History of Agroecology

In this book, we focus on the notion of agroecology as a substantial departure from the solutions to today’s crises being proposed by mainstream actors. These solutions include technology- and corporate-led societal transformation based on large-scale interventions (e.g. geoengineering to cool the planet), new technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence and robotics) and market-led solutions to drive sustainability transitions (World Economic Forum 2018). At the same time, there is growing support for civil-society led processes of self-organization like agroecology (IPES-Food 2016; Nyeleni 2015). These bottom-up transformations are already happening around the world, marking a challenge to the power of actors empowered within the dominant global food system. In this section, we will take a closer look at the evolution of the idea and practice of agroecology.

Within science, agroecology has been seen as an important regenerative form of agriculture and food systems for almost a century, with practices aimed at mimicking or harnessing complex ecological processes (Box 2.1). Miguel Altieri’s (2018) definition of agroecology as the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems has been a key reference point. In the late 1990s, the framing of agroecology within English-language academic writing was broadened, moving beyond the farm to include food production, distribution, consumption and waste management. This led to a new and more comprehensive definition of the study of agroecology as “the ecology of food systems” (Francis et al. 2003).

Box 2.1 The Production Principles of Agroecology

Fig. 2.1
figure 1

Indigenous Lepcha farmers in Sikkim saving traditional seeds adapted to place and deeply tied to cultural practices (Photo credit: David Meek)

According to Altieri (2018), agroecology can be understood as the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. The following agroecological production principles (drawn from a variety of sources) can work in synergy and provide the basis for the design of sustainable farming systems:

  • Adapting to the local environment

  • Building healthy soils rich in organic matter

  • Conserving soil and water

  • Diversifying species, crop varieties and livestock breeds in the agroecosystem over time and space from a landscape perspective

  • Enhancing biological interactions and productivity throughout the system rather than focusing on individual species and single genetic varieties

  • Minimizing the use of external resources and inputs (e.g. for nutrients and pest management)

Popular agroecological practices around the world in which these principles are applied include intercropping, agroforestry, no tillage and mulching. In different contexts, specific practices have been developed, such as the ‘push and pull’ (an approach that uses ‘push’ plants to repel and trap plants to ‘pull’s damaging insects) technique for natural pest control used on sorghum and corn in Ethiopia, the ancient Mexican practice of milpa (growing squash, corn and beans together), the system of rice intensification much used in Asia and the Sahelian practices of farmer-managed natural regeneration of tree shrubs and zaï holes—digging pits that retain water and nutrients. However, it is now widely recognized that agroecology entails more than such technical aspects and also has strong socio-political dimensions.

While this early scientific work on agroecology was fundamental to articulating its ecological dimensions, it did not engage with political ones, which have long been advanced by social movements and farmers’ organizations. Importantly, the scientific literature did not adequately acknowledge the deep foundations and precursors of agroecology in traditional and contemporary practices of indigenous peoples and peasant farmers (Hernández Xolocotzi 1977). Nor did it mention political and ecological critiques of the rise of industrialized agriculture by nineteenth-century luminaries such as Peter Kropotkin, Justus von Liebig and Karl Marx (Foster 1999; Kropotkin 2015) or the political, ecological and technical critiques and alternatives by original thinkers including Albert Howard, Eve Balfour, J. I. Rodale and George Washington Carver (Doré and Bellon 2019; White 2018).

Agroecology is sometimes assumed to be an end goal. In actuality, it is—as we have shown—a process of continuous transition based on core principles (Altieri 2018; HLPE 2019), values and politics (Nyeleni 2015) or specific cultural, ecological or social elements (FAO 2018). Such organizing principles have been depicted in lists and infographics and vary in orientation, politics and presentation (see the Agroecology Compass—www.agroecologycompass.net—which aggregates many of these). Like the proliferating definitions of agroecology, only some of these models reflect a deeply transformative perspective.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sees agroecology as having ten primary ‘elements’, from diversity and resilience to human and social values, and focuses on interdependencies between them (Fig. 2.2) (FAO 2018). This breakdown is impressively nuanced in social and political terms, for a mainstream institution, reflecting the UN agency’s engagement with civil society in different regions. However, its elements do not centre the political in the same way that authors in NGOs or social movements have—an inevitable result of constraining political processes within FAO itself (e.g. how the organization has historically favoured green revolution-style processes over agroecology; see McKeon 2014).

Fig. 2.2
figure 2

FAO’s ten elements of agroecology (Source: FAO 2018, The 10 Elements of Agroecology. http://www.fao.org/3/i9037en/i9037en.pdf. Reproduced with permission)

Moreover, while FAO has incorporated important interconnected issues such as agency and governance in its overall model, those with other agendas might choose elements from it selectively. A few might be ‘cherrypicked’, for instance, to superficially evaluate an initiative that reduces industrial-chemical usage but does nothing to improve the overall resiliency and integration of the farming system or pays no attention to issues of knowledge, control and power that are critical for agroecology. If agroecology is not based on a shift in power away from elite actors and towards the agency of food producers and strengthening of democracy, it can easily devolve into a technical fix with little potential for wider transformation.

Perhaps the most politically oriented and transformative set of principles that we have encountered are the principles embedded in the Declaration of the International Forum on Agroecology (Nyeleni 2015). These emerged when a number of social movements—including, for instance, La Via Campesina and the World Forum of Fisher People—from all regions of the world came together to articulate an understanding of agroecology based on the principles of food sovereignty and rooted in the voices and priorities of marginalized food producers.

Indeed, many social movements, scientists and governments closely link agroecology to the idea of food sovereignty. They base agroecology in the affirmation of the right to food, the rights of peasants and their cultures, and the fundamental role of food producers and citizens as agents in food practice and policy (Nyeleni 2015; De Schutter 2011). Thus, agroecology is increasingly seen as a practice, a science or a movement (Wezel et al. 2009), or all of these at once (Rivera Ferre 2018).

UN’s latest High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) report, Agroecological and Other Innovative Approaches (HLPE 2019), for instance, is an important institutional milestone for agroecology, crystalizing the growing acknowledgement that the system is grounded in the social, cultural and political. The HLPE recognized deficiencies in the FAO ten-element model, added others related to resilience and social equity/responsibility, and introduced “agency” and “ecological footprint” as important concepts in the evaluation of sustainable food systems that enhance food security and nutrition.

In its report, the HLPE (2019) defines agroecology as,

approaches that favour the use of natural processes, limit the use of purchased inputs, promote closed cycles with minimal negative externalities and stress the importance of local knowledge and participatory processes that develop knowledge and practice through experience, as well as more conventional scientific methods, and address social inequalities. Agroecological approaches recognize that agrifood systems are coupled social–ecological systems from food production to consumption and involve science, practice and a social movement, as well as their holistic integration, to address [food and nutritional security] (p. 14).

Although overlaps exist, the processes and principles underpinning agroecology differ from those in more technology-oriented approaches to sustainable food production (Anderson et al. 2019; Pimbert 2015; Nyeleni 2015). For instance, climate-smart agriculture, sustainable intensification, some forms of organic agriculture and integrated pest management are all currently in use to frame agricultural transitions, yet generally emphasize technical aspects rather than the political, social and cultural dimensions needed for the transformations needed to address the multitude of crises in food systems today (Pimbert 2015). The collective autonomy and empowerment of food producers lie at the heart of agroecology: that is, local and traditional knowledge, collective action and linkages with consumers and a re-territorialization (see Chap. 11 for ‘territorial governance of agroecology transformations’) and democratization of food systems.

Governance, power and democracy are central to this vision and practice (González de Molina et al. 2019). By governance, we refer to the dynamics of power, relationships, responsibility and accountability. It is the set of political, social, economic and administrative systems, rules and processes that determine the way decisions are taken and implemented by actors from individuals to institutions and through which decision-makers are held accountable.

With the evolution of the growing number of reports, models, principles and initiatives, agroecology has reports, models and movements, agroecology has grown from a relatively obscure notion to an approach increasingly favoured by policy-makers, intergovernmental organizations, global social movements and the research community. The growing realization of the potential of agroecology has sparked the development of new research centres and a growing number of large-scale research projects, special issues in journals, papers and books. Online case studies, policy analyses, videos and other resources for agroecologists are proliferating. Meanwhile, social movements such as the international farmers’ organization Via Campesina have helped to advance a political agroecology. Between 2014 and 2018, FAO organized an intensive global dialogue on agroecology that brought together more than 1400 participants from 170 countries for six regional symposia, taking the debate to a new level and creating many more allies, in governments and elsewhere.

But not all have welcomed agroecology’s new prominence or its inclusion in high-stakes governance processes. Proponents of industrial and corporate agriculture view the system with distrust, seeing either a target for co-optation (i.e. depoliticization and watering down) or a threat that must be neutralized (as in recent attacks by the US government on the uptake of agroecology within FAO—see Chap. 10 for ‘suppressing agroecology’). These dynamics—of the emergence of agroecology as an alternative paradigm and the relationship with the dominant regime reaction of the dominant regime—are the focus of this book.

Before turning to our theoretical framework and our focus on agroecology transformations, we provide a brief overview of the evidence on the multiple benefits of an agroecological approach.

Multifunctional Benefits of Agroecology

Agroecology offers many benefits, from improving yield and profitability to enhancing biodiversity, addressing climate mitigation and providing nutrition. Although it is beyond the scope of this book to fully review the evidence on the multifunctional benefits of agroecology, we provide a short overview and some key studies. As a system that minimizes expensive external inputs and maximizes farm- and community-generated inputs, it is also a boon for the rural poor. A growing body of research indicates that—when appropriately supported and in the right economic conditions—it can outperform conventional systems of agricultural production in many contexts (Pretty et al. 2003; Ponisio et al. 2015).

In a recent meta-analysis, Raffaele d’Annolfo et al. (2017) found that yields increased in 61% of the cases analysed and decreased in 20% while farm profitability increased in 66% of the cases (Betancourt 2020). In another meta-analysis of 118 studies, Ponisio et al. (2015) found that the diversification practices used in agroecological practices can reduce or eliminate any yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture.

Such findings are not limited to the global south. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg et al. (2019) found that in European countries—including the Netherlands, Portugal and Poland—agroecology not only allows for higher yields than conventional systems but also creates employment and considerably improves farmers’ incomes as well as the total income generated by the agricultural sector at regional and national levels.

Yet, the idea that alternative agriculture can ‘feed the world’ is hotly debated. Can it match the yields of industrial agriculture? And might lower yields ultimately lead to further expansion of agriculture and environmental destruction (Kremen 2015)? There is little evidence that high-input industrial systems greatly outperform agroecological practices (Ponisio and Ehrlich 2016). Yet, this narrative—that only high-input farming can feed the world—is often promulgated by proponents of industrial agriculture (see ‘feed the world’ frame in Chap. 9). Without rehashing the ongoing debate in its entirety, several additional, relevant points can be made.

Research into small- and medium-scale farms, for instance, shows that globally small farmers tend to use less highly intensified practices, yet produce 30–53% of the world’s calories and a majority of the world’s micronutrients on 24–53% of gross agricultural land (Ricciardi et al. 2018; Graeub et al. 2016).

A second point is that the connections between yield, agricultural expansion and environmental destruction are complicated and contingent. This makes it difficult to unpick a direct link between yield and impact on the environment. Finally, it is incontrovertible that the agricultural system we currently have is not ‘feeding the world’, despite generating much more food than is necessary while also creating many social and ecological ills (or ‘externalities’) such as environmental degradation and poor nutrition. The incessant drive to increase yields does not decrease hunger, on the whole. It lies more with political shifts in entitlement and rights that determine if and how people are able to nourish themselves.

It is worth noting that when agroecology is evaluated for its multifunctional ecological and social benefits, beyond mere productivity, it often outperforms high-input systems. In fact, a key limitation in this area may not be agroecology’s performance but (a) a hostile context within which agroecology is situated (see disabling factors in each of the six domains of transformation) and (b) a lack of high-quality evidence allowing proper assessment and comparison of agricultural systems, particularly from a multifunctional point of view (Ricciardi et al. 2018).

Improving Biodiversity

Multitudes of farmers, pastoralists, fishers, forest dwellers and indigenous peoples in both the global north and south are agroecologists. All use, sustain and improve biodiversity—genetic to ecological—at scales from farm plots to entire landscapes or territories (FAO 2019; Pimbert and Borrini-Feyerabend 2019).

In agroecological practice, biodiversity is effectively harnessed to improve production, for instance through the use of heterogeneous seeds (e.g. landraces) and breeds, methods such as intercropping, mixed farming, agroforesty and agro-silvo-pastoral systems. These practices, in turn, actively improve biological diversity in a number of ways: conserving it through sustainable use, enhancing the multiple benefits of biodiversity (both wild and cultivated) through their choice of genetic material, design of cropping patterns, development of crop and livestock production systems, and land and water management practices. Biodiversity can also be adaptively managed by groups and networks beyond the farm level at a community, regional or territorial level (Pimbert and Borrini-Feyerabend 2019).

Local knowledge about the properties and dynamic roles of biodiversity in agroecological practices is crucial. The recent UN report The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture (FAO 2019) strongly emphasizes the immense contribution of knowledge, skills, innovations and practices of food providers, particularly small farmers, to the conservation, development and sustainable use of wild and cultivated biodiversity and related ecosystem functions.

Addressing the Climate Crisis

Agroecological practices constitute a prime example of nature-based solutions for addressing the climate crisis (IPCC 2019), through both mitigation and adaptation. Compared to on-farm emissions and overall greenhouse gas-driven impacts of industrial agriculture Lin et al. (2011) identify three ways in which agroecology can reduce greenhouse gas contributions of agriculture and food systems:

  1. (a)

    A decrease in the materials used and amounts of greenhouse gases absorbed or emitted based on agricultural crop management choices (also see: Niggli et al. 2008)

  2. (b)

    A decrease in the fluxes involved in livestock production and pasture management

  3. (c)

    A reduction in the transportation of agricultural inputs, outputs and products through an increased emphasis on local food systems

Meanwhile, practices such as the use of organic and green manures, intercropping and tree-planting on farms or in hedges boost organic matter in the soil and, in turn, carbon-sequestration capacity (Lin et al. 2011).

Agroecological strategies can also help farmers adapt to climate change. Crop diversification, the maintenance of local genetic diversity, crop-animal integration, organic management of soils, water conservation and agroforestry, for example, can lay the foundations for a system resilient to shocks and stresses (Brescia 2017; HLPE 2019; Morris et al. 2016). Over the past two decades, observations of agricultural performance and recovery after hurricanes, droughts and other extreme climate-related events have revealed that farms with greater biodiversity are more resilient (Mijatović et al. 2013). Agroecological farms are more resilient to natural disasters such as hurricanes than conventional farms when they are embedded in a complex landscape matrix, are high in biodiversity, employ cropping systems with organic matter-rich soils and deploy water conservation and water harvesting techniques (Altieri et al. 2015). Agroecology, especially its emphasis on robust and resilient networks of mutual aid, has been found to play an important role in social recovery processes such as peace-building and collective responses to disaster—an important aspect of responding to climate change (McAllister and Wright 2019; McCune et al. 2019).

Contributing to Good Nutrition

Agroecologists contribute to dietary diversity and nutrition security through providing diverse dietary offerings for both subsistence (home consumption) and local food markets (Pimbert and Lemke 2018). Farmers’ agroecological practices create micro-environments on farms and the wider landscape. In this case, different forms of agricultural biodiversity (‘cultivated’, ‘reared’ or ‘wild’) are utilized by different people, in different seasons, and contribute to dietary diversity and resilience.

Indeed, numerous studies have found that diversified farming systems enhance household dietary diversity and nutrition (Jones 2017). For example, Katie Bliss (2017) examined the farming systems of 30 Nicaraguan households. Because of planting a range of crops harvested at different times, more food was available throughout the year. Ana Deaconu et al. (2019) analysed how agroecological farming systems improve nutrition in poor households in Ecuador through providing food for subsistence, through the generation of income and the empowerment of women who are largely responsible for the nutrition and other reproductive dynamics in households and communities. In a survey of 390 households in Mexico, Javier Becerril (2013) found that the body mass index improved in households using the agroecological milpa system (intercropping of maize, beans and squash) compared to households using less diversified farming methods. In northern Malawi, studies have shown that legume intercropping, along with a participatory approach sensitive to cultural values and gender equality, enhanced both food and nutritional security (Nyantakyi-Frimpong et al. 2016).

Strengthening Social Relations

The social impact of agroecology is notable, especially when it is underpinned by collective, community and territorial processes such as the establishment of food policy councils and peasant-to-peasant learning networks/movements or through the construction of cooperative economies of food distribution (such as community-supported agriculture). Coordinated, collective action is a norm in agroecological practice that is driven by local organizations and movements and the social networks they form at different scales (see Chap 7. on the network domain). In turn, the coordination of local efforts at all scales—from farm to watershed to the broader landscape—tends to strengthen durable bonds of trust and cooperation amongst proponents of agroecology. Longstanding evidence shows that robust social relations between farmers and other actors in territories and supporting collective action can improve farmers’ adaptive capacity by providing opportunities for social learning and for developing collective human energies that can be deployed in times of crisis. For example, collectives of agroecological brigades travelled around to repair farms in response to Hurricane Maria (McCune et al. 2019).

Food producers and their organizations can also gain autonomy through the practice of agroecology by exerting their collective power in local, territorial, national and international social movements. Indeed, it is this vital function—of offering political agency and outcomes for farmers—that deeply differentiates agroecology from depoliticized and technocratic approaches such as climate-smart agriculture (Pimbert 2015). We now turn in detail to the political function and dynamics of agroecology as the basis for the urgent transformation to a more just and sustainable food system.

Conceptualizing a Transformative Agroecology: Political Ecology, Political Agroecology and Food Sovereignty

We have emphasized how socio-economic power and good governance are key to agrocology and to transformations towards food and agriculture systems that support, rather than degrade, human and environmental health. That proposition is a premise of political agroecology. Substantial research has made the case that within agricultural systems the socio-political and ecological are inseparable. It has also shown the importance of changing social and political arrangements to foster sustainability in such systems—a baseline in all work within political agroecology.

Political agroecology, in essence, is the application of the methods and concepts of political ecology to agroecology (González de Molina et al. 2019). But how do we define political ecology? Paul Robbins’s (2011) influential account describes key elements of the field as “viewing ecological systems as power-laden rather than politically inert”, “identifying broader systems rather than blaming proximate and local forces” and “taking an explicitly normative approach [in favour of equity and social justice] rather than one that claims the objectivity of disinterest” (p. 13). Accordingly, political agroecology places current agricultural systems in a historical and geographical context to understand the power relations that give rise to their current dynamics. It exposes the power dynamics that prop up agri-food systems that are environmentally destructive, focus predominantly on increasing yields and profits and are implicated in ongoing undernourishment and rural poverty. At the same time, political agroecology emphasizes the important role of social movements in achieving dignified agrarian sustainability and food sovereignty.

Power and Political Inertia

Political agroecology is based on the recognition that the current state of any agroecosystem reflects the power-laden relationships of different social actors in that system, such as between agribusiness and farmers or between people of different genders or ethnicity, over time. Thus, any change to an ecosystem is likely to have unequal impacts on different members of society.

Whether ‘pristine nature’ existed at any point in human history or not, we have long since left that point: every ecosystem on earth has been touched by human activity, whether through direct interaction or through the effects of phenomena such as anthropogenic climate change or the drift of synthetic chemicals. Some ecosystems, of course, are in a less viable and desirable state than others. But who gauges the viability or desirability? This question is inherently about power.

Much of political ecologists’ work has aimed to make this point clear. For instance, Nancy Lee Peluso and Peter Vandergeest (2001), among others, have pointed out how governments and other entities have deployed processes of conservation, ecological characterization and management of protected areas to determine which residents of a given territory ‘belong’ there and which must be removed or barred, for the sake of a given ecosystem. Certain groups, such as indigenous peoples, may be seen as guardians of supposedly pristine ecosystems, or even as part of them; while others may be seen as invaders or opportunists (Durand 2019). Thus, the work of peoples who helped create and maintain habitats (e.g. in the Amazon Rainforest) or place-based agroecosystems can become invisible; such groups may even come to be seen as despoilers (Ghimire and Pimbert 1997).

We do not get to choose the history of an ecosystem or agroecosystem: the peoples and power struggles that have been there continue to affect its characteristics and trajectory. But as the late historian Howard Zinn described history in the title of his 1994 political memoir, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Choosing to take no side amid ongoing power relationships inevitably gives advantage to whichever group is already more socially powerful. Any intervention in an ecosystem will have different impacts on the different groups interacting with it: some will inevitably receive more benefits or fewer harms than others. Thus, understanding power is fundamental to understanding an ecosystem, and all the more pivotal when there is the potential for new interventions: ecological and social impacts are inextricably linked (Robbins 2011).

Within agroecology, the school of thought most closely concerned with these issues has been called “ecological political economy” (Buttel 2003). Frederick Buttel described agroecologists of this ilk as arguing “that radical changes in the political economy of agriculture and the moral economy of research are needed” if the unacceptably high social and environmental costs of industrial agriculture are to be confronted and reduced.

Academically, the roots of political, transformative agroecology can be traced back through at least the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, with the work of ecologist and biomathematician Richard Levins, among others, in outlets such as the magazine Science for the People. Alexander Wezel et al. (2009) also note that the Brazilian agronomist José Lutzenberger meshed scientific analysis of the need for a different agriculture with political analysis and vision. Further back, as mentioned above, were the political economic critiques of industrializing agriculture made by Kropotkin, Liebig, Marx and others in the nineteenth century (Sevilla Guzmán 2011).

The project of political agroecology—critiquing the power dynamics that perpetuate an unsustainable, exploitative agricultural system and working towards systemic transformation—places it among longstanding intertwined traditions of critical theory in academia and social movements. A key, persistent question in political agroecology, then, is how governance, power and control define the choices and agency of farmers and other actors in the food system. Transformation to systems that are more sustainable and just requires an understanding of the dynamics of social change and how and why current systems persist. Thus, we see a world system where food surpluses, wastage and obesity-related chronic diseases occur alongside large-scale hunger and malnutrition; where famines occur even when food is technically available; where industrial models of agriculture persist long after it has become clear even to the mainstream that ‘business as usual is not an option’.

These pervasive results arise from a specific history, with powerful actors in governments and corporations maintaining their interests at grievous cost to the environment and, particularly, small-scale farmers and labourers within the food system across the world. Political agroecology is thus an approach to mobilizing knowledge that “allows agroecology and food sovereignty to be put into practice, exploiting the knowledge accumulated by Political Ecology and the experience of social movements” (González de Molina et al. 2019, p. 3). This focus on power, governance and social movements is the foundation on which we build our analysis of the transition and transformation processes in the remainder of the book.