Rattan Lal is Director of the CFAES Rattan Lal Center for Carbon Management and Sequestration, and Distinguished University Professor of Soil Sciences at Ohio State University, Columbus, USA.
Photo: © CFAES Department of Communication and Extension, the Ohio State University

Many ways, one goal – achieving sustainable agroecosystems

Industrial agriculture, based on monocropping and use of agro-chemicals and other energy-intensive inputs, is presumably unsustainable for food, feed, fibre, and fuel production because of its adverse effects on the environment: quality and functions of soil, water, air, and biodiversity. There are many ways to make agriculture more nature-friendly while maintaining its productivity. According to our author, the ideal one is to reconcile agroecological principles with modern technologies.

Agroecology is rooted in the foundation of ecosystems and is an innovative tool for transforming to environment-friendly food system approach. It is an integrative discipline involving specific elements of agronomy, ecology, sociology and economics. In other words, agroecology is a trans-disciplinary science for the study, design and management of sustainable food systems. It is also an inter-sectoral strategy of promoting human health via sustainability in food safety.

Agroecology is in accord with the one-health concept as, for example, described by Kemper et al.: “health of soil, plants, animals, people, ecosystems and planetary processes is one and indivisible”. It focuses on innovative production systems while restoring soil functions and the environment.

Other approaches to transform food systems in a sustainable manner include regenerative agriculture (RA), eco-intensification, precision or digital agriculture, integrated agriculture and organic agriculture. The specific attributes of these approaches are shown in the Table.

Some approaches focus on the environment and others on productivity. However, the most pertinent options are those which reconcile the need to meet demands of a growing and increasingly affluent world population with the urgency of restoring soil health and improving the environment.

Agroecology and scientific progress – a contradiction?

It is often perceived that agroecology opposes advances in science such as in biotechnology and thus, presumably, denies the importance of modern agriculture in addressing global issues of the 21st century. In this context, therefore, ignoring modern innovation may not fulfil the basic requirements to be an agricultural science. For example, the “soy boom” in Brazil is supported by the soybean agribusiness, which is a paradigmatic case. Being not in agreement with the concept of a “soy boom”, agroecology has not yet been widely adopted. Thus, to be successful and widely acceptable for addressing the current issues, it is important to reconcile the need for agribusiness with the basic principles of agroecology.

Nichols and Altieri (2018) argued that key challenges for upscaling of agroecology lie in the translation of agroecological principles into technological options for the sustainable management of soil, water and biodiversity to enhance resilience. The question is whether the agroecological principles and practices work as claimed would need a principles-focused and an objective evaluation. Thus, the agroecology movement is at a crossroads of being a reformist and radicalism.

The reformist pathway would co-opt agroecology principles with the Green Revolution approaches, and the latter focuses on the political transformative peasant movement. Furthermore, agroecology concentrates more on food diversity rather than on maximising the yield of staple crops. Thus, whether agroecology can feed the growing and increasingly affluent world population is a debatable issue.

Therefore, the objective of this article is deliberate on methodological approaches to how to synthesise agroecological principles within the Green Revolution technologies to transform food systems into nature-friendly, soil restorative, emission-negative, nutrient-rich production. Innovative food systems which must also ensure restoration of natural resources (e.g. soil health, soil organic and inorganic carbon stocks, biodiversity, water resource, air quality). Transformed food systems must restore degraded soils and desertified ecosystems, adapt and mitigate climate change and yet enhance and sustain production of safe and nutrient-dense food. Therefore, the success of the agroecological approach depends on its effectiveness in combining basic concepts of biophysical sciences with those of social science or the human dimensions.

Reconciling agroecology and modern sciences

Fig. 1: Three Dimensions of Agroecology

Agroecology has three dimensions: ontological (spiritual), epistemological (scientific concepts) and productive (practices and upscaling) (see Figure). These dimensions have been described by Toledo (2022) and Alvarez-Salas et al. (2014). Ontologically, agroecology relates to stewardship of natural resources (living in harmony with Mother Earth). Epistemologically, its theory of knowledge relates to methods, validity and scope. Agroecology distinguishes between belief and opinion. It is a science of complexity and interdisciplinarity, and is systemic in nature and aimed at addressing the problems of agro-ecosystems and food sovereignty. The productive dimension of agroecology, involving site-specific practices of agriculture, also refers to social and political dimensions of governing the site-specific food system leading to good sovereignty. Agroecology and sustainable intensification, two contrasting approaches to agriculture, have been interpreted under the one and the same banner of “regenerative agriculture”.

Climate change, a global issue, must also be addressed through science, practices and politics of agroecology. In Romania, Merca et al. (2021) observed that increasing land area under agroecology-based agriculture could provide a real opportunity to fight against the climate challenges, and it could also be an effective tool of sustainable development. Furthermore, agroecology must be considered in the context of urban agriculture and the challenges of the contemporary urban diets and the disruptions caused by Covid-19. Measuring agricultural sustainability through indicators of both biophysical and socioeconomic performance is pertinent to reconciling agroecology with modern science.

Judiciously implemented agroecology can harmoniously integrate innovation in agriculture while embracing all dimensions of sustainability (environmental, ecological, economic, social, culture/ethical). It is important, however, to realise that neither all traditional practices nor all farmer-led innovations can be included under the auspices or banner of agroecology.

Therefore, the prudent strategy is to integrate agroecology with modern innovations to enhance and sustain production, alleviate rural poverty and increase access to safe and healthy food while adapting and mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon (C) and restoring soil health through negative emission farming. Furthermore, food systems and food cultures are complex, dynamic and based on geographical/historical/cultural roots, and must be duly considered for integration into the foundations of agroecology. Food culture and traditions have to be objectively considered.

Transforming the world food systems

Predominant world food systems of the 21st Century are unsustainable. The challenges of the prevalence of undernutrition and malnutrition, climate change, soil and environmental degradation and consumer behaviours bear testimony to this. Being a trans-disciplinary approach, and in integration with modern innovations, agroecology can transform obsolete food systems into sustainable processes and practices. In this context, knowledge about the food heritage can be a catalyst to bring about the transformative change and advance global food and nutritional security. The importance of policy interventions and of the private sector in translating science into action cannot be over-emphasised here.

Basic principles of agroecology

Bio-physical principles of agroecology comprise

- reducing inputs by optimising use efficiency,
- substituting inputs based on site-specific conditions,
- incorporating beneficial biodiversity into agro-ecosystems,
- connecting consumers with produces through value-based food chains, and building just and equitable food systems in diverse social environments.

Additional principles include:

- creating a community-supported agriculture system and
- feeding cities sustainably.

(Source: Duff et al., 2022; Espelt, 2020; Lopez-Garcia et al., 2021)


Specific focus and attributes of diverse approaches to achieve sustainable agroecosystems
AgroecosystemsAttributesFocus
AgroecologyFood diversityEnvironmentally-friendly
Regenerative agricultureRestore soil healthRestoring environment
Eco-intensificationFood safety, landscapeReducing inputs
Precision agricultureSite-/soil-specific inputsImprove use efficiency
Integrated agricultureMixed farmingBiodiverse land-use
Organic agricultureNo chemicalsCertification

 


Rattan Lal is Director of the CFAES Rattan Lal Center for Carbon Management and Sequestration, and Distinguished University Professor of Soil Sciences at Ohio State University, Columbus, USA. He was awarded the 2020 World Food Prize for developing and mainstreaming a soil-centric approach to increasing food production restoring and conserving natural resources and mitigating climate change.
Contact: lal.1(at)osu.edu
 

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