Agroecology is an approach to the promotion of food production within a balanced ecosystem. In this article, I use ‘agroecology’ in a generic sense. The same could be said more or less about organic agriculture, natural farming, permaculture, etc. As mentioned by the FAO, “Agroecological practices, research and policies have seen exponential growth in the last decade. At the same time agroecology has not yet become mainstreamed within the broader context of science and development work.” In many development programs, agroecology is effectively a mainstream in guidelines and strategy, but not necessary globally applied.
Since I have been involved in the promotion of agroecology in different countries, and despite the fact that my experience is not very long with this specific approach, I would like to share some principles that seems to me be pertinent in many contexts and might be helpful.
What factors can positively influence the spread of agroecology?
1. Foster enthusiasm
Agriculture is a risky activity. Farmers are reluctant to take risks when they are living in a precarious situation. This can make the adoption of a new approach more difficult. This obstacle can be avoided when agroecology is introduced with a first ‘simple’ demonstration that gives immediate and visible results. For example, in a group of legume producers in Cameroon, the use of chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) was widespread. The good results gained after the introduction of compost and chicken manure (that was cheaper than the chemical fertilizer), provided the necessary enthusiasm to empower the farmers to look for other alternatives to expensive and environmental damaging external inputs. I like the way Roland Bunch explains that in his (old but still accurate) book “Two Ears of Corn”.
2. Make it simple (imitating nature)
It is often said that agroecology needs more knowledge than conventional agriculture. The farmer cannot just apply some agro-chemical inputs but has to observe and study his environment. He has to be aware of the different vegetal and animal species living on his farm. Emphasizing this “complexity” is necessary in places where organic agriculture is considered to be not ’scientific’ but it can give the impression to some farmers that agroecology is too difficult for them. We need to focus more on the principles and not on a long list of complicated techniques, to change the vision. It’s all about the joy of observing and imitating nature. Here in Switzerland, I have heard a young farmer explain why he wanted to convert to organic agriculture: he said that he wanted to go back to “real agriculture”, working “with the nature”. Imitating the perfection of nature is a simple principle from which others can be inferred. Everyone passionate about farming can apply it, learning by observing and doing. Just two examples of these principles:
Masanobu Fukuoka was applying the principle of imitating nature for decades in Japan and summarised his approach to ‘Natural Farming’ in 4 principles:
- human cultivation of soil, ploughingor tilling are unnecessary, as is the use of powered machines
- prepared fertilizersare unnecessary, as is the process of making compost
- weeding, either by cultivation or by herbicides is unnecessary. Instead only minimal weed suppression with minimal disturbance
- applications of pesticidesor herbicides are unnecessary
Without necessarily applying these principles to the letter, they can surely inspire good agroecological principles. In the example of Cameroon above (substitution of chemical fertilizers by compost and manure), the farmers discovered themselves that the “agroecological” legumes were more resistant to insects attacks than the “conventional” ones. They are now ready for new discoveries!
In Zimbabwe, Brian Oldreive needed to change his way of farming after seeing a catastrophe. Conventional farming resulted in water run-off and the topsoil was being washed away. During a time of prayer in the bush, he understood that he needed to imitate nature. There is no mechanism in nature in which the soil is inverted and there is a thick blanket of fallen leaves and grass which covers the surface of the soil. He realized that these two factors in nature prevented the soil from being washed away. From these “simple” principles, he changed his farming practices and was finally sharing it with thousands of farmers in Africa through his organisation Foundations for Farming. I can testify that the fields planted using these principles are productive and beautiful. Here the result of our planting of Fall 2014, during a workshop with several leaders from East Africa.
These two principles (no till and permanent cover of the soil) can be a good starting point for agroecology implementation.
3. Holistic management
Agroecology is not only about agronomic techniques, but can also be considered as a movement, which aims to transform the global world food system. The more holistic agroecology is, the more it will be sustainable in the long term. 4 managing principles are applied by ‘Foundation for Farming’.
- On time: timeliness is very important and every operation that we do should be done at the correct time and in the correct season.
- To standard: this means that everything must be done well and to a high standard.
- Without wastage: It is about not to be wasteful with what nature has given us (soil, water, sunlight, seed, nutrients, but also time and opportunity)
- With joy: Joy arises from hope and beauty. When things are done on time, to standard and without wastage, hope begins to dawn in the heart, as the success of the crops is seen.
Finally, Gandhi famous phrase “Be the change you want to see” applies also to agroecology. Some call it also “double transformation”. You cannot expect a change outside, if it does not exist also inside. Exactly like this young farmer above, I discovered the joy of working ‘with nature’. I am applying the agroecology principles in my own small garden.
I hope these reflections will give the opportunity to reflect about agroecology and change management. Please contact me if you have any comments, questions, reflections. Thank you.
 Mainly in French speaking Africa, (West and Central)
 Further reading highly recommended: Scaling-up agroecological approaches: what, why and how? Oxfam Solidarité, 2014
 Two Ears of Corn, A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement, Roland Bunch, 1985.