Industries in Depth

What is agroecology - and how can it help us fight climate change?

A farmer Ham Byoung-gab and his wife Lim Mi-seon work at their minari (water parsley) farm in Siheung, South Korea, April 26, 2021.

The FAO makes the case for using agroecological methods to strengthen the resilience of food systems. Image: REUTERS/Daewoung Kim

Andrea Willige
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

  • Climate change can have severe knock-on effects for food security.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.
  • Agroecology, with its chemicals-free and traditionally-led principles, could make the world’s food systems more resilient, according to a UN report.
  • But critics say there are issues in food production that the agroecological approach may not be able to address.

Conflict, the climate crisis and now COVID-19 are forcing people to go hungry. One in three people (nearly 2.37 billion) didn’t have enough food in 2020 - 320 million more than in 2019, according to the World Bank’s analysis of World Food Programme data.

And 272 million people are already or are at risk of becoming acutely food-insecure due to the COVID-19 crisis, in the countries where the World Food Programme operates, meaning their life or livelihood is in immediate danger due to lack of food.

A more natural and traditional approach to agriculture could help mitigate the impact of climate change, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO makes the case for using agroecological methods to strengthen the resilience of food systems, in a report published last year, especially in severely affected regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2007, a severe drought in Lesotho and South Africa caused crop yields to drop dramatically. The main staple food in Lesotho, maize, doubled in price and became unaffordable for many. A fifth of the population needed emergency food assistance.

This is only one example of the dramatic impact climate change can have on food systems and livelihoods. While climate change did not create food shortages by itself, a study says that it “exacerbated both the drought and its knock-on impacts for food security”.

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What is agroecology?

Agroecology is a broad field and there are many definitions, but what it boils down to, in the words of the Soil Association, is “sustainable farming that works with nature”.

The theory is that by creating synergies and balancing environmental, social and economic considerations, agroecology can support food production, security and nutrition as well as restore the natural ecosystem and biodiversity needed for sustainable agriculture.

Through natural processes and avoiding chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, agroecology reduces the environmental harm of food production while stabilizing yields. It can help address issues caused by existing agricultural systems such as deforestation, water scarcity, soil depletion and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

In doing so, it creates a beneficial cycle that contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals around food security and climate change.

The circular reinforcement of agroecology.
The circular reinforcement of agroecology. Image: UN-FAO

A viable climate change adaptation strategy

The FAO’s report concluded that there is robust evidence that agroecology increases climate resilience by building on ecological principles such as biodiversity and healthy soils, as well as social aspects such as knowledge sharing and empowering producers.

In Senegal, which is considered a regional leader in agroecology, the FAO research finds that in comparison with other farms, agroecological farms showed higher levels of resilience, which is attributed to maintaining high diversity, self-organization and the preservation of traditional farming knowledge and traditions.

The FAO recommends that agroecology should be recognized as a viable climate change adaptation strategy, and barriers to scaling up agroecological practices be overcome through better education about their benefits.

Pesticides – a dividing point

But not everyone agrees. Some farmers believe that going back to traditional practices, indigenous materials and non-chemical approaches may not always deliver the best results, and that pesticides may be needed at times, not least when critical crop yields are threatened.

However, abating climate change is not a one-horse race. It will take many pathways to rein it in effectively. Many of the principles of agroecology look set to have a place within that jigsaw puzzle of approaches. One of these is the World Economic Forum’s Food Innovation Hubs, which aim to strengthen local innovation ecosystems to help with the sustainable transformation of the world’s food systems, boosting their productivity and resilience.

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