Mainstreaming Agroecology Requires Fundamental Shift


Dear Friends and Colleagues 

Mainstreaming Agroecology Requires Fundamental Shift 

In spite of growing evidence that agroecology can ensure healthy and sustainable food and ecological systems, its promotion in policy and extension remains limited. A paper by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) examines the reasons for this situation, analyses the benefits and challenges, and discusses what needs to be done to mainstream agroecology more widely in agricultural policy and practice so that it can support the achievement of sustainable livelihoods, food sovereignty and climate resilience.

The paper concludes that “as agroecological practices seek to optimise, rather than maximise, production (and profits), mainstreaming agroecology requires a fundamental cultural and philosophical shift – not just by farmers but by society as a whole – in what we mean by productive and efficient”.

The summary of the paper and a table from it (Table 2) listing the challenges to the adoption of agroecology and what policy options are needed to overcome these are reproduced below. 

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Laura Silici

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)


Agroecological farming is coming of age. Once the exclusive domain of food sovereignty and ecology movements, it has begun to be promoted enthusiastically in both developed and developing countries by non-government organisations, international development organisations and others seeking more sustainable food production and consumption systems. Though difficult to quantify, a growing body of anecdotal evidence and small-scale studies highlights the environmental and social benefits that these practices can bring. For example, a review of 40 initiatives employing different agroecological practices showed an average crop yield increase of 113%, in addition to environmental benefits such as carbon sequestration, reduction in pesticide use and soil restoration. Yet despite the fact that agroecological practices can bring resilience and broad-based productivity to rural communities and provide important ecosystem services across the landscape, they are still not being widely promoted in agricultural policies or by agricultural research organisations in developed nor developing countries, nor scaled-up at a significant level. This paper asks why, tracing the multiple interpretations of agroecology: what it means to different people and how it is used. It lists the benefits and challenges of agroecological practices and how they compare with input-intensive, large-scale farming. Finally, it asks what more needs to be done to mainstream agroecology more widely in agricultural policies and practices? 

Table 2. Mainstreaming agroecology: Challenges and policy options 



Agroecological practices are locally-specific and knowledge and management-intensive:

• Adoption requires access to skills and information, strengthening of local knowledge, incremental learning and links to social networks

• Extension advice should be context-specific and creative and respond to farmer demand rather than imposing standard solutions

Ensure that research priorities and funding are re-directed to strengthen research on agroecology and incorporate ecological principles into agricultural science curricula and research.

Pursue a new approach to generating and disseminating knowledge – a shift is needed from top- down research and extension to bottom-up approaches and local innovation:

• The identification of the problems should be an integral part of research, development and implementation and be achieved through participatory processes that involve farmers and local communities

• Scientific research should incorporate local practices and indigenous traditional knowledge • Extension services should be decentralised

• Farmer-to-farmer exchanges and grassroots extension methods should be facilitated

Thinking in systems and systemic change requires a holistic understanding of competing objectives

Agricultural research should follow an interdisciplinary approach that integrates ecology, natural resource management, socio-economic and cultural aspects

Market failures:

• Agricultural subsidies and protectionist trade policies keep the costs of unsustainable production models low

• The positive externalities of agroecology are not recognised in the prices farmers receive, whereas the environmental costs of ‘conventional’ practices are paid for by the state and taxpayers

• Non-commodity outputs (such as environmental services) of farming are not recognised or are under-produced because their market price is distorted or non-existent

Re-orient national and international trade policies:

• End subsidies to agriculture in industrialised countries and manage supply to ensure that public support does not lead to over-production and dumping

• Agree on the valuation and incorporation of externalities in national and international markets, especially in view of trade liberalisation

Re-orient agricultural and rural development policies:

• Value multi-functionality of agriculture and farmers’ roles in the stewardship of ecosystem by providing appropriate incentives and creating markets for ecosystem services (including landscape conservation)

Lack of access to natural resources and insecure land tenure discourage practices that require investment in assets and knowledge and co- operative behaviours, such as agroforestry and soil conservation schemes

Re-orient/introduce policies to support small-scale farming:

• Secure equitable rights of access and use for land, water, forests, common property resources and seeds

• Encourage the formation of farmers’ groups and co- operatives

The strong influence of vertically integrated and highly concentrated agri-business corporations on agricultural research and food policies limits small-scale farmers’ capacity to link independently with markets and access demand-led research and extension

Provide adequate incentives and technical assistance to support small-farmers and small and medium sized enterprises in the creation of local ‘agroecological business models’ that can make appropriate inputs and technologies available in the market

Erosion of traditional cultural values and institutions and traditional knowledge (TK)

Promote policies that strengthen indigenous cultures and local organisations and protect the knowledge and rights of farmers and pastoralists to save and improve seeds and share benefits from the use of traditional crop and livestock varieties


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