A recent study conducted by Solidarité Paysans, an association that focuses on more inclusive rural development, shows that practices based on the principles of agroecology such as synergy or diversity can help fragile farms to convert to more economically viable food production systems. This article considers the main arguments for such a claim.
Agroecology implies an ecological approach to agriculture where the best use is made of nature’s bounty, improving soil and plant quality using available biomass and biodiversity instead of the chemical inputs typical of traditional agriculture.
This approach has gained traction in recent years as more and more surveys have shown that the traditional food system has a negative impact not only on people’s health but also on the environment and that consumers have begun to show more interest in and have placed a higher demand for healthier food.
Agroecology is perfectly adaptable for smallholder food producers such as family farms. These account for more than 98% of all farms in the world and manage 53% of all agricultural land. Yet, they continue to struggle in the face of political systems that mainly support large conventional producers both in Europe[¹] and worldwide[²].
However, agroecology offers opportunities for small and medium-scale farmers as it can help them to optimise production factors and therefore make their systems more resource-efficient and resilient. Conversion to the optimal agroecological system involves marks three phases: increased efficiency of input use, input substitution, and system redesign.
No off-farm inputs to secure higher income
The main inputs requiring investment are livestock feeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. Increasing the efficiency of their use means using as little as possible while gradually replacing these with more locally and naturally available resources and inputs. The optimal agroecosystem takes these changes further and aims at an autonomous resource-base. A fully converted agroecological system entails total self-sufficiency with no off-farm inputs being necessary at all since various factors of the system work in synergy i.e. in partnership thus complementing each other. In terms of increased income, once the farmer has begun to minimize the use of off-farm inputs, the gains are tangible.
The report produced by Solidarité Paysans provides evidence of the cost reduction and increased added value achieved by40 farmers who were questioned about their production model in the face of the traditional or so-called conventional approach failing. In the rejection of the use of pesticides combined with rotational grazing and crop rotation created more autonomy which allowed some producers to save tens of thousands of euros as they no longer needed to purchase livestock feed.
“Agroecology is bringing about a socio-material transformation of agriculture […] because it once again gives a central role to the natural and social resources that are available within (or in close proximity to) the farm.” (van der Ploeg, 2020)
More diversified production
Transition to the agroecological production model is also based on a more diversified system which, among others benefits, offers ‘diverse products for the market that will provide economic stability’. Compared to industrial production systems that are based mainly on monoculture, agroecology is based on biodiversity, making it possible for farmers to grow a wider variety of crops on the same field at the same time. Alternating crops in terms of space and time can de facto bring greater gross returns than single-crop systems.
The economic benefits of agroecology have been recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization which, in 2018, launched an initiative to scale up agroecology that ‘aims to show how diversified agroecological systems are vital not only to addressing poverty, hunger and climate change mitigation and adaptation, but also for directly realizing 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in areas such as health, education, gender, water, energy, and economic growth’. (UNEP, 2019)
The benefits of agroecology and the need for a trend in this direction in the farming sector are becoming increasingly evident. To develop, agroecology obviously needs to attract political attention and appropriate funding. The question is: will the economic argument be sufficient to change the course of the farming sector and for public money to be invested differently?
[¹] Baldwin, R. E., & Wyplosz, C. (2019). Chapter 9: The Common agricultural policy (pp.205-229). The economics of European integration (6th ed.). London: McGraw-Hill Education.
[²] ‘Between the 1950s and 1970s, a global agricultural division of labor emerged as export-oriented development formed the backbone of national agricultural policies in the global South (McMichael, 2009).’