Scaling Up Agroecology Best Option for Sustainable Food Production



Dear Friends and Colleagues 

Re: Scaling Up Agroecology Best Option for Sustainable Food Production 

A discussion paper by Oxfam-Solidarity entitled “Scaling Up Agroecological Approaches: What, Why and How?” provides key evidence and arguments to support civil society’s call for the scaling-up of agroecological approaches at national and international levels.  

The basic premise of the paper is that there is growing consensus that a new food production system is urgently needed to ensure food security and environmental sustainability for the future and that small agroecological farming is the best option.  

The paper covers what agroecology is and what it can deliver to the world as well as how to address the challenges in scaling it up. It categorically declares that “A radical shift in agricultural development will not happen without an equivalent shift in the whole agrifood system.”  

Key Messages from the paper are reproduced below while the full document can be downloaded from:,%20what,%20why%20and%20how%20-OxfamSol-FINAL.pdf.


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Key Messages 

A radical shift is urgently needed in agricultural and food systems to allow the world to feed itself sustainably today and in the future  

With the number of undernourished people estimated at 842 million people in 2011–13 (FAO, 2013b), the industrial agrifood system as a whole has failed to feed the world, while being responsible for nearly half of the world’s human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, for strengthening social inequities among actors in the whole agrifood supply chain, and for further polluting and depleting natural resources among others. Advancing industrial agriculture and consolidating the corporate food regime is not an option for meeting sustainability challenges today and in the future. This would only aggravate the current food, climate, ecological and energy crisis.  

Agroecological approaches are by far the best option to make this required shift  

As the science of sustainable agriculture, agroecology has led to the identification of key principles (agroecological principles) which establish, as well as augment, agricultural sustainability.

An extensive body of evidence demonstrates how efficient scaling-up of agroecological approaches can contribute to ensuring sustainable and resilient agricultural and food systems today and in the future: assuring, among other elements, food security and the realization of the Right to Adequate Food, environmental preservation, resilience to climate change and mitigation of human GHG emissions (in the whole food system), women’s empowerment, and increased peasants’ control over agrifood systems.  

Agroecological farming is not limited to narrow and confined local contexts: it can be applied at a global scale  

In terms of farming systems, agroecology does not consist of one particular set of agricultural practices which could substantially help increase agricultural sustainability but only in a few very specific, limited contexts: it is a holistic approach consisting in realizing key principles for meeting local needs sustainably. Realizing agroecological principles consists primarily in mimicking natural processes, thus creating beneficial biological interactions and synergies among the components of the agroecosystem, instead of depending on external inputs. The technological forms through which agroecological principles can be made operational depend on the prevailing environmental and socioeconomic conditions at each site. In other words, the concrete realization of these principles always requires context-specific solutions, since they must adapt to local realities. Nonetheless, they have universal applicability.  

You need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going  

Agroecology teaches us how peasant agricultures traditionally own a huge sustainability potential. As the science of sustainable agriculture, agroecology is first and foremost based on the re-discovery and study of traditional peasant agricultures. This close relationship results from the recognition of the phenomenal sustainability that traditional peasant farming systems have demonstrated throughout the ages, and as a corollary of the treasures of knowledge they represent for achieving sustainability today and in the future, notably in the context of climate change.  

Existing peasant farms can be made much more sustainable and resilient by modernizing them agroecologically  

The potential for great sustainability that peasant farms traditionally hold does not mean that today’s peasant farming systems can be considered veritably sustainable.  On the contrary, for most, this is far from being the case and there is a vast room for improvement. For example, land productivity of the most traditional peasant agricultures can be strongly increased through agroecology, while further improving their ecological sustainability, resilience or capacity to meet global sustainability challenges. For peasant farms that have been partially industrialized, which are much more likely to induce negative ecological or social externalities, agroecological transition processes can address such impacts, while also enhancing their land productivity and making them much more resilient to economic or ecological shocks.  

In some cases, making large-scale industrial farms more sustainable is crucial  

Although literature on agroecology provides very few elements to address this issue, it seems reasonable to think that above a certain size, sustainability of agriculture necessarily faces limits. Does this mean that large farms should be converted into smaller farms? In countries where peasants and communities are suffering from inequitable access to and control over land and other natural resources due to unfair competition with large industrial farms, it is imperative, holding a social equity perspective, to fragment these farms into smaller units through redistributive land reforms. By contrast, in areas of very low population density or where too few people want to work in agriculture and in which peasants do not suffer from such inequitable access and control, increasing the agroecological integration of large industrial farms to the extent of the possible may be the best option for improving agricultural sustainability.  

Sustainable agriculture cannot be reduced to a catalogue of techniques  

Agricultural sustainability is not about intrinsic characteristics of a few magic bullet solutions that are divorced from local contexts and can be disseminated following top-down approaches. It relies on the quality of complex interactions that result from an entire package, adequate combination of various practices whose operationalization in particular circumstances will necessarily have to change depending on each context, since each environment has its own characteristics and conditions to achieve sustainability. Depending on how it is concretely applied and completed or not by other practices, one particular technique can sometimes either be an active component of a truly agroecological farming system, or on the contrary contribute to non-sustainable impacts.  

Agricultural sustainability primarily relies on the coherence of the transition process  

As agroecology teaches us, improving agricultural sustainability requires designing an adequate strategy for managing a transition, one that can improve sustainability in the particular context considered, through means that are adapted to local conditions. Success or failure of the transition will crucially depend on the coherence or inconsistence of the transition process. To be coherent, the transition process will have to meet certain conditions, including:

• Proceeding to a comprehensive diagnosis of sustainability challenges and conditions specific to the particular given context. The diagnosis must be holistic. This means among others: taking all relevant aspects of sustainability into account; identifying all assets (natural, social, human, physical and financial) locally available, as well as all human and environmental constraints and the ways through which those elements interact with each other; defining expected benefits in the short, medium and long term; moving beyond the level of the plot or the farming system; thinking in terms of collective actions, thus also ensuring coordination between different actors;

• Building primarily on functionalities given by the ecosystems and traditional knowledge and know-how, while combining it with the best use of modern agroecological science;

• Ensuring a farmer-led, bottom-up approach: putting farmers in the driver’s seat of the process through the most adequate methodologies for promoting farmers’ innovation and horizontal sharing and learning.  

A radical shift in agricultural development will not happen without an equivalent shift in the whole agrifood system  

Industrial agriculture is an integral part of today’s ‘corporate food regime’, characterized by “unprecedented market power and profits of monopoly agrifood corporations, globalized animal protein chains, growing links between food and fuel economies, a ‘supermarket revolution’, liberalized global trade in food, increasingly concentrated land ownership, a shrinking natural resource base, and growing opposition from food movements worldwide ” (Holt-Giménez and Shattuck, 2011). Shaped by a minority of actors (those who benefit most from the dominant model) to the detriment of the general public interest, the various policies and economic practices that form the system support each other in protecting it against any serious questioning. As a consequence, scaling-up agroecological approaches implies radical changes in the current dominant agrifood system as a whole. For that to happen, peasants, consumers, pastoralists, indigenous communities and other civil society actors will have to regain control over the food system. This is primarily what agroecology as a movement is all about: reclaiming “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems ” (Nyéléni Declaration, 2007), the right to Food Sovereignty.  

Scaling-up agroecology is possible but will require positive actions  

Agroecology has already reached millions of farmers and millions of ha (hectares) in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Scaling it up will require long-term efforts, essentially needed for: unlocking ideological barriers to its political recognition; supporting farmer-to-farmer networks; providing an enabling public policy environment; taking specific actions for empowering women; and improving agricultural and food governance. Ultimately, strong action will be needed for dismantling the disproportionate market power of those using their influence to highjack and format agricultural and food systems to serve their own private interests.

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