September 17, 2014

Agroecology and Ecoagriculture: Coming to Terms with the Terminology

Margie Miller, EcoAgriculture Partners

With the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security just around the corner, a colleague of mine was recently asked by a peer to explain the difference between agroecology and ecoagriculture. “Funny you should ask,” she replied, “we have a blog coming out on that in a few weeks.” Both of these phrases combine the roots “agr,” related to the land or field, and “eco,” related to the environment, and can be used when discussing sustainable land management. However, while they may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing.

On July 2, 2014, a group of scientists, directors and professors from American universities released a statement calling for increased public investment in agroecological research. They described agroecological practices as those that “appl[y] ecological principles and rel[y], to the greatest extent possible, on ecological processes to address current and future farming challenges.” Pesticide Action Network describes agroecology as “the science behind sustainable agriculture, from the ground up,” and names the four key properties of agroecological systems as productivity, resilience, equity, and sustainability.

Like agroecology, ecoagriculture values biodiversity, livelihoods, and food production. However, ecoagriculture also requires zooming out from the farm to the landscape level. Beyond implementing agroecological practices on their properties, farmers join with other groups like up and downstream water users, herders, health workers and government officials (and many more, depending on the context) to improve management of resources and services across an entire landscape. Ecoagriculture, therefore, emphasizes cooperation among multiple groups of stakeholders, effective landscape governance, linkages between sectors, and supportive policies and institutions at multiple levels.

Both agroecology and ecoagriculture are names for practices that have been implemented by humans for millennia, but were overshadowed as industrial agriculture became the norm. But how long have these names been used on the ground, and by whom? Agroecological practices took hold in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1980s among farmers as a way to improve their productivity without costly inputs and pesticides. Spreading rapidly through Central America’s Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) movement, agroecology as a set of practices and principles became associated with La Via Campesina, Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, and other rural political movements that stressed food sovereignty and opposition to free trade, GMOs, corporations, and neoliberal policies.

While the term “agroecology” was coined in 1928, “ecoagriculture” was not coined until 2002. In fact, the word is just one of hundreds used to express the more general term “integrated landscape management (ILM)”. While ecoagriculture is practiced by communities around the world, it has not yet benefitted from a large scale farmer-to-farmer movement that spreads its principles with minimal NGO intervention. And since all stakeholders in the landscape must come together to determine how the landscape is managed—including government bodies and businesses—ecoagriculture is far less political.

In summary, the two concepts are complementary. Ecoagriculture is the application of integrated landscape management in landscapes where agriculture is an important land use. And agroecological farm-level practices—like crop rotation, integrated pest management, agroforestry, and building soil nutrients with compost and crop residue—form one important component of ecoagriculture. A far more detailed definition of ecoagriculture is available now, in an article written by current and former EcoAgriculture Partners staff and published in the Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Food Systems (paywall). For more about ILM, please read Ecoagriculture Policy Focus No. 10, “Defining Integrated Landscape Management for Policy Makers.”

Do you think I have accurately captured the difference between ecoagriculture and agroecology? Want to disagree? Please share your thoughts below.

Photo: Meike Andersson, EcoAgriculture Partners
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