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Blog Post
23 May 2024
Author: Aziliz Le Rouzo

New metrics and frameworks for an agroecological future

Climate-Smart Village in Ilagan, Isabela, Philippines. Credit: ©2023CIAT/MiguelMamon

Our food systems are broken. The good news is that we know what to do about it, and we have for a long time. The Limits of Growth, published in 1972 by the Club of Rome, described the Green Revolution as a technological solution to the world’s food problems, overlooking its social and environmental consequences. Mirroring the gross domestic product (GDP), which was described by Robert F. Kennedy as an indicator that ‘measures everything except that which is worthwhile‘, food systems have been driven by a lust for productivity, measured in yield per hectare, lacking indicators that could consider socio-cultural and environmental aspects integral to providing healthy nutrition for all. Today, negative aspects of food systems contributing to GDP growth include the productivist expansion of cultivated lands without regard for the ecosystem destruction they incur, the lobbying of the agro-industries maintaining structural power imbalances and the health-care costs of immuno-deficiencies afflicting people around the world. At the same time, we are failing to account for both the negative and positive impacts of our food systems. The State of Food and Agriculture 2023 unveils some of what was left unaccounted for, estimating the hidden costs of food systems to reach at least $10 trillion a year, representing about 10% of the global GDP.  

Against this background, the need for new economic indicators is blatantly clear, as is the need to re-think our food systems beyond the sole pursuit of economic growth. 

Agroecology – a long-awaited fix to our food systems 

In the footsteps of the 2002 Rio+10 Summit on Sustainable Development, an international assessment of global agriculture was initiated by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The landmark report that followed “Agriculture at a Crossroads”, also known as the IAASTD report, conveyed a clear message calling for a radical transformation of food systems towards an agroecological model.  

Drawing evidence from across the world, the report’s authors concluded that maintaining the status quo was not viable, paving the way for a paradigm shift. Emphasising the need for solutions that tackle the cause of the problems rather than the symptoms, this new paradigm builds upon the recognition of planetary boundaries and natural scarcities, alongside the limited remaining time to act.  

A decade later, authors of the IAASTD report reconvened to document the progress made. One of their key concerns was the continued prioritisation of conventional green revolution and industrial agriculture technologies and practices in public and private R&D investments. Money is not flowing where it should and market structures that support agricultural production modelled after the industrial recipe – with a utilitarian view of nature and a linear external-input-intensive production approach – still prevail.  

Institutional gaps persist despite global momentum 

Institutional gaps can in part be attributed to the apparent mismatch between agroecology and compartmentalised institutional processes. Rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution, agroecology draws from a broad range of practices and socio-cultural concepts, fostering a holistic yet context-sensitive transformation of food systems. This breadth of applications, spanning across different contexts, constitutes one of the core strengths of agroecology. Paradoxically, this versatility is also what makes the agroecological model both hard to integrate into institutional frameworks and prone to co-optation.  

And yet, agroecology is gaining global momentum, driven by a growing body of determined smallholders and family farmers, Indigenous Peoples, civil society actors, policy makers and researchers. They are paving the way for a profound transformation of how food is produced, distributed, consumed and governed; reshaping our relationship with food and the environment, influencing cultural norms, fostering community resilience, and challenging existing economic paradigms. Estimates suggest that about 30% of global agriculture is agroecological, but supportive frameworks which go beyond traditional economic considerations are still critically lacking.  

Foundations for Action: harmonising agroecological principles and practices 

Recent efforts to anchor the social movement, set of practices, and science which define agroecology into an actionable framework have resulted in the definition of the 10 Elements of Agroecology by FAO, as well as the formulation of the 13 Principles of Agroecology by the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). These parallel processes informed each other while pursuing different aims and applications.  

  • The 10 Elements of Agroecology, result from an extensive multi-stakeholder process aimed at creating a system redesign framework that can be optimised and adapted to local contexts. 
  • The 13 Principles of Agroecology, consolidated from literature into normative and causative statements, are designed to guide policymakers.  

The table provides an overview of the 13 principles, their scale of application and correspondence to FAO’s elements of agroecology. The principles can be simultaneously applied across multiple scales, from the field (FI) and the farm (FA) to the agroecosystem levels (FS). Source: Table adapted from Wezel et al., (2020) and HLPE, (2019).

New guiding frameworks and applications  

The 10 elements and 13 principles of agroecology have played a pivotal role in shaping policies and investment strategies geared towards agroecology. Eastern and Southern Africa are embracing National Agroecology Strategies, following a participative bottom-up process that breaks free from the conventional dynamics of policy making. These processes are supported by evidence-based decision-making tools such as the  Tool for Agroecology Performance Evaluation (TAPE), the Business Agroecology Criteria Tool (B-ACT) and the Agroecology Finance Assessment Tool. 

  • TAPE measures the multi-dimensional performance of agroecological systems across the different dimensions of sustainability. It was developed to be used on the ground, collaboratively with farmers.  
  • The B-ACT tool and the Agroecology Finance Assessment Tool seek to guide investment decisions by providing a holistic assessment of projects, initiatives or businesses, against the 13 principles of agroecology.  

With the emergence of these tools, an important question arises regarding the selective application of the principles and how their interplay, or lack thereof, may influence the transformative power of agroecology. Though no hierarchy exists amongst principles, not all of them require the same degree of transformative change. This poses the risk of a ‘basket of choice’ approach towards agroecology, leading to a fragmented rather than holistic implementation of the principles. In Africa, recent case studies highlight that while agroecological practices are widely used, most of them focus on external input reduction, improved soil health, increased synergies, and recycling.  

To support a transformation at higher system scales that tackles political, economic or social aspects beyond production, robust adherence to the principles is essential. To that end, the Agroecology Finance Assessment Tool mandates adherence to at least four core agroecology principles – co-creation of knowledge, social values and diets, fairness, and participation – in all projects and initiatives. However, given the recent release of these tools, agroecological actors are yet to familiarise themselves with these new requirements. There is a risk that farmers who self-identify as agroecological would struggle to fit into that mold.  

While these frameworks represent a significant advancement in the institutionalisation of agroecology, careful support will be needed to ensure that agroecological farmers are able to effectively navigate and adhere to the prescribed guidelines. 

Bridging practice and theory 

In the past 50 years, the need for a radical restructuring of our food systems, and more broadly of the economy, has become increasingly clear. This profound transformation necessitates changes in agricultural practices and production methods and a broader re-evaluation of how we govern and finance projects based on metrics which redefine food systems to be fair, healthy and sustainable. The theorisation of the 10 elements and 13 principles of agroecology has paved the way for improved decision-making and acts as a compass to change the course of food systems.