Agroecology can help fix our broken food system. Here’s how.

By Maywa Montenegro

The various incarnations of the sustainable food movement need a science with which to approach a system as complex as food and farming.

This article originally appeared in Ensia, an independent publication of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, showcasing environmental solutions in action.

June 17, 2015 — Editor’s note: This story was co-published with Food Tank, a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters. 


Thumb through U.S. newspapers any day in early 2015, and you could find stories on President Obama’s “fast-track” plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, antibiotic scares and the worsening California drought. Economists reported on steadily rising income inequality, while minimum-wage food workers took to the picket lines. Americans fled their kitchens and Chipotle welcomed them with farm-friendly appeal. Scientists recorded the warmest winter in history.

These seemingly disconnected events have a common thread: They all are symptoms of a political economy out of kilter with the welfare of the planet and the people who live on it. They are also nestled deep in the way food is grown, distributed and consumed today. What we sometimes call the “agri-food system” is clearly broken — just ask farmworkers and food workers (exploited and underpaid), honeybees (collapsing), forested landscapes (fragmenting), the climate (warming), and the ever-growing number of people without access to nutritious food, or the land and resources with which to produce it. 

“Sustainable food” attempts to heal this fragile system, and it’s been a buzzword for three decades. Its mushrooming incarnations — local, organic, biodynamic, fair trade and “slow,” among others — suggest a broad yearning for something better. But modern capitalism is wondrously efficient at disciplining outliers. It hasn’t taken much for the dynamics of competition and price to sweep countercultural ideas into the industrial mainstream, forcing enterprises in many – not all – sustainable food niches to expand in size, adopt monoculture techniques and replicate the basic model of industrial overproduction. 

What some have described as “input-substitution organic,” for example, swaps out chemical inputs for biological ones. These farms are therefore marginally better in terms of pollution but have barely budged the needle on monoculture cropping, not to mention labor issues. In any of these alternatives, price is prohibitive: Most low- to middle-income earners — and this includes most workers in the food system — cannot afford to buy the fruits of this so-called food revolution. 

There is an approach that embraces complexity and change. It involves developing the capacity to listen, to grow new connections, and to build solidarity among animals, plants and people.

In short, there’s a systems problem with the many incarnations of “sustainable food.” Good intentions notwithstanding, most alternatives leave untouched the underlying structures and forces of the agri-food system. They don’t ask how farmers can listen to their land, scientists can listen to farmers, eaters can listen to restaurant workers and the government can listen to people’s needs. Sustainable food, it turns out, lacks a science with which to deal with a system as complex as farming and food. 

But there is an approach that embraces complexity and change. It involves developing the capacity to listen, to grow new connections, and to build solidarity among animals, plants and people. It’s called agroecology.

As the name suggests, agroecology is based in ecology, a science grounded in the interactions among organisms and their environments. Agroecology has roots that go back to the 1930s, but only recently has it come into its own as a science, practice and social movement. Steve Gliessman, a modern pioneer in the field, defines the term in a nutshell: “Agroecology applies the principles of ecology to the design and management of sustainable food systems.” What that means in practice is that farmers and researchers work together to develop farming practices that enhance soil fertility, recycle nutrients, optimize the use of energy and water, and, perhaps most importantly, increase the beneficial interactions of organisms with and within their ecosystems.

A key ingredient in agroecology is agricultural biodiversity — aka agrobiodiversity — says Miguel Altieri, another leader in the field. Farms include “planned biodiversity” (the crops and livestock farmers intentionally introduce) and “associated biodiversity” (the various flora and fauna that colonize the area as a result of farming practices and landscape), says Altieri. What’s important, he says, is identifying the type of biodiversity interactions that will carry out ecosystem services (pollination and pest control, for example, or climate regulation) and then determining which farming practices will encourage such interactions — in other words, working with biodiversity to provide the farming system with ecological resilience and reduce dependence on costly, often harmful, conventional inputs.

Knowledge of how to establish agroecological systems has grown increasingly sophisticated over time. Gliessman’s first edition of his textbook Agroecology reflected 1990s thinking, where transitions moved from increasing the efficiency of conventional production, to substituting industrial inputs with bio-based alternatives to, finally, redesigning the entire farm to mimic nature. People, however, were largely absent from the “agroecosystem.” But economic, social and cultural factors slowly crept into the conversation, and by 2006 the second edition featured on its cover images of a woman Costa Rican coffee grower proudly displaying a handful of beans, a farmers market and a cow. The salient idea was connecting consumers and producers through alternative distribution networks instead of conventional supply chains — linking growers to eaters, the urban to the rural.

By 2014, agroecology had become as much a political endeavor as an ambition for farming. The third edition, published that year, showcased the interplay of science, practice and social movements. It’s a framework, says Gliessman, that has evolved because we need food systems that “once again empower people, create economic opportunity and fairness, and contribute to restoring and protecting the planet’s life-support systems.”

Cross-pollinating Diverse Knowledge

If you’re reading this in the U.S., you may be asking yourself, “If agroecology is so great, why don’t more people do it? Why have I never heard of it?”

Though not yet widely used in the U.S., agroecology is more recognized and established in countries such as Mexico and Brazil, stemming from their response to Green Revolution interventions when packages of standardized seeds, fertilizers and chemicals were introduced across much of the developing world. As much scholarship has since concluded, the Green Revolution contributed to temporary yield increases in some regions, yet its resulting monocultures also led to widespread loss of traditional seed varieties, environmental pollution, increased dependence on fossil fuels and human exposure to harmful chemicals. In addition, this technological revolution was not scale neutral: wealthy, large-scale farmers could more easily afford the irrigation systems, tractors, plows and large tracts of land required to make “magic seeds” work than could poorer, smaller-scale farmers. From the 1940s through the 1980s, many smallholders lost their farms under combined forces of debt, land concentration and deteriorating health, swelling the ranks of the rural and urban underemployed.

Latin America has led the agroecological revolution in recent years, with the governments of Brazil and Ecuador creating the first national policies in support of agroecology, a farmer-to-farmer agroecological tour de force underway in Cuba, and the emergence of SOCLA, a lively network of agroecology scientists (including this TEDx storyteller). Indeed, many nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America most affected by the turbulences of the Green Revolution are anticipating the rollout of a “New Green Revolution” today by recognizing agroecology as key to both rural and urban food security. Simultaneously, the largest international coalition of peasant farmers, La Via Campesina, representing some 300 million small-scale farmers, has formally recognized and adopted agroecology as its preferred paradigm for rural development. Urban farmers and eaters are increasingly a part of this global movement.

Unlike some other food movements, agroecology is not confined to an academic or social elite. To the contrary, agroecological knowledge began with indigenous and smallholder practices from which researchers learned to abstract unifying principles. Systems such as “three sisters” (corn, beans, squash) agriculture from Mexico and integrated rice-fish-duck culture from China have taught researchers volumes about complex interactions of life, water, energy, minerals and soil. Seed savers (usually women) and community seed networks have opened a world for researchers to survey the flow of genetic materials, the way in which crops change over time and space, and the co-evolution of people and agriculture.

In other words, agroecology creates a space for cross-pollinating knowledge from diverse participants: scientists, farmers, policy-makers — even the insects, wild plants, animals and microbes whose significance is still vastly underplayed.

But Can Agroecology Feed the World?

From Stockholm to India to Washington, D.C., to Milan, “feeding the world” is increasingly on the lips of policy-makers, NGOs, philanthropists and researchers in disciplines from agriculture to public health. But agroecologists suggest we might be asking the wrong question.

The Green Revolution taught us that yields can increase — sometimes by 200 to 300 percent — and yet malnutrition and hunger persist. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that roughly 2,800 kilocalories of food are produced per day for each person on the planet, yet at least 800 million people remain undernourished and at least 2 billion suffer micronutrient deficiencies. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen long ago recognized, poverty and inadequate distribution of healthy food — not lack of aggregate production — shape the contours of food insecurity. Meanwhile, racial, gender and ethnic discrimination are also deeply entwined with access to nutritious, sustainably produced food. Agroecology counters the “feed the world” framing by arguing that farmers can be empowered to feed themselves — and can reach all eaters more equitably through revitalizing rural economies and prioritizing local food security before engaging in global trade.

This doesn’t mean, however, that plenty of food won’t come from agroecological farms. Research out of Iowa shows that agroecological systems can exceed yields from U.S. industrial grain production and provide equal or higher profits to farmers. And UC Berkeley scientists reported that biodiversity-based agriculture can be highly productive and concluded that, when it comes to organic farms, the more agroecological they were, the more plentiful their harvests.

Other provocative evidence of yield and income benefits has recently emerged from NGO research in Africa. In Malawi, an estimated 200,000 farm families have begun embracing agroforestry, an agroecological technique that integrates trees in farms and landscapes to play multiple roles: fertilizing the soil, providing fruit for nutrition, giving fodder for livestock, and offering timber and fuel wood for shelter and energy. Curious to learn how agroforestry farmers were faring compared with their conventional-based counterparts, researchers studied several communities of maize growers.

Average profitability of maize, they discovered, was US$259 per acre (0.4 ha) for agroforestry farmers versus US$166 for conventional farmers — a significant difference in Malawi, where the average annual income is only about US$270. The revenue boost resulted from a combination of lower spending on inputs — less than one-third of what conventional farmers spent on chemicals — and increased maize yields: 2,507 pounds (1,137 kg) per acre versus only 1,825 pounds (828 kg) per acre for conventional farmers. Malawi’s government has become famous for its large-scale subsidy of chemical fertilizers (a massive 43 percent of the agricultural budget in 2013–14); these results suggest that state funding could be better invested in forested farming.

The same is true for the U.S., where a recent study revealed tremendous research and development gaps between agroecology and conventional agriculture. Over the past 100 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent less than 2 percent of its research budget on bio-diverse methods, creating not only a legacy of fewer scientists interested in pursuing such work (a knowledge gap), but also a measurable difference in the farm fields. Given the chronic underinvestment, it is little surprise when conventional agriculture still tends to outyield its competition.

Learning to Speak Agroecology

Today, agroecology is slowly gaining official traction. In 2011 Olivier De Schutter, then U.N. special rapporteur, wrote a watershed report plumping for agroecology, and he’s since been urging governments to recognize and affirm the farming practice. In 2014 the FAO held its first-ever international summit on agroecology in Rome. In his closing remarks, director-general José Graziano da Silva said, “Today a window was opened in what for 50 years has been the cathedral of the Green Revolution.” Meanwhile, there are myriad ways for individuals to become involved in the science, practice and movement, including reading about it in a popular magazine, subscribing to an open-access journal dedicated to the topic, purchasing Agroeco coffee, and even signing up for a two-week intensive summer course held each year in a different part of the world.

Like anything, agroecology is no panacea. But it can be part of the solution. It offers a scientific precision that our overstretched limbs of “sustainable agriculture” lack. And while it may at first seem complicated, principles such as beneficial connections and diversity aren’t really so difficult to grasp. We are only long out of practice, demoralized by messages that change is too hard. But the structures and processes that underpin modern agri-food systems are no less than those underlying the world economy, and our current brand of capitalism is socially, ecologically and morally untenable.

Subconsciously, we know this, even if it’s seldom spelled out in ink. What we need is a language and logic to guide the transition. So use agroecology. Say it aloud. Spread the idea that models grounded in solidarity, complexity and interdependence are not only valuable and possible, they are already underfoot.

Maywa Montenegro holds a MS in Science Writing from MIT and is currently a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley researching seeds, agroecology, and food system diversity.

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