Six Proposed Policy Principles for Scaling Up Agroecology

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By Olivier De Schutter, Gaëtan Vanloqueren:

"Despite these obstacles, the scaling up of existing agroecological practices is achievable if we can develop a policy framework to move from successful pilot projects to nationwide policies.57 Six key principles could help us do this.

First, we need better targeting. Focusing our efforts on the needs of smallholders may seem obvious, yet only a few existing programs effectively target this group. Today, 50 percent of the hungry live in small-scale farming households, living off less than two hectares of land, and 20 percent are landless.58 This is unacceptable. Nor is it adequate to fixate on productivity improvements in breadbasket regions while ignoring the people who live in more inhospitable environments such as semiarid lands or hills. Trickle-down economics failed the test in Africa and South Asia—the two regions with the highest incidence of hunger. In the 1960s, investing in the Punjab (as the Green Revolution did) did little to improve the situation of farmers in the eroded hills of Karnataka.

Second, the redistribution of public goods must be prioritized in food security policies. Agroecological practices require public goods such as extension services; storage facilities; rural infrastructure (roads, electricity, and information and communication technologies) for access to regional and local markets; credit and insurance against weather-related risks; agricultural research and development; education; and support to farmers’ organizations and cooperatives. The investment can be significantly more sustainable than the provision of private goods, such as fertilizers or pesticides that farmers can only afford so long as they are subsidized. World Bank economists have rightly noted that “underinvestment in agriculture is […] compounded by extensive misinvestment”59 with a bias toward the provision of private goods, sometimes motivated by political considerations.60 A 1985–2001 study of 15 Latin American countries in which government subsidies for private goods were distinguished from expenditures on public goods indicated that, within a fixed national agriculture budget, a reallocation of 10 percent of spending to supplying public goods increases agricultural per capita income by 5 percent, while a 10 percent increase in public spending on agriculture, keeping the spending composition constant, increases per capita agricultural income by only 2 percent.61 In other words, “even without changing overall expenditures, governments can improve the economic performance of their agricultural sectors by devoting a greater share of those expenditures to social services and public goods instead of non-social subsidies.”62 Thus, while the provision or subsidization of private goods may be necessary to a point, the opportunity costs should be carefully considered. Extension services that can teach farmers—often women—about agroecological practices are particularly vital. In today’s knowledge-based economies, increasing skills and disseminating information are as important as building roads or distributing improved seeds. Agroecological practices are knowledge-intensive and require the development of both ecological literacy and decision-making skills in farm communities.

Market failures affect the provision of these services. There is just too little incentive for the private sector to invest in these domains, and transaction costs are too high for local communities to create these goods themselves. States must step in. Seeds and fertilizers at subsidized prices are not a substitute for these public goods, although they may be competing for the provision of private assets in public budgets. Increasing the share of public goods in the government’s budget would have a significant positive impact on rural per capita income.

Third, if we want the best food security policies, we need a richer understanding of innovation that includes indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge. Simply put, not all innovations come from experts in white coats in laboratories. In large areas of Asia, farmers now join farmer field schools, a group-based learning process that enables farmer-to-farmer instruction. In India, farmers pool their seeds in community seed banks, which are administered through institutional arrangements to ensure the availability of planting material and the preservation and improvement of agrobiodiversity. And in Ghana, scientists launched radio broadcasts in local languages to popularize the best techniques to grow rice without additional inputs, rather than breeding new rice varieties. These techniques were identified through consultations with peasant groups, and they resulted in an average yield increase of 56 percent.63 Farmer field schools and community seed banks are not new technologies: they are social or institutional innovations. Such innovations are important to future food security because they can channel farmers’ experiences into knowledge-sharing processes with a considerable multiplier effect and at minimal cost.

Fourth, programs and policies must involve meaningful participation of smallholders. While some of the largest efforts to reinvest in agriculture shy away from a genuine engagement with representative farmer organizations, participation, if done properly, has several advantages for food security. First, it enables us to benefit from the experience and insights of the farmers. Second, participation can ensure that policies and programs are truly responsive to the needs of vulnerable groups. Third, participation empowers the poor, a vital step toward poverty alleviation because the lack of power exacerbates poverty: marginal communities often receive less support and are less able to advocate for their rights than the groups that are better connected to government. And finally, collaborations between farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders will facilitate innovation and create new knowledge.64

Existing projects demonstrate that participation works. Farmer field schools have been shown to significantly reduce pesticide use: large-scale studies from Indonesia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh recorded 35 to 92 percent reduction in insecticide use for rice.65 At the same time, the schools have contributed to a 4 to 14 percent improvement in cotton yields in China, India, and Pakistan.65 In Syria, Nepal, Nicaragua, and many other countries, participatory plant breeding schemes have been introduced in which researchers work directly with farmers, often combining traditional seeds with modern varieties.66 This practice empowers poor rural women who are key actors in seed management.67 In Latin America, the Campesino a Campesino movement has demonstrated that, when given the chance to generate and share agroecological knowledge among themselves, smallholders are very capable of improving their methods.68 In Cuba, a country that met its own peak oil when cheap oil imports from the USSR stopped, the adoption of agroecological practices was supported by the National Association of Small Farmers: between 2001 and 2009, the number of promotores (technical advisers and coordinators) increased from 114 to 11,935 and a total of 121,000 workshops on agroecological practices were organized.69 Participation, a key principle in the activities of the grassroots organizations and NGOs that currently promote agroecology,68,70 should be an element in all food security policies, from policy design to management of extension services. Experts, technical advisers, and farmers should be encouraged to collaborate in identifying innovative solutions.71

Fifth, states could use public procurement to speed a transition toward sustainable agriculture. In several European countries, schools have already started sourcing food from local producers with sustainability criteria. In June 2009 Brazil decided that 30 percent of the food served in its national school-feeding program should come from family farms.72

Sixth, performance criteria used to monitor agricultural projects must go beyond classical agronomical measures, such as yield, and economic measures, such as productivity per unit of labor. In a world of finite resources and in a time of widespread rural unemployment, productivity per unit of land or water is a vital indicator of success. Overall, measuring efficiency in the new agricultural paradigm of agroecology requires a comprehensive set of indicators that assesses the impacts of agricultural projects or new technologies on incomes, resource efficiency, hunger and malnutrition, empowerment of beneficiaries, ecosystem health, public health, and nutritional adequacy. The assessment of progress should be appropriately disaggregated by population, so that improvements in the status of vulnerable populations can be monitored.

Promoting agroecological approaches does not mean that breeding new plant varieties is unimportant. Indeed, it is vital. Already, new varieties with shorter growing cycles enable farmers to continue farming in regions where the crop season has already shrunk and where classical varieties did not have time to mature before the arrival of the dry season. Breeding can also improve the level of drought resistance in plant varieties, an asset for countries where lack of water is a limiting factor. Reinvesting in agricultural research must involve continued efforts in breeding, though caution is needed due to the drawbacks of current seed policies and of intellectual property regimes on seeds.73 Just as breeding should not be discontinued, but rather done with the participation of the farmers most in need, fertilizers should not be forbidden. Agroecology provides the larger framework for their use, and it emphasizes that fertilization can be pursued through natural means, such as nitrogen-fixing trees." (


  • Article: The New Green Revolution: How Twenty-First-Century Science Can Feed the World. By Olivier De Schutter, Gaëtan Vanloqueren. Solutions Journal. Volume 2 | Issue 4 | Aug 2011