Agro-ecology: The time to act is now

Hans Rudolf Herren, 18 Jan 2013

Eradicating hunger and providing healthy nutrition for all through ecological, socially equitable and economically sustainable development sounds like an insurmountable challenge. Yet it is our only option and, looked at closely, it is a realistic one too.

However, it is imperative to act quickly. Climate change, population growth and shrinking natural resources all show the ecological limits of our planet which we need to respect both for our own sake and for that of future generations. Agriculture plays a pivotal role in this equation, given that, in its current form, it is a major culprit in climate change and that it is the key factor in nourishing the world’s growing population[1].  The challenge is to simultaneously meet development and sustainability goals while increasing agricultural production. Based on reviewed evidence, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) has come to the conclusion that these multiple challenges can only be met by transforming the industrial agriculture model of the Green Revolution and promoting small-scale and family farming structures in a more local context.

Key challenges

There are currently seven billion people inhabiting the planet. Of these, 860 million people suffer from hunger and a similar number are malnourished, despite the fact that globally around twice the number of calories are produced than are required to adequately feed the world's population. Instead, 1.4 billion adults are overweight and obesity has doubled since 1980, to over 500 million people[2], mainly as a result of unhealthy nutrition.

There are a number of reasons why we do not nourish the global population despite more than sufficient production. The two stand-out issues are (i) excessive meat consumption and (ii) huge amounts of food losses and waste during production, distribution and consumption. Many go hungry because they cannot access food; be it because in many developing countries there simply is not enough food available or individuals simply lack the means to buy it. In the latter case, much of the food ends up wasted in warehouses. A case in point is India: it has the world’s highest rate of malnourished children despite the fact that it has substantial production surpluses.  All these factors contribute to this 'misallocation' of calories.

Other reasons for poor global food efficiency and distribution include the huge amounts of crops that have recently been channelled towards the production of bio-fuels; in the United States alone, the world’s biggest exporter of maize, 40%[3] of the maize harvest goes into subsidised schemes for bio-fuel production.

Modern food systems require huge [and inefficient] resource use. US food production per annum is responsible for 19% of fossil fuel burned. On average it requires some 7-10 Kcal to produce just one Kcal of food[4]. When this ratio is applied to meat, it can expand to as much as 40:1[5]. Organic production could dramatically improve the energy efficiency. In the case of US corn a 31% energy saving has been reported in organic over standard production[6].

According to a 2011 GRAIN paper[7], the global food system is responsible for 44%-57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change has already contributed to severe droughts and weather extremes, mostly affecting regions already suffering from inadequate food production, such as sub-Saharan Africa. However, there are also other regions under severe threat in the medium term (see graph from UNEP depicting the global situation by 2080). In combination with industrial agricultural methods, this leads to soil degradation, water shortages and biodiversity loss, thus further undermining food security.

Another aspect of industrial agriculture is the fact that it has emptied many rural areas by robbing indigenous populations of their livelihood for the benefit of a few, creating vast social problems.
In the light of such alarming developments, business as usual is not an option.

Sustainable solutions

Small-scale and family farmers currently produce around 80% of the food in Asia and Africa. However, even their production is not necessarily eco-friendly and sustainable, be it out of ignorance, the lack of market incentives or government policies. What is required is a systemic and holistic approach based on ecological principles, which treats the causes and not the symptoms. Agriculture built on such a foundation will be a key factor in solving the issues of hunger, poverty, health, conservation of natural resources, biodiversity and climate change. Such an approach is also best suited to address socio-economic aspects such as land rights, farmer status, gender equality and education for all.

Farmers and the agricultural industry face many production uncertainties. To overcome these challenges, it is imperative to strengthen international cooperation and reinforce responsible government and private investment in agriculture. Furthermore, innovative and sustainable solutions are crucial for both farmers and the agricultural industry, especially in emerging markets. The IAASTD report calls for a fundamental shift in global agricultural food system policies, capacity development and investment strategies. Relevant institutions need to be reformed to be able to steer this process.

This process needs to take into account the multifunctional nature of agriculture, which is not restricted to producing commodities (food, feed, fibres, agro-fuels, medicinal products and ornamentals), but also to non-commodity outputs such as environmental services, landscape amenities and cultural heritages.

The necessary paradigm shift requires a concerted effort from all parts of society.  Governments must embrace policies that effectively strengthen small-scale farming based on agro-ecological practices[8]. Initiating and funding research into such practices and ensuring the dissemination of the findings are important factors in this process. Such research must be conducted in a way that ensures that relevant results remain in the public domain, since access to food is a human right that can be seriously infringed by patents and private ownership. Furthermore, embracing policies that aim at more sustainable consumption patterns should be an integral part of governmental efforts to improve food security given the close links between demand and supply in this sector.
The private sector and civil society need to ensure increased access to markets, in particular local and regional ones, and resources for smallholders, including financing and insuring of their activities. On an individual level, we can aim for more sustainable consumption patterns ahead of or beyond government regulations.

Can agro-ecology deliver?

The UNEP Green Economy Report 2011 states very clearly that the agro-ecological approach beats business as usual in every respect. By 2050, the report predicts higher yields, better soil quality and more people employed in the sector, while water use, harvested land and deforestation will be significantly lower if we consistently apply agro-ecological methods. Moreover, the key figure, calories produced per capita per day will be higher at 2,524 for the over 9 billion people expected to inhabit our planet by the middle of this century. This approach will also make for a greater number of quality jobs in agriculture and food systems – and jobs will be needed with 2 billion more people seeking a decent livelihood. After 50 years of neglect, particularly of research into ecological and sustainable methods, we need to commit ourselves to investing significantly in this area.

Agro-ecology clearly also has a positive influence on factors influencing climate change. Yet the latest calculations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario and face severe disruptions of agricultural production no matter how fast we act on reducing global emissions. The only way to adapt to the predicted extreme weather events that will occur on a global scale is to improve resilience. We know from experience that organic agriculture practices produce significantly more built-in resilience to weather extremes than traditional ones. These practices need to be implemented and further research into resilient systems is urgently needed. Agricultural production and the food system as a whole will benefit from the higher biodiversity inherent in agro-ecology, which makes for greater resilience against pests and floods. Improved soil quality will certainly help mitigate the disastrous effects of droughts likely to become more severe and covering larger areas. Resilience can be seen as a natural insurance plan against the risk presented by climate change.

The Rio+20 summit in June 2012 recognised the potential of the agro-ecological approach and in its final declaration reaffirmed “the necessity to promote, enhance and support more sustainable agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture that improves food security, eradicates hunger and is economically viable, while conserving land, water, plant and animal genetic resources, biodiversity and ecosystems and enhancing resilience to climate change and natural disasters.” It further also recognises “the need to maintain natural ecological processes that support food production systems” (Paragraph 111). The declaration also demanded that public and private investment in sustainable agriculture, land management and rural development be increased, particularly in developing countries, and called for continued international discussions on how to make such investments in a responsible manner.

The next steps

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) has already been requested by various countries, particularly those in the developing world, to swiftly take-up the mandate assigned to it by the  Rio+20 resolution and start preparing to support nation states in making assessments of their agricultural policies. Such assessments will support countries in their choices of holistic, comprehensive and sustainable agricultural and development policies that are beneficial for their people and our planet in the long-term. In this context, Switzerland‘s Biovision Foundation and the Millennium Institute in Washington are also supporting this endeavour, and are already jointly running pilot schemes for multi-stakeholder assessments of sustainable food systems in Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal.
Such changes will generate long-term benefits: The positive effects on climate change, biodiversity, water and land quality will make for a healthier environment, while people can eat healthy food, with enough for all. Food for all, naturally!


[2] WHO, Fact sheet No311, May 2012






[8] See box for definition of agro-ecology.

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Hans Rudolf Herren

Laureate of the World Food Prize, Founder and President of Biovision Foundation, President of the Millennium Institute

Hans Rudolf Herren is an internationally honoured agricultural scientist who champions integrated sustainable development, in particular, connecting the dots between environmental and social sustainability.

From 2003 to 2008, Mr Herren was Co-Chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), which was approved in 2008 by 59 participating countries. Mr Herren is President of the Millennium Institute in Washington, DC, USA, which empowers governments and private sector stakeholders to inform their development strategies using a scenario simulation tool that integrates environmental, social and economic dimensions into a single dynamic simulation model. In 1995, Mr Herren was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize for his successful use of a chemical-free method to prevent mass famine in Africa due to the cassava mealybug invasion. His influence continues to be felt on farms and in villages in Africa through the work of the Biovision Foundation for ecological development which he founded in Zurich in 1998.

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