Can agroecology disrupt agriculture to achieve the SDGs?

February 27th, 2017

Agriculture is back in the spotlight of development efforts, and is seen as central to achieving many of the interdependent Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and achieving the mitigation and adaptation targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. With the global population expected to grow to over 9 billion by 2050, coupled with the negative impacts of climate change on agricultural production, a serious strain is being placed on the sector. This is exacerbated by the concentration of extreme poverty among smallholder farmers in the least developed countries.

Women farming in NepalThe triple challenge: productivity, sustainability, and poverty eradication

There is a clear and urgent need to systemically disrupt and transform the existing global agricultural system to achieve the SDGs, respond to climate change, and ensure that smallholder farmers are not ‘left behind’ as developing economies grow and change. Intensive production systems damage and degrade soils, undermining the natural resource base of smallholder farmers. These systems not only contribute to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, but also promote a short-term vision of agriculture, potentially shifting the impending food crisis from this generation to the next, and leaving it unable to provide for a rapidly growing global population. The diverse physical conditions for agriculture are markedly different both between and within countries, and also across seasons. And while the dynamic and adaptive nature of agroecology is more attuned to such complexities compared with conventional farming systems, this concurrently poses challenges for scale and replication.

Scaling agroecology

Agroecological farming systems – using sustainable, low-input approaches – are increasingly seen to have the potential to meet the triple challenge of productivity, sustainability, and poverty eradication. Yet the current food system tends to view agroecological approaches as niche, difficult to scale, and – by some – unproven. Meeting this triple challenge is at the heart of the SDGs, which call for ‘leaving no one behind’. Intensification-centred approaches to agricultural development have fundamentally failed to be inclusive; they do not address the needs nor tap the productive potential of smallholder farmers. To address this triple challenge, we need a system-wide approach to sustainable agricultural development.

Yet the tide is turning, and there is both growing interest in agroecological approaches and a rapidly expanding body of evidence, demonstrating that innovative agroecological principles have the ability and agility to balance yield growth, environmental sustainability, and decent livelihoods. This is evidenced through the 2014 Agroecology Summit and subsequent regional workshops hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the high-level meeting on scaling up agroecology, convened by IIED and Practical Action in 2015, among others.

New evidence

Coffee farming in PeruPractical Action Publishing have produced a special issue of their Food Chain journal, which explores how agroecological principles are being applied to agricultural systems in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, focusing on the needs and resources of smallholder farmers. The articles in this issue explore the full range of issues across the ‘food chain’: from input provision, to production services, the fostering of local knowledge and innovation systems, through to value chain development. Together the issue explore the political, economic, social, gender, and environmental dimensions of how agroecology can be successfully scaled.

Defining a way forward

One of the barriers to scaling agroecology to date has been the perceived confusion among various stakeholders about its meaning and applications, traversing technical practices, holistic resource management principles, and as a social movement. The papers in this issue address all of these dimensions of agroecology, and by taking them together we can see that these are overlapping and interdependent factors to achieving scalable change, that can create positive outcomes for people (in particular smallholder farmers), the planet, and prosperous societies. This issue demonstrates how a variety of policy, technology, market, and social responses can work together to create a more enabling environment for equitable, productive, and sustainable farming systems.

You can access the special issue of Food Chain on the Development Bookshelf website here:

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