The New Gastronome
So, What’s Agroecology?
by Paola Migliorini
by Paola Migliorini
These days we are witnessing the UN Food System Summit and the mobilisation of the civil society “Food System 4 People”. Both of these events are the result of an internal process at the United Nations. The counter-mobilisation was born within the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM), an autonomous subject yet part of the United Nations World Food Security Committee. The Food System Summit, on the other hand, is an initiative of the Secretary General, his office and his network. In short: two events, born within the UN, on completely different trajectories.
The Food System Summit was conceived by experts, many of whom are close to large companies in the food sector and by scientists who do not represent traditional and indigenous knowledge in any way. In fact, the presence of corporate networks, trade associations and food multinationals – which exist to represent the for-profit – at the FSS has caused the exit of numerous partners. IPES-Food, for example, withdrew from the UN Food System Summit due to the lack of clear rules of engagement. However, important progress on agroecology was seen, and several states and other allies brought attention to its transformative potential and confirmed its place on the pre-summit agenda1.
Peasant practices and techniques tend to be knowledge-intensive rather than input-intensive, but clearly, not all are effective or applicable. Therefore, modifications and adaptations may be necessary, which is where agroecology has played a key role. Family farms have already proven to be competitive and sustainable when the conditions are right. Still, they need tailored investment policies and solutions to flourish, and agroecology can help revitalise their productivity.
So, both of the two events claim that agroecology is the solution. But do they mean the same thing?
The Tragedy of Productivity
Agriculture is undergoing a rapid transformation that may affect its ability to respond to global challenges. Climate change, land and environmental degradation, food insecurity, water scarcity and persistent poverty all require a transformation of the agro-food sector. We are witnessing an increase in hunger and malnutrition but also growing violence that runs through the entire food system: family violence, violence against girls and women, violence against human rights defenders, violence against communities that are losing their land, as well as the increase in conflicts within and between states.
Worldwide, 80% of 1.5 billion hectares of agricultural land are used for high-input homogeneous crops (half the harvested area is planted with cereals). However, hunger is on the rise, with almost 690 million people undernourished in 2019, almost 60 million more than in 2014. At the same time, obesity has also increased in all regions of the world: almost 30% of adults in North America, Europe, and Oceania are obese.
In Europe, agriculture results in the production of food for both the European population and the export sector. Around 10.5 million agricultural holdings manage 38% (160 million hectares) of the EU’s total land area, two-thirds of which are less than 5ha in size.
“Family farms have already proven to be competitive and sustainable when the conditions are right. Still, they need tailored investment policies and solutions to flourish, and agroecology can help revitalise their productivity.”
With the green revolution and the intensification of European agriculture, significant environmental and social problems have emerged. These include the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats (at genetic, species and landscape level), the contamination of soils, water, and food with pesticides, and the eutrophication of water bodies. We are also experiencing ongoing biodiversity loss including habitat, pollinator, insect, bird population and other species loss in many European countries, which can be related to a large degree to agriculture.
Since the 1970s, a major issue has been the increasing degradation of water quality due to increasing nitrate and pesticide concentrations. In particular, high nitrate contamination of groundwater resources was ascertained. In many European regions – nearly all EU member states – surface and underground water nitrate concentrations are still very high even though the implementation of the Nitrates Directive (adopted in 1991) has led to some improvements. The high use of antibiotics in the animal husbandry sector is a serious issue in Europe as well, leading to the spread of antimicrobial resistance, with dangerous side effects for human health.
Moreover, industrial agriculture contributes to about 12-20% of GHG emissions, further altering weather patterns and, thus, compromising the capacity to produce food in the future. Changes in temperature and precipitation, as well as weather and climate extremes, are already influencing crop yields and livestock productivity in Europe.
Together with the ageing of farmers, industrialised agriculture and food systems are a major driver of the ongoing fast decline of farmers and farm numbers in Europe.
Last but not least, food sovereignty issues and sustainable diets need to be developed, especially in developed and rich countries, European ones included.
The current situation clearly indicates that major changes are needed to develop sustainable agricultural and food systems in Europe and the rest of the world. Agroecology could be an important approach to meet this goal, as it designs, develops, and promotes the transition towards biodiversity and low external input-based, socially sound farming and food systems.
Now, the struggle is to show its significance in the context of the food system. Its strength is that it does not consider ecology and social justice separately. The way we treat the land, water, and environment reflects how we treat each other and vice versa. If we exploit workers, we are led to exploit animals in our food system; if we exploit animals, we are led to exploit the land; if we extract resources from the soil, we will extract wealth from communities.
The History of Agroecology
Agroecology has come a long way since it was coined as an academic term nearly a century ago. Recently, it has gained interest as an alternative to more industrialised forms of agriculture, but the term was first used by the Russian agronomist Bensin (1928), who suggested ‘agroecology’ to describe the use of ecological methods in research on cultivated plants.
The Italian scientist Girolamo Azzi, first ecology professorship in Perugia in 1924 and visitor of prof Nikolai Vavilov – today considered one of the giants of agricultural genetics for having first recognised the role of the centres of origin of cultivated plants and for understanding the importance of the conservation of agrobiodiversity -, defined agricultural ecology as the study of the physical characteristics of the environment, mainly climate and soil, in relation to the development of agricultural crops, looking, for example, at the quality and quantity of yields (Azzi, 1928; 1956).
Although he never directly used the term agroecology, the agronomist and professor of the University of Pisa, Pietro Cuppari, is identified by many as a pioneer of agroecology in Italy. Cuppari also highlighted social aspects in agriculture, such as the importance of education, involving “Le cattedre ambulanti” in the debate. It was a typically Italian institution aimed mainly at small farmers and, for decades (1880-1930), it represented an interesting dynamic tool for informing, training, and involving farmers, integrating economic, social and scientific issues.
In the 1950s, the German ecologist and zoologist Tischler wrote several articles where the term appeared before he published the first book entitled ‘Agroecology’ (1965). He analysed the different components of the agroecosystem, their interactions and the agricultural management’s impact on them, which was determined by anthropic intervention, an approach that combines ecology and agronomy in facts. Despite their international outlook and enrollment in various institutions, these researchers worked relatively isolated and with a limited audience.
Between 1970 and 1990, agroecology was defined as a method to protect natural resources, which provides guidelines for designing and managing sustainable agroecosystems (Altieri, 1989; Gliessman, 1990), with a social and political orientation (Sevilla Guzman and Woodgate, 1997) and a broader focus on the entire food system such as “Ecology of the Food System” (Francis et al., 2003). However, its development differs from one country to another, both in terms of interpretation and in the social areas in which the concept is applied. Flexibility in interpretation also allows agroecological approaches to develop according to locally adapted models.
In Italy, from the early 1980s, academic research and training programs were launched thanks to the work of professors Maurizio Paoletti (University of Padua), Fabio Caporali (University of Tuscia, Viterbo), and Concetta Vazzana (University of Florence). Recently, higher education programs in agroecology have started to be offered all over the world, mainly in South America, the United States, Europe and, in 2020, the first Master in Agroecology and Food Sovereignty started in Italy.
Today, the three elements and interpretations of agroecology as a science, a social movement and a set of practices co-exist (Wezel et al., 2009). In this framework, the transition towards more sustainable food systems should include environmental, economic, social, cultural, and political issues. In this regard, agroecology reflects a paradigm shift that fundamentally challenges the existing cultural and structural power dynamics of the current unfair and unsustainable food system and that places the self-organisation of food producers and food eaters as a means and end for agroecology (De Molina, 2013). Agroecology, in its most transformative and political version, represents a framework that is centred on the synergistic relationship between people and nature, knowledge and rights of food producers and other food system actors, and the de-centring of profit, market, technology transfer and similar elements of ‘mainstream development’ (Anderson et al., 2019).
There is still a lack of clarity about its relationship with other alternative agricultural approaches with many principles in common, such as integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, organic agriculture, biodynamic agriculture, regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, permaculture and others. This conceptual fluidity creates tensions in debates, but it also makes agroecology attractive to policymakers and scientists who may be less comfortable with more rigidly defined approaches.
By now, the term is institutionalised and used by FAO, IFOAM and EU.
The International Principles of Agroecology
Since 2014, FAO has played an important role in facilitating global and regional dialogue on agroecology through nine regional and international multi-stakeholder meetings, culminating in the 2nd International Agroecology Symposium in 2018 in Rome, which brought together lessons learned from regional meetings. In 2018, the “Ten Elements of Agroecology” was published. It was the first FAO report to feature agroecology prominently and described the ten elements of agroecology as diversity; co-creation and sharing of knowledge; synergies; efficiency; recycling; resilience; human and social values; culture and gastronomic tradition; circular and solidarity economy; responsible governance.
In 2019, the High Level Expert Group on Food Security and Nutrition on “Agroecological approaches and other innovations for sustainable agriculture and food systems that improve food security and nutrition” defined a concise set of 13 agroecological principles within three pillars: Improve resource efficiency (1. recycling; 2. input reduction); strengthen resilience (3. soil health; 4. animal health; 5. biodiversity; 6. synergy; 7. economic diversification); secure social equity/responsibility (8. co-creation of knowledge; 9. social values and diets; 10. fairness; 11. connectivity; 12. land and natural resource governance; 13. participation).
The report puts agroecology at the forefront and illustrates topics and issues which are highly debated within agroecology and related to other approaches such as sustainable intensification and climate-smart agriculture. The recognition of agroecology as one of the pathways and alternatives to develop sustainable agriculture and food systems became visible in the global policy arena with the publication of the IAASTD report.
Legal and political frameworks for agroecology now exist in several countries, particularly in Central and Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in some African countries (e.i. Senegal), while in Europe, only France has a specific political program. Between 2012 and 2017, the Socialist Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll, pursued a public policy aimed at significantly changing agricultural production in France.
The EU has included agroecology and agroecological approaches in the EU Biodiversity Strategy, the EU Farm to Fork Strategy and the Green Deal, which guides the policy and management of biodiversity, agriculture and food systems over the next decade and sets goals up to 2030.
However, the potential for a sustainable agroecological transition of the entire food system will not only depend on agricultural policies but also on other policies supporting the establishment of value-based food chains, a change in production systems supported by changes in diet and the protection of natural resources as well as access to land by the younger generation. Such a synergistic combination of actions and policies in support of agroecological transitions would respond to the need to reduce food loss and waste and improve the food system’s resilience and robustness, in particular through diversification and being consistent with the ambitions of the new Green Deal of the EU.
Good support is coming from research and innovation. The EU-funded AE4EU Project, in partnership with the University of Gastronomic Sciences, will develop a blueprint for a European network of agroecological living labs, research infrastructure and other related players. Moreover, it will map local-, regional- and national-level innovations and initiatives in various European countries, providing an inclusive and precise overview of agroecology and facilitating the connection of funding schemes and policies. The project will also make recommendations for the improvement of funding for public and private agroecological research.
The contemporary debate on agroecology focuses on two different perspectives: a ‘transformative’ agenda or a ‘conformative’ one (Levidow et
Here, in fact, lies the risky ductility of agroecology: it can be evoked as an attempt to reconcile sustainability with intensive agriculture, without the exclusion of any prejudicial techniques or technology, thus bending it to the interests of the dominant agro-industrial regime; or it can be read in its most radical meaning as an agent of change aimed at radically reforming that very regime in appeal to a deeper metamorphosis of agriculture and the food system, which, in my opinion, is indissoluble with the principle of
However, whatever its interpretation, agroecology, like organic farming and other related approaches, is a powerful engine of reflection and is a new way of ‘reconnecting’ agriculture, science, environment and society.
 On the 26th of July 2021, at the pre-summit of the UN Food System Summit, there was the “Agroecology for Food System Transformation”. Prime ministers and ministers of agriculture of several countries declared that agroecology is the anchor for the five UNFSS goals.
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