by Stephen Greenberg

Good practice in agriculture

Five steps to conserving practices that create sustainability in agriculture

Agroecology looks beyond agricultural production
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Agroecology is essentially the adaptation of agricultural production practices to the ecological conditions rather than the dominant approach of adapting the environment to suit agricultural practices.

It is not a single production system but a collection of techniques adapted to specific local conditions. While there are many possible principles underpinning agroecology, this article focuses on five: diversity, adaptation, multi-functionality, closing energy and nutrient cycles, and context specificity.

Diversity

Diversity refers to widening the base of what is being produced, how and by whom. The logic is that if one part of the system fails, other parts can still succeed. Diversity therefore produces flexibility and robustness in the system. The first type of diversity is biodiversity. If we look at any local ecosystem, we can see a wide variety of plants and animals interacting with one another.

This is true in desert conditions as much as in forests, even though their complexity may differ. Genetic uniformity is not found in natural ecosystems. The aim of agroecology is to replicate this biodiversity on farms to match that of the natural ecosystem.

Adaptation

The second principle, adaptation, refers to the ability to adapt to short-term (drought) and long-term (climate change) adjustments in the ecosystem. It requires a willingness to change assumptions and interventions based on what is learned in practice, rather than ploughing ahead with the same strategy year after year in the face of declining returns (productivity, ecosystem resilience, adaptability).

The conventional response to ecosystem change is to attempt to create an artificial environment for agricultural production.

For example, the soil is converted into an inert carrier of manufactured chemicals to allow plants to grow from one year to the next. These strategies are heavily dependent on energy- and resource-inefficient and ecologically-damaging external inputs.

The expectation is that the longer-term negative impacts of productive activity will be solved through technological innovations yet to be discovered. This is leading into a dead end marked by ecological limits. In contrast, agroecology seeks to adapt to these recognised limits by adjusting practices to align more closely with the natural functioning of the ecosystem.

Multi-functionality

The third principle of agroecology is the multi-functionality of agriculture, referring both to the wide range of direct outputs (food, animal feed, fibre, medicine and fuel) and to other ‘intangible’ outcomes, such as the role farmers play in the stewardship of natural resources, or the role of agriculture in social cohesion.

Commercial agriculture contributes to these multifunctional roles, but sometimes in distorted ways. Specialisation of production (for example in livestock or crops or biofuels), means reducing biodiversity and opening the system to the vulnerability of stresses and shocks.

Competitive pressures tend to override the sustainable stewardship of natural resources, with environmental costs externalised and deferred to future generations as more energy – and resource-intensive methods of production are adopted to keep up with the market. In South Africa, agricultural production and land ownership are increasingly concentrated, creating social instability rather than cohesion.

Agroecological production seeks to take into account these multiple dimensions of agriculture, adjusting practices to ensure all of them produce positive outcomes, rather than imbalances where some (for example, high levels of production) come at the cost of others (for example, declining ecological or social sustainability).

This means integrating different production systems on individual farms, placing ecological integrity at the top of the priorities because ecological destruction will bring humanity down with it, and generating equitable systems will give a wider base of people opportunities for productive involvement.

Nutrient and energy circles

Closing nutrient and energy cycles is the fourth principle and focuses on reducing waste in the system, and identifying and using resources generated on the farm as inputs for further production.

Integrated livestock and cropping systems are central here, as the beneficial interactions between these components generate a cycle (animals feed on crop residues, and manure used for soil fertility) that can go a long way to closing on-farm nutrient cycles and reducing reliance on external inputs.  

Context specificity

The final principle of agroecology is context specificity. This says that the specific context will determine practices, selection of technologies and their adaptation. The dominant scientific-industrial agricultural model tends to introduce uniform technologies that can only be used in one way. This requires intervention to alter local ecosystems to accommodate the most efficient use of the technologies rather than altering technologies to accommodate the ecosystem.

We should not view agroecology as unscientific. Agroecology is based on observable, measurable and replicable evidence, which defines a scientific approach. In an agroecological approach, context is geographical but is also cultural and socio-political.

These elements must be brought into account in decisions to adopt and adapt technological options.

To some extent commercial agriculture follows local specificity, for example, sheep are predominant in the arid Karoo, while intensive horticulture is dominant in the fertile soils of the Western Cape.

Agriculture would not survive if it took no account of the ecological context. However, there are other challenges facing commercial agriculture in relation to operating within ecological limits. Monocropping, separation of livestock and cropping systems and high input, high waste systems have been mentioned above.

Agroecology as a concept also looks beyond agricultural production on the farm, to encompass the ecology of food systems more broadly. This makes explicit the connections between agricultural production and input supply, processing, storage and distribution of food.

Localisation of food chains, co-operation between actors in food chains, the extent of integration into global markets, and farmer-community interactions come into play. Thus, Agroecology is not simply a change in production techniques contained within the boundaries of the farm, but has wider societal implications for how we produce and consume.

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