Five Principles of the New Agro-Ecological Paradigm

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Olivier De Schutter and Gaëtan Vanloqueren:

"A few decades ago, agronomists were faced with a sharp increase in pest outbreaks in modern monocultures, while ecologists were starting to model the complex interactions between insects and plants. At the same time, scientists were observing the effectiveness of traditional farming systems. The two scientific disciplines of agronomy and ecology converged, shaping the field of agroecology.

Agroecology is the application of ecological science to the study, design, and management of sustainable agriculture. It seeks to mimic natural ecological processes, and it emphasizes the importance of improving the entire agricultural system, not just the plant.

The pioneers of agroecology proposed that agroecological systems be based on five ecological principles:

(1) recycling biomass and balancing nutrient flow and availability;

(2) securing favorable soil conditions for plant growth through enhanced organic matter;

(3) minimizing losses of solar radiation, water, and nutrients by way of microclimate management, water harvesting, and soil cover;

(4) enhancing biological and genetic diversification on cropland; and

(5) enhancing beneficial biological interactions and minimizing the use of pesticides. Now, agroecologists are looking to integrate food systems, as well as agricultural systems, into the scope of agroecology.

A growing number of scientists work and publish on this field, and, recently, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a four-year study involving 400 experts from all regions as well as international organizations such as the World Bank, the FAO, and UNEP, called for a fundamental paradigm shift in agricultural development and strongly advocated the increase of agroecological science and practice. Agroecology is also at the core of the latest reports published by the FAO and UNEP. Meanwhile, the farmers united through La Via Campesina, the largest transnational peasant movement, have rapidly integrated agroecological principles in recent years.

Today, agroecology has concrete applications on all continents. Its results speak for themselves. The widest study ever conducted on these approaches, led by Jules Pretty of the University of Essex, identified 286 recent interventions of resource-conserving technologies in 57 developing countries covering a total area of 37 million hectares in 2006. The average crop yield increase was 79 percent, and a full quarter of projects reported relative yields greater than 2.0 (i.e., 100 percent increase). Malawi, which ramped up its fertilizer subsidy program in 2002 following the dramatic drought-induced food crisis the year before, is now also implementing agroforestry systems using nitrogen-fixing trees. (Agroforestry involves planting trees with crops to more efficiently use land, nutrients, and water.) By mid-2009, over 120,000 Malawian farmers had received training and tree materials from the program, and support from Ireland has enabled extension of the program to 40 percent of Malawi’s districts, benefiting 1.3 million of its poorest people. Research shows that the program has increased yields from one ton per hectare to two to three tons per hectare, even if farmers cannot afford commercial nitrogen fertilizers. With an application of a quarter-dose of mineral fertilizer, maize yields may surpass four tons per hectare.

The Malawi example shows that while investment in organic fertilizing techniques should be a priority, it should not exclude the use of other fertilizers. An optimal solution could be a “subsidy to sustainability” approach: an exit strategy from fertilizer subsidy schemes that would link fertilizer subsidies directly to agroforestry investments on the farm in order to provide for long-term sustainability in nutrient supply, and to build soil health for sustained yields and improved efficiency in fertilizer use. In Tanzania, 350,000 hectares of land have been rehabilitated in the Western provinces of Shinyanga and Tabora using agroforestry. In Zambia, agroforestry practices outperform fertilizers in rural areas where road infrastructure is poor and transport costs for fertilizer are high (which is the case in much of the African continent). The benefit to cost ratio for agroforestry practices ranges between 2.77 to 3.13 in contrast to 2.65 with subsidized fertilizer applications, 1.77 in fields with nonsubsidized fertilizer, and 2.01 in nonfertilized fields. Dennis Garrity, the director of the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, estimates that a global implementation of agroforestry methods could result in 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere—about a third of the world’s total carbon reduction target.26 Such agricultural developments are examples of what many experts and scientists are calling the “evergreen revolution.” Among them is M.S. Swaminathan, the architect of the first Green Revolution in India, who now advocates organic farming." (

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