With organic farming, integrated farming, biodynamic farming, intensive farming, agroecology and so on, one can easily get lost in the jungle of concepts relating to agricultural production – especially “new” forms of farming, which are more connected with the needs of the world population, the state of our environment and the social issues linked with food production. Lately, the word “agroecology” has been making the headlines in France, owing to the parliamentary debates on the bill for the future of agriculture. The French Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll, is in fact aiming to make the country a world leader in agroecology.
What is agroecology?
Firstly, agroecology is an approach that can apply to any type of farming, whether intensive or extensive, organic or integrated. The term is a combination of the words agronomy and ecology and has a rather loose meaning: overall, it refers to an approach that prefers to use the services naturally rendered by ecosystems, rather than replace them with inputs, like chemical fertilisers or pesticides. For instance, farmers can use chickens to clean and aerate the soil or ladybugs to eat aphids; they can give up monoculture and grow crops that mutually reinforce one another, or cover up soils to encourage new life and organic matter using earthworms. As a dedicated website sums it up, agroecology covers a range of principles that include using renewable resources, minimising the use of toxic products, protecting and conserving resources, fostering and managing ecological relationships within the ecosystem, adapting to local environments, empowering people, seeking and maximising long-term benefits, and valuing animal, human and environmental health.
These methods might seem artisanal, but they are in fact effective, and demand considerable knowledge and comprehension of the ecosystem.
They aim to build up and preserve agricultural ecosystems that are sustainable, healthy and viable for the environment, communities and consumers alike.
They require a holistic approach. For people who already use agroecological methods, they have proved efficient in terms of not only environmental preservation, but also yield. In an interview with French ecology magazine Terra Eco, Stéphane Le Foll said, “To those who say we cannot produce enough with agroecology, I say: ‘Come with me and see, in the field, how you can achieve a yield of 80 quintals per hectare for wheat, or 9,000 litres a year for a milch cow, with systems that are ecologically effective.’”
A holistic approach with many benefits
With a holistic approach come many benefits. In a 2011 report, “Agroecology and the Right to Food”, Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, writes that he identifies agroecology “as a mode of agricultural development which not only shows strong conceptual connections with the right to food, but has proven results for fast progress in the concretisation of this human right for many vulnerable groups in various countries and environments. Moreover, agroecology delivers advantages that are complementary to better-known conventional approaches such as breeding high-yielding varieties. And it strongly contributes to the broader economic development.” This is not only true for developing countries: since 2010, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) has made agroecology one of its two main fields of research.
Given such enthusiasm, agroecology could well become the watchword for the future of agriculture, in France and around the world – provided that it is strongly supported by public policies and private initiatives. Olivier De Schutter identifies the main challenge in making agroecology big: scaling up existing experiences through the creation of “an enabling environment for such sustainable modes of production.” This means investing more in agricultural research and knowledge, encouraging partnerships and co-creation between farmers through cooperatives and “farmer field schools”, empowering farmers and more particularly women, connecting farmers with fair trade markets, etc. These are principles that can and must be supported by public decisions, but they can only move up to the large-scale through the determination of private agribusiness companies, which alone have the means and the power to make agroecology the next big thing in agriculture.
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