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Bring diversity back to agriculture. That’s what made it work in the first place.
David R. Brower
1 The need and bases of agroecological engineering
Achieving food security on a global scale, adapting to climate and land use changes, and stopping the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystems are major challenges faced by society today. Several international initiatives for better public policies have been launched to address these challenges. Striking examples are the actions of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the strategic plan for biodiversity 2011–2020, including the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and the International Governmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (Perrings et al. 2011). Agroecosystems include areas under cropping, animal husbandry, aquaculture and forestry. Agroecosystems cover about 40 % of the terrestrial Earth surface. The sustainability of agroecosystems is receiving a special attention from international initiatives, as explained by De Schutter (2010) for FAO, Field et al. (2014) for IPCC, and in the seventh target of Aichi Biodiversity Targets, aimed at managing sustainably agroecosystems by 2020.
Ecological engineering is the design of sustainable systems, consistent with ecological principles, which integrates human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both (Mitsch and Jørgensen 1989). Agroecological engineering is the modification of agricultural systems by applying ecological principles (Vanloqueren and Baret 2009). Agroecological engineering was popular in China in the 1990s (Mitsch et al. 1993). Chinese agroecological engineering aims at developing simultaneously agricultural production and environmental protection (Yan et al. 1993; Zhang et al. 1998). Techniques are based upon the principles of holism, coordination, recycle and regeneration, and use a maximum of space and resources. Management combines both traditional techniques, such as the rice ridge and fish ditch system, and modern technologies such as mechanical or breeding technologies (Yan et al. 1993). A case study of a Chinese county where a plan of agroecological development was established has shown over 7 years 5.5 % increase of grain yield, 37 % reduction of farmland surface runoff, 50 % reduction of soil loss and 144 % increase of per capita income. Soil erosion was controlled by afforestation and protection of dykes and slopes, constructing terraced fields and planting ridge plants (Zhang et al. 1998).
Agroforestry: an example of mutual benefits of cultivating two plant species, oilseed rape and poplar. Copyright: Christian DUPRAZ/INRA.
2 The agroecological engineering virtual issue
The concepts of agroecological engineering are highlighted in a virtual issue gathering 19 reviews published in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development (www.springer.com/journal/13593). The articles are classified into four sections: positioning and societal challenges, conceptual and methodological frameworks, modelling, and management levers.
2.1 Positioning and societal challenges
2.2 Conceptual and methodological frameworks
Rey et al. (2015) analyse the differences between ecological engineering and ecological intensification of agriculture, in terms of primary target ecosystem services—regulation versus provisioning—and the use of different kinds of inputs. The authors note the convergence of the two approaches with the diversification of target ecosystem services and the search for a sustainable support of underlying functions in each case. They propose to integrate approaches in a generic framework, from practice to ecosystem services delivery. Their contribution suggests that a central feature of agroecological engineering could be a convergence between ecological engineering and ecological intensification, directed at managing multiple ecosystem services and reaching acceptable tradeoffs in agricultural areas, where different groups of stakeholders produce or benefit from ecosystem services (Lescourret et al. 2015). Duru et al. (2015b) adopt the strong point of view of a biodiversity-based agriculture to enhance ecosystem services. They analyse the lack of practical application of agroecological principles and point out the key role of adaptive management and of learning tools tailored to the agroecological transition. This is an important route for agroecological engineering. The challenging issue of the agroecological transition is the object of a detailed reflection in this section. Duru et al. (2015a) propose to design the agroecological transition, following a five-step methodology, in a participatory framework, because of the social nature of the changes at stake. This stresses the need to consider together ecological and social issues in agroecological engineering and to use social-ecological frameworks tailored for agroecosystems (Lescourret et al. 2015).
Damos (2015) investigates the potential of web tools to improve the design and efficiency of decision support systems for pest management. He refers to the framework of integrated pest management (IPM) (Dent 1995), a concept born in the 1960s, which he considers as essential for the sustainability of agroecosystems. Even though Deguine et al. (2015) present “agroecological crop protection” as a further step of crop protection, the historical dimension and principles of IPM give IPM a key role in the reflection on agroecological engineering. Damos (2015) stresses the value of models for decision support.
2.4 Management levers
3 The future of agroecological engineering is open
The virtual issue does not claim to offer a complete panorama of agroecological engineering. In particular, the genetics and breeding of crops, service plants and animals were just touched on in the issue (Gaba et al. 2015). However, it is a major challenge for agroecosystem diversification because of the impact of genotypic diversity on system productivity and resilience (Hughes et al. 2008; Tooker and Frank 2012; Altieri et al. 2015). For example, the support of genomics to the agroecological management of animal genetic resources is explained by Tixier-Boichard et al. (2015).
The design of multi-scale and multi-service management systems for an agroecological transition raises key research issues for agroecological engineering (Duru et al. 2015a, b; Gaba et al. 2015). In particular, the key issues are as follows: the combination of local knowledge and lay expertise with scientific knowledge (Dore et al. 2011), the design of new stakeholder organizations at the territory level, and the design of new coordination instruments combining scientific knowledge with perceptions, values and management skills of stakeholders (Lescourret et al. 2015). Overall, these issues illustrate the fact that agroecological engineering is a means to improve communication among research disciplines and between stakeholders and researchers (Hengsdijk and van Ittersum 2003).
The virtual issue Agroecological Engineering has been initiated at a workshop on Ecological and Agroecological Engineering Approaches organised on 19 December 2013 by four French research institutes: INRA, Cirad, Irstea and CNRS in Montpellier, France. We thank Guy Richard (INRA), Jean-Marc Callois (Irstea) and Stéphanie Thiébault (CNRS), heads of divisions in these institutes, for their contribution during the workshop and support for the organisation and publication of this issue. We are grateful to the many participants to the workshop for helpful discussions and to the reviewers who helped in improving the manuscripts.
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