.

      There’s a core variable of time to take into account. The original Permaculture books were very heavy on tree crops. A tree can sustain over time periods of years to generations to millenia. But there is not a quarterly-report responsiveness to inputs.

      Whether your grandchildren can eat is not a commodity in a neoliberal world. It’s leverage.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          People who find themselves visiting this book on line over and over and over again . . . might want to buy a physical copy so that they will have it to refer to if and when the internet goes down or goes dark.

    2. Judith

      Good farmers (the ones not following the agribusiness/Monsanto rule book) are empirical scientists, constantly evaluating ever-changing data. Here is a nice discussion:

      “After visiting dozens of farms across the country and interviewing farmers about their practices, I learned that by not relying on “easy” chemical fixes, organic farmers have to be “systems thinkers” — navigating complex sets of variables and relationships to find solutions to their challenges. I’ve noticed that the best farmers share the same traits as the most respected scientists: they’re curious and keen observers, and critical thinkers; they test hypotheses, assess results and share discoveries. Farmers simply practice their research in the field.”

      Lambert’s photo yesterday afternoon of “the family heritage of one single Peruvian farmer, a unique collection of heirloom seeds (potato landraces), inherited from her parents” is a wonderful illustration of this.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I know, I didn’t have the patience to correct the author’s tracker garbage. It would require clicking on every link and having the page load to get the URL, and then pasting that back in. Would have taken 15 minutes I didn’t have.

      I even tried finding the author’s e-mail address to chew him out over this crappy practice but had no luck.

  2. P S BAKER

    Although there are many positives for agroecology, hard evidence that it is cost-effective is difficult to come by. The main problem is that it is extremely site specific – so yes biocontrol sometimes works, but often it doesn’t. And yes shade coffee works in some places but not others.

    Hence industrial agriculture is input-intensive, agroecology is knowledge-intensive but often this knowledge is lacking. Hopefully research can fill this gap.

    The link to the new report is only a 13 pages summary, I think we should wait for the full report to see how convincing current evidence is.

    1. Peter Moritz

      hard evidence that it is cost-effective is difficult to come by.

      the typical economist bullshit ignoring that farming happens on soil and not on the stock market.
      There is more to long term cost effectiveness that just calculating labour, machinery and input of fertilizers and energy on a year by year basis.

      1. P S BAKER

        Yes, I think long term agroecology could work in some/many cases, but farmers need income almost immediately, otherwise they go bust.

        Agroecological schemes are very short on financial detail, they don’t come with business plans and spreadsheets … i.e. the sort of economics that is not bullshit.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Business plans and spreadsheets based on oxidizing the soil-carbon down to zero and depleting the groundwater reserves down to zero are bullshit business plans and bullshit spreadsheets in the service of bullshit economics.

          When the Oglalla Aquifer is Death-Valley-dry and the soil above it is oxidised to zero-carbon grit, then nothing is left, not even any “bull” or “shit”. And it will be business plans and spreadsheets which foam the runway to starvation all the way down.

    2. Henry

      I understand the caution from an economic view point, but careful how you frame this. If you are only looking at how many paper promises/IOUs you can generate I think you are framing the problem too narrowly. If you are looking at current and future benefits to the worlds ecosystems on which we depend, In my opinion there is already more than sufficient evidence on the side of agroecology. That isn’t to say we should give up on biotech. It is just that as you indicate, we don’t really understand well enough how the local ecosystems work. So should we really be doing more than gently steering them toward producing more of what we want? I’m a bit biased, but to me it is kind of like saying since the super smart arrogant teenager drove the car to town and back to get groceries much more rapidly then walking with only a few casualties on the way now lets give them the keys to the semi and while were at it a tool set so they can modify the truck to see if they can make it run even faster. What could go wrong?

    3. Jeffersonian

      In the US we have a movement called Regenerative Agriculture that is essentially what this article is about. Not only do we have plenty of farmers providing cost/profit numbers for their operation to the public, we have USDA experimental farms doing it to. If the cost/profit isn’t clear, it’s because we haven’t looked very hard.

  3. Peter Moritz

    Haven’t read the article, but as an agrologist by trade it is rather simple : Traditional methods keep the soil healthy in in a state called “Gare” (in German), needing little fertilizer but integrated animal production for manure to keep soil structure and nutritional value for plants intact. It also includes the planning of crop rotation as a means to keep the nutrient levels and the soil structure up.

    Industrial farming, both the animal AND the crop production type is destructive to soil.
    That is the essence of the differnce.

  4. Lee

    The proponents of high input, environmentally unsustainable agriculture claim that agroecology won’t be able to feed as many people, like that’s a bad thing. Not that I want anybody to starve but people need to cool their enthusiasm for reproduction. At this point in history, the Boserupians are speeding toward a Malthusian wall.

  5. KFritz

    Food insecurity in the southern quarter of Africa has been seriously exacerbated by the collapse of maize/corn production in Zimbabwe, a combined effort of intransigent, racist white farmers, and the chaotic, crony-oriented land redistribution of the Mugabe regime. Mugabe were unconditionally supported by the regimes of Mozambique, Namibia, and especially South Africa, even as economic refugees from Zimbabwe flooded its townships. A crony network of first-generation post-colonial pols. A classic case of politically-caused food insecurity.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      What exactly did the intransigent racist white farmers do to collapse the production of corn on their farms in Zimbabwe? Are there any undisputed figures showing and detailing the collapse of corn production while the land was firmly in intransigent racist white farmer hands?

  6. drumlin woodchuckles

    The named discipline of agroecology is at least a few decades old. Off the top of my amateur layman’s head I can remember a few names of people involved in the field at an academic ( and sometimes a practical consulting) level.

    Stephen Gliessman:

    Miguel Altieri:

    John Vandermeer ( though he is more ” ecology and evolutionary biology”) is quite involved in research and doing good in Central America . . .

  7. drumlin woodchuckles

    And for those who wish to find interesting sites on the subject through the process of Image URL wormhole roulette . . . . here is a whole bunch of neat images about agroecology with their URLs. Some of those URLs lead to strange and wonderful sites and blogs which no Search Prevention Engine would ever directly reveal.;_ylt=A0geK.cp8DRdZsMAj2FXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTByMjB0aG5zBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzYw–?p=agroecology&fr=sfp

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