With a global pandemic tightening its grip around the world and photos of empty supermarket shelves flooding social media, there’s never been a better time to consider where our food comes from.

Asger Mindegaard explores how ‘agroecology’ can make our food production more resilient, rebuild healthy ecosystems and perhaps even prevent future outbreaks like COVID-19. 

Biting into a delicious sandwich is – literally – like biting into one of the major challenges of our time. The flour of the bread, the lettuce and tomatoes, creamy avocado, the spread, perhaps a slice of meat or a good cheese. All of it affects the world around us in intricate and often hidden ways.

The ways food is produced, processed, packaged, transported, traded, sold, consumed and wasted has an enormous impact on the environment and the people along the chain, from farm to fork. And according to scientists and many farmers, this impact is negative – for our climate, soil, water and biodiversity, for rural livelihoods and for our health.

Tractor spraying pesticides on field. Federico Rostagno / stock.adobe.com

As the world faces an unprecedented global crisis, experts are linking the emergency of COVID-19 to global habitat and biodiversity loss. Researchers at University College London have found that species in degraded habitats are likely to carry more viruses which can infect humans.

Agricultural expansion is a major driver of this trend, but agriculture need not mean ecological disruption. It is, in fact, entirely possible to farm with, rather than against nature.

We need different farming

We need a paradigm shift in the way food is produced in the world. This is recognised by the United Nations’ organisation for food and agriculture (FAO) and by numerous other agencies and scientists. And is underscored by the current health crisis the world is battling and its impacts on our food supply chains.

It is not viable to put our faith solely in technological innovation to save the day, however tempting. We will undoubtedly benefit from technological advances and we will need to harness the potential of new machinery and digitalisation for people and planet. But the main innovation needed is social and knowledge-based.

The industrial farming model is not fit for purpose. Its insatiable use of finite resources, its countless adverse impacts on the health of humans and ecosystems and its dependence on fossil fuels and chemical inputs render it fundamentally unsustainable. And it cannot be fixed by some tweaks in the margins and better technology. An essentially different paradigm for how we think about farming is urgently needed. And this could well be agroecology.

Roots of good farming

The word ‘agroecology’ has a long and winding history. When we talk about agroecology in this article, we mean the practice of “applying ecological concepts and principles to optimise interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment”, as defined by the FAO

Agroecology is not any particular production system, but rather an approach that relies on, and maximises, ecological processes to support production systems; it is a way of thinking holistically about agronomy, ecology and biology. To produce food in harmony with nature, not against it. 

Floral spacing in organic vineyard near Velke Bilovice, Czech Republic. Richard Semik / stock.adobe.com

The FAO lists 10 Elements of Agroecology. Diversity, recycling, synergies, resilience and efficiency are core to this production paradigm, but also respect, co-learning, food culture, and governance are emphasised for the food system surrounding agriculture. To acknowledge and learn from traditional knowledge and from natural processes is key, but this does not exclude the strategic mobilisation of digital technology and other technological innovations.

Is agroecology like organic farming?

Several well-known practices are, at least partially, agroecological. Organic farming, as defined by the EU organic regulation, is a step in the right direction and nature-based solutions for the management of water, biodiversity, soils, pollution and livestock for example, are also highly compatible with agroecology. 

Other prominent systems such as conservation agriculture (agriculture based on not tilling the soil) and agroforestry (the integration of trees and agriculture) are based on some agroecological principles but can still be managed in largely conventional ways.

While agroecology is not a specific system and is defined quite broadly, there are certain clear red lines as to what is not agroecology.    

The use of synthetic pesticides cannot be considered agroecology, while approaches as integrated pest management (IPM) and farm designs maximising the presence of natural enemies could be.

Dependence on external mineral fertiliser for crop growth is incompatible with agroecology, whereas long-cycle crop rotation, soil cover, nitrogen-fixing crops and application of local manure and compost are agroecological ways of ensuring fertile soils.

Vast fields with one single crop, monocultures, cannot be considered agroecology. Agroecological systems depend on diversity on field and farm-level to safeguard biodiversity, soil health and resilience and to prevent nutrients pollution of air and water.

A diverse range of crops is one element of agroecology. Viktor Pravdica / stock.adobe.com

Industrial livestock production, dependent on large amounts of antibiotics and imported feed, while causing immense animal suffering and environmental pollution can never be agroecological. But extensive livestock production as part of mixed farming systems with high esteem for animal welfare can be agroecological.

These are not the only red flags but give an idea about the sort of farming fitting under the agroecology umbrella.

Next stop: agroecology

Agroecology is a good answer to the countless environmental issues emanating from the food we eat. In an agroecological future, we would also naturally eat more healthily. We would eat more plant-based foods and less but better meat, seafood, eggs and dairy. This would, simultaneously, counter environmental degradation and the many diet-related noncommunicable diseases (cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes, certain types of cancer) on the rise in the EU and in the world. 

Transition to agroecology in Europe and worldwide can also improve our food security. Research has shown that Europe can feed itself based on fully agroecological agriculture, on the condition that we shift towards healthier, more plant-based diets. In developing countries, moving towards agroecology could actually increase yields and contribute to climate change adaptation. In addition, moving towards a food system that had a positive ecological footprint can benefit our health, by reducing pollution and reducing the risk of new diseases. 

Recent European research (see for example here and here) also offers both theoretical and empirical evidence suggesting that agroecology is economically viable for the farmers. And perhaps even more so than industrial agriculture.

Apart from generating a higher farm income, one study found that agroecological farms in Europe “also provide more employment per hectare (thus supporting regional economies), use less fossil fuel and make positive contributions towards the maintenance of scenic landscapes and biodiversity”, the latter benefiting tourism.

A diverse landscape including a wetland area offering vital ecosystem functions such as wildlife habitat, carbon storage and natural beauty. jdblack / pixabay.com

Rocky road ahead

One of the biggest obstacles to the roll-out of agroecology in Europe, is the EU Common Agricultural Policy, the CAP. The CAP distributes roughly €60 billion per year, or around 36% of the entire EU budget, to agricultural businesses and farmers. Although the CAP has integrated some environmental concerns over the years, strong voices from science, civil society and thinktanks sharply criticise the policy’s failure to shift EU agriculture towards true sustainability. 

The way the many billion euros are distributed is currently under negotiation, as European Ministers of Agriculture and MEPs are discussing a reform of the CAP for the period 2021-2027. This Summer, the European Parliament will vote on the proposal. This is a crucial event largely defining the way agriculture will be done in Europe the coming decade. 

Even before then, we have an opportunity to set agroecology as the direction of travel for EU agriculture. The European Commission is preparing a Farm to Fork Strategy which will propose a list of actions to make our food system more sustainable. The EEB argues that this Strategy must commit to moving the EU towards a sustainable food system based on the principles of agroecology.

Skylarks (Alauda arvensis) are one of the many species of bird that rely on well-managed farmland. Erni / stock.adobe.com

The first shoots of change

As Europe battles COVID-19 we are committed to continuing our work towards a better future where people and nature thrive together.

To show what an agroecological future for Europe could look like, and why it’s a desirable path, we are planning a series of articles telling the story of agroecological farms throughout Europe. Subscribe below to be sure you don’t miss these articles and more in the coming months.

Twice a month, we'll tell the story of a European farmer succeeding with agroecology.

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