Overcoming Obstacles to Agroecology

Known as the "science of sustainable agriculture," agroecology is also a practice and a movement. For, Ricardo Salvador, Director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists agroecology is the "agriculture of the future."

As a science, agroecology was originally developed by researchers who made careful ecological observations of traditional farming systems. These observations revealed that 1) traditional farming systems were not static but actually always changing and adjusting, and 2) that farmers around the world had developed highly sophisticated methods of managing and enhancing ecosystem functions in order to sustainably produce food, fiber, medicine and fuel. Some of these systems have been around for millennia.

A half-century of research and practice in the field of agroecology has yielded spectacular results for hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers and many medium-to-large scale farmers around the world. Because it opens possibilities for grassroots food systems transformation, peasant movements for food sovereignty have embraced agroecology, as have many urban and organic farmers in the Global North. But despite its documented benefits, agroecology is still largely limited to localized experiences and a few, poorly funded university programs. The problem is systemic. The solution is social and political.

Agroecology is ecologically and socially antithetical to large-scale industrial agriculture and does not provide high-return opportunities for agribusiness companies. Since our land grant universities now rely primarily on private-sector funding, they carry out very little agroecological research -- agribusiness won't pay for it. What little government funding does exist for agricultural research has largely followed the lead of the private sector. Despite its superior performance under favorable to extreme farming conditions, its endorsement by global assessments and high-level policy analysts and its proven potential for the mitigation, adaptation and remediation of climate change, agroecology is not part of the high-profile private-public partnerships to end hunger promoted by government agricultural development agencies.

There is general dismissal of agroecology in multilateral and national policy circles, an absence of agroecology in mainstream media and a general ignorance among legislators regarding agroecology. Even some otherwise liberal-minded philanthropies have moved away from the term "agroecology" in the hopes of joining the single-minded conversation on the future of our food systems that always boils down to a shopworn call for more free markets and another Green Revolution.

The silence surrounding agroecology is profoundly disturbing. Proposals for "sustainable intensification" or "climate smart" GMOs can only be peddled as answers to the problems of hunger and global warming by studiously avoiding agroecological science and practice. The acceptance of corporate monopolization of the planet's seeds, plantation-scale monocultures (conventional and organic) and the "localization" of corporate agrifoods systems, follows on the lack of an agroecological understanding of food systems.

Decades-long efforts to scale up agroecology are stuck at the project level, unable to substantively integrate into the institutions and regulations that shape our food systems. This has produced small islands of sustainability in a vast sea of destruction. To scale up agroecology -- to systemically connect the islands -- we need to confront the ways in which agroecology is systematically being held back.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently launched a Call for Public Investment in Agroecological Research. The sign-on letter for experts, researchers and academics claims:

"Agroecological research can further our understanding of productive and profitable farming methods that will minimize harmful impacts on human health, the environment, and rural communities. These methods will provide resilience to both anticipated events such as climate change as well as unforeseen developments. Modest public investment can yield enormous returns for farmers and society well into the future."

Leveling the corporate-dominated research field with public funding would go a long way to removing one of the primary obstacles to agroecology.