A multitude of approaches are aiming to implement agroecological agriculture in order to tackle the ecological crisis affecting agriculture and the negative and limited impacts of the “green revolution”. Agroecology meets the future challenges of humankind (food security, development of Southern countries, employment, ecological transition of production and consumption patterns). But its widespread implementation requires appropriate support and public policies.
Agroecology and the main challenges of humankind
Agricultural practices influence both short-term production and the development of the cultivated ecosystem (soil fertility, biodiversity, microclimate). Since agriculture began, there have been successive developments in its methods and techniques, with the aim of improving its productive potential. Today, the sector is suffering from a major ecological crisis, which seriously undermines it. Old fertility management systems (forest agriculture, for example) have disappeared as a result of demographic pressure and have not been replaced.
Furthermore, the “green revolution” has a whole host of negative impacts: soil fertility degradation, loss of agricultural land, loss of biodiversity, depletion of non-renewable resources, landscape degradation, contribution to climate change… In fragile environments, where the climate is unstable, the “green revolution” has yielded few results and farmers are often against it. In addition, after having led to a sharp increase in yields, it would appear to be reaching its limits.
Agroecology can contribute to food security by increasing overall agricultural yields and reducing their variability from one year to another.
This is particularly the case when it responds to the crisis of ecosystem fertility. Situations are more contrasted when it replaces systems that come from the “green revolution”.
Agroecology improves nutritional and food quality as a result of the diversification in production. It offers the benefit of reducing production costs (external inputs), creates employment and increases incomes for women and empowers them. At the territorial level, there are indirect impacts on incomes and employment (industries created, local trade boosted, etc.).
As agroecology greatly limits chemical inputs, it helps reduce risks for the environment and the health of populations. The use of non-renewable resources is reduced: agricultural water, energy, phosphorus and potassium. Its methods are favorable to biodiversity and ensure soil fertility. This makes it possible to recover land that has become unproductive, improve resistance to climate incidents (diversity of activities, soil protection practices) and participate in the fight against climate change.
What conditions for the development of agroecology?
Agroecological transition requires giving priority support to family farming. Indeed, it accounts for the vast majority of farmers worldwide and generates some 70% of production. Furthermore, agroecology is largely based on knowledge and know-how built up over the centuries by family farming. The latter will owe its survival to the improvement in the ecosystem, on which its own long-term social reproduction depends. It is, however, essential for the socioeconomic conditions of production to be favorable for this.
It is important for agricultural policies to create an environment that is conducive to family farming. It should be noted that while the latter succeeds in reconciling short and long-term objectives (including the reproduction of the ecosystem) in periods of relative prosperity, in crisis situations it gives priority to the short term or even to its immediate survival. Agroecological transition thus becomes unrealistic, especially because it implies significant initial investments (including in terms of work) and represents a risk for farmers. Consequently, the State must specifically promote these investments during the transition period (grants, specific loans). It is essential to secure access to land, as it is difficult to implement investments in the ecosystem if families are not sure to benefit from the results.
Agroecology also requires specific knowledge and know-how that often already exist at local level. Agronomic research should be based more on agroecological solutions, in coordination with farmers’ experiments and experience sharing between farmers, without forgetting producers’ organizations. Agricultural education does not yet focus sufficiently on the functioning of cultivated ecosystems and farmers’ economic rationales, and fails to harness farmers’ knowledge and know-how.
The State and local authorities would be well advised to set about promoting agroecological products by creating industries, supporting participatory guarantee systems, public procurement, promoting farmers’ markets, etc.
Agroecology is based on preserving and developing a wide genetic diversity, hence the need to recognize the possibility for farmers of reusing, trading and selling seed and protecting agriculture from GMO contamination.
It is not therefore merely a question of “greening up” some components of the agricultural policy, but of reorienting it while ensuring that all the decisions taken are consistent, including in other areas of activity. International cooperation has a role to play: supporting national policies, developing research program methods, promoting the sharing of practices and experience (towards a global skills platform?), supporting resistance against the interests of lobbies.
Agroecology is not a dogmatic or simplistic approach. Agroecological transition takes account of all possible scope for progress in order to gradually replace ill-suited conventional techniques. It merits a common goal between the different actors in order to get back to the basic principles of agriculture – with a minimum of common sense – and build more autonomous agricultural and trading systems in territories that are less risky for our society. It is this farmer-based agroecology that will give added value to the profession and to farmers’ knowledge and know-how. It will recreate social ties based on respect and trust between society and an agriculture that no longer abuses nature.
This article is based on the report by Coordination Sud’s Agriculture and Food Commission (c2a) “Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century with Agroecology: Why and How?” (in French) and the note with the same title (in French).
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.