What’s needed to make agroecology mainstream?

Advocates share progress on metrics, digital tools, incentives, and investment
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Farmers in Pará, Brazil participate in an agroecology workshop. Photo by Solidaridad Latinoamérica

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The transition to agroecology has gained momentum in the past few years, as its broad benefits for climate, biodiversity, and food security become ever more apparent.

Meanwhile, technological developments – such as using precision agriculture backed by GPS, drone sensors, and satellite imagery; big data analytics and AI algorithms that analyze large data sets to provide insights into crop health; and blockchain technology for transparency and traceability – can help agricultural sector stakeholders to make ever-more-informed land-use decisions for productivity and sustainability at larger and larger scales.

Yet despite this momentum and potential, “there are still remarkable hindering factors to agroecological mainstreaming,” said Viviane Filippi, an international development expert at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Among these, she mentioned policies that favour conventional agricultural practices, like subsidies for chemical inputs; a lack of institutional support and extension services; limited market access, resistance to change by farming communities, and unwillingness to pay premium prices for agroecologically-produced goods by consumers, which at times discourages farmers from transitioning to sustainable practices.

She made the comments at a webinar on 8th February, 2024 that shared highlights from the Agroecological Transitions Program for Building Resilient and Inclusive Agricultural and Food Systems (TRANSITIONS).

The TRANSITIONS programme aims to enable climate-informed agroecological transitions by farmers at significant scales in low and middle income countries (LMICs) via three distinct projects that focus on: the development and adoption of holistic metrics for food and agricultural systems performance; inclusive digital tools; and traceable private-public sector incentives and investments for food systems.

David Mills, lead data engineer at Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stats4SD), is leading the metrics database and library workstream as part of the Metrics project. “We know that what we measure about the system informs how we view that system – so if we’re going to encourage change, we need to change what we measure,” he said. “We want to help people measure what matters, and to take a holistic approach to measuring and therefore understanding these systems.” On this note, a recent project paper on holistic assessments of food and agricultural systems intends to support metrics users in better navigating the available tools and frameworks by proposing a step-by-step approach to designing contextualised holistic assessments.

David also added insight on what scaling up agroecology might look like. “In my opinion, agroecology is about a change of perspective, and it’s not one that happens all at once; it’s a way of spreading ideas through lots of different systems,” he said. “I think our tools are going to help facilitate that change through individuals and small projects, while learning about different ways of measuring performance and understanding that if they can see their system in a slightly different way, maybe they can also realize that it’s not all about yield, or it’s not all about maximizing the two or three things that they have always tried to maximize. So it’s really about lots of little changes.”

Speaking on the inclusive digital tools strand of the programme from an implementing partner’s perspective, Violaine Laurens – the regional manager for digital solutions at Solidaridad Latinoamérica – shared experiences from a project in Brazil, which seeks to promote innovations related to digital tools that enhance inclusiveness and enable climate-informed agroecological transitions at scale.

Solidaridad operates in three municipalities in the Amazonian state of Pará, where it works with a group of 1200 farming families to implement a production model that combines cocoa agroforestry systems with livestock and forest preservation, with the goal of boosting family income and agroecological sustainability, including reducing carbon emissions and deforestation.

There, Solidaridad has developed ­– among other innovations – a mobile interface called Solis, which is integrated into an existing tool for technical staff called Extension Solution. Solis enables farmers to create and exchange content on locally relevant practices with each other – and with farm advisors and local experts, who then curate content according to agroecological principles. “We identified a huge opportunity to go beyond the conventional top-down approach of agricultural extension and use digital innovation to increase farmer agency”, said Laurens. “The use of Solis will enable farmers to co-create practices with extension staff and facilitate the creation of a digital learning community aimed at scaling agroecological practices.”

On the topic of traceability, Sébastien Balmisse – cocoa programme and quality manager for French organic and Fairtrade chocolate company KAOKA, who works on the incentives and investments part of the programme – shared his company’s efforts to implement a digital traceability tool that will allow stakeholders to track cocoa products from the farm to the shop floor – and collect agroecological metrics at the same time.

“We are very much aware that [producing things that are] organic and Fairtrade is not sufficient to address the current crises – but if we actually want farmers to really enter into conservation measures and regeneration of their natural resources, we have to find some mechanisms to provide incentives for positive externalities,” he said. “We believe that this project will help us to measure these externalities, which is the first step towards finding ways to pay for them.”

Marion Michaud – from the thematic unit F3 on sustainable agriculture and fisheries of the directorate-general for international partnerships (INTPA) at the European Commission, which funds the programme – lent her support to the visions shared during the webinar. “There is consensus on the need and urgency of a paradigmatic shift in the way we produce, trade and consume the food we eat; there is much less agreement on the way to achieve the systemic changes that are needed to transform agri-food systems to achieve the SDGs and to address global challenges that we face,” she said. “We at INTPA F3 strongly believe in the potential of agroecology to support such a transformation.” 

INTPA F3’s vision for agroecology aligns well with the TRANSITIONS programme, she said, because it: promotes locally adapted solutions by putting participation of actors and context-based knowledge at the centre, all the while involving farmers in their design; recognizes the need for responsible innovations; acknowledges the importance of value chains and markets; builds upon scientific progress or new technologies; and calls for continued investment into research based on both local and scientific knowledge – which, in essence, requires the development of new metrics that can capture trade-offs and synergies across the different dimensions of sustainability.

Lini Wollenberg, a research professor at the University of Vermont and Climate Action Policy and Institutions Leader at The Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, observed that “to achieve scale, we’re going to have to blend agroecology with other sustainability approaches.” She added that conventional scaling methods like private sector investment and digital tools “can be adapted to agroecological outcomes – if we consider farmer focus and farmer agency and include safeguards.” Finally, she emphasized “the essential role of user-focused metrics at these larger systemic scales, not just at the farmer/field level – but also including food systems, landscapes, and being able to integrate across agricultural and ecological systems.”


Acknowledgements

The TRANSITIONS programme is implemented by The Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT, CIFOR-ICRAF, IRRI, IWMI, The Transformative Partnership Platform on Agroecology, and the University of Vermont. It is generously funded by the European Union and managed by IFAD


Key contacts for the programme are:

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