Agroecology is the science that provides the fundamental ecological principles for how to study, design and manage agroecosystems that are both productive and natural resource conserving.
It is an integrated study of agroecosystems that are also culturally sensitive, socially just and economically viable, including all environmental and human elements. It focuses on the form, dynamics and functions of their interrelationships and the processes in which they are involved.
Agroecosystems are communities of plants and animals interacting with their physical and chemical environments that have been modified by people to produce food, fibre, fuel and other products for human consumption and processing.
Agroecology is a science of ecology applied to agriculture. And with this analogy, agriculture can be said to be an order of systems, ranging from the cell at the lowest level, through the plant or animal organs, the whole plant or animal, the crop or herd, the field or pasture, and the farm, to complex ecosystems such as the village and watershed, culminating in the agricultural sector at the highest level.
It provides the knowledge and methodology necessary for developing an agriculture practice that is environmentally sound, highly productive, socially equitable and economically viable.
A major goal of agroecology is the revitalisation of peasant and small family farms and the reshaping of the entire agricultural policy and food system in ways that are economically viable and socially just to farmers and consumers.
Small farming systems not only have fed much of the world population for centuries and continue to feed people in many parts of the planet, especially in developing countries, but also have the potential to bring solutions to many uncertainties facing humanity in a peak oil era of global climate change and financial crisis.
In many areas of the developing world, traditional farmers have developed and/or inherited complex farming systems, adapted to the local conditions that have helped them to sustainably manage harsh environments and to meet their subsistent needs, without depending on mechanisation, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or other technologies of modern agricultural science.
Research has shown that there are about 1.5 million to 380 million small farms in the world. Fifty to 75 per cent of the world’s food is produced by small farmers even though they only control 20 – 30 per cent of the land and use 30 per cent of the water and 20 per cent fossil fuel used in agriculture.
Africa has approximately 33 million small farms, representing 80 per cent of all farms in the region. The majority of African farmers (many of whom are women) are smallholders, with two thirds of all farms below 2 ha and 90 per cent of farms below 10 ha. Most small farmers practice “low-resource” agriculture, producing the majority of grains, almost all root, tuber and plantain crops, and the majority of legumes consumed in the continent.
Small farms are more productive than large farms, if the total output is considered rather than yields from a single crop. They also have the tendency to use locally available resources in an efficient manner and rely on indigenous knowledge.
Small farmers play crucial roles as custodians of agricultural biodiversity. They are repository of indigenous farming knowledge, producers of food, innovators and experimenters. Much of the agricultural biodiversity has been maintained through cultural traditions, which include community seed banks and community harvesting that encourages exchange of many varieties.
Through the application of agroecological principles, the basic challenge for sustainable agriculture to make better use of internal resources can be easily achieved by minimising the external inputs used, and preferably, by regenerating internal resources more effectively through diversification strategies that enhance synergisms among key components of the agroecosystem.
The sustainability concept of agroecology should trigger discussion on the need to propose major adjustments in conventional agriculture to make it more environmentally, socially and economically viable and compatible.
To remove the constraints on the diffusion and implementation of agroecological initiatives more fully, major reforms must be made in policies, institutions, and research and development agendas to make sure that agroecological alternatives are massively adopted, made equitably and broadly accessible, and multiplied so that their full benefit for sustainable food security can be realised.