According to the IAASTD Report, agroecological farming is the best hope we have for feeding a growing population on a warming planet with limited resources.

“Business as usual [a.k.a. industrial farming] is not an option,” the report asserts.

These findings were supported in March 2011 by a U.N. Report to the Human Rights Council on agroecology and the right to food. Based on an extensive review of the recent scientific literature, that study calls for a fundamental shift towards agroecology as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest.

“To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available,” wrote Olivier De Schutter, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavorable environments.”

Agroecology is defined as the science of sustainable agriculture. It includes the study of ecological processes in farming systems (relationships between species, nutrient and water cycling, pollination, etc.), as well as the examination of the role of and impacts on farmers, who are recognized to be an integral part of the agroecosystem. Agroecology recognizes the value of formal scientific research. It also relies on traditional farming practices and indigenous knowledge.

Agroecology is also the practice of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. As such, it precludes the use of fossil fuels and chemical inputs, large-scale monocropping, or any practice that risks causing short- or long-term damage to the land and the ecosystems that this land supports. Agroecology supports small-scale, diversified and regenerative agricultural ecosystems.

It also supports the multifunctional dimensions of agriculture: food and fiber production, food security, health benefits, job security, social and economic justice, culture, community resilience. And it includes important ecosystem services such as erosion control, pollinator protection, biodiversity conservation, water and nutrient cycling (nothing wasted, everything transformed), air and water quality.

As the IAASTD Report and other research publications have indicated time and time again, productivity per unit of land and per unit of energy use is much higher in small and diversified farms than it is in large intensive farming systems.

Yet, converting farmland to agroecological farming raises a significant set of challenges, as underlined in the IAASTD Report. First and foremost are the increased specialization of commodity production (through land acquisition and aggregation; machinery, agrochemicals and biotechnology; subsidies; price systems; border tariffs), as well as the lack of research in geographical, social, ecological and anthropological sciences as applied to diverse agricultural ecosystems.

It is the responsibility of governments to support the development of small-scale, diversified farms within their specific ecosystem, and to help them thrive by enabling realistic market opportunities for them.

Want to learn more about agroecology?

Check out this excellent article by the Pesticide Action Network.

Find reference material in these publications:

Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture (Berkeley, CA: Division of Biological Control, University of California, Berkeley, 1983).

Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995).

Stephen R. Gliessman, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2007).

John H. Vandermeer, The Ecology of Agroecosystems (Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2011).