New study highlights the potential of agroecology to build climate-resilient livelihoods and food systems

Rome - With the severe impacts that climate change is having on food security and nutrition, there is an urgent call for more sustainable and climate-resilient food systems. The quest for sustainable solutions is gaining increased importance as the world tackles the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to “build back better”. A recent scientific study, ‘The potential of agroecology to build climate-resilient livelihoods and food systems’, co-published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Biovision Foundation with technical support from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), and funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), shows that agroecology can play a vital role in achieving global food security and nutrition while reducing mounting pressures on natural resources.

The study is part of an effort to provide evidence-based work on agroecology and an attempt to respond to the Committee on Agriculture’s (COAG) 2018 request “to assist countries and regions to engage more effectively in the transition processes towards sustainable agriculture and food systems by strengthening normative, science and evidence-based work on agroecology”. The publication highlights the links between agroecology and climate change by providing evidence on the technical (i.e. ecological and socio-economic) and policy potential of agroecology to build resilient food systems.

Agroecology features prominently in international climate fora

Agriculture is gaining momentum in the international policy arena, in particular in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA), and also in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The study found that an increasing number of countries and stakeholders see agroecology as a promising means for meeting adaptation and mitigation targets and for achieving effective transformational change in the agricultural sectors. An analysis of 136 countries’ NDCs shows that ten percent refer to agroecology as a powerful approach to address climate change.This is further strengthened by submissions under the KJWA where many member nations and observer organizations are calling for transformation of food systems for enhanced resilience through sustainable approaches such as agroecology.

Country case studies show that agroecology can enhance the resilience of smallholder farmers

As both Senegal and Kenya have a track record of sustainable agriculture practices which are also considered in their current climate strategies, the countries were selected to apply the FAO SHARP approach. ‘The Self-evaluation and Holistic Assessment of climate Resilience of farmers and Pastoralists tool’ is designed as an instrument to assess the resilience of farmer and pastoralist households to climate change.  Statistical tests assessed the differences between farmers who practice agroecology and their peers using the 13 indicators of agroecosystems resilience developed by Cabell and Oelofse (2012)*. In Kenya, out of 13 resilience indicators used in SHARP, agroecology farms had higher resilience scores than non-agroecological farms in seven indicators. In Senegal, this occurred in three.

The study also highlighted that agroecology enhances social and human capital:  the ability of agroecological farmers to self-organise allows them to form broader social safety networks that buffer them against climatic and economic impacts. When it comes to natural capital, results showed that higher levels of biological diversity of these systems improve ecological processes like nutrient and water cycling and increase soil organic matter levels that add to soil fertility and overall soil health.

At the policy level, despite different policy settings in Kenya and Senegal, the study finds that there is considerable potential for agroecology to gain recognition as a resilient and sustainable production approach. However, it is challenging to translate the interdisciplinary and systemic nature of agroecology into policies, laws, and strategies. To address these challenges, there is a need for training and awareness-raising activities to create a common understanding of agroecology and to ensure that it is embraced by appropriate institutional frameworks.

Taking stock of findings

For smallholder farmers to benefit from approaches such as agroecology, it is important to continue generating evidence that shows the performance of this approach in the context of global challenges like climate change. Furthermore, it is necessary to redirect existing financial flows in agricultural research and development to sustainable and resilient production approaches and to further engage in comparative research on the multidimensional impacts of agroecology for decision-making and efficient resource allocation. Lastly, policies need to provide anenabling environment and a level playing ground for enhancing the adoption of agroecological principles.

*Cabell, J.F. & Oelofse, M. 2012. An indicator framework for assessing agroecosystem resilience. Ecology and Society, 17(1): 18. doi: 10.5751/ES-04666-170118.