The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Agroecology as an organizing principle

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Oxfam staff and partners met last month with farmers in Cambodia who are using the system of rice intensification.  Photo: Gawain Kripke / Oxfam Oxfam staff and partners met last month with farmers in Cambodia who are using the system of rice intensification. Photo: Gawain Kripke / Oxfam

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Wrestling with agriculture in a heterogeneous world

Wrestling with agriculture in a heterogeneous world

What I knew or had heard about agroecology was pretty jumbled and a bit vague. So I spent a couple of days learning what agroecology really means from colleagues and experts, and also thinking about how an organization like Oxfam can approach this idea.

I came a away with a rough idea that agroecological approaches are characterized by:

  • making maximal use of indigenous knowledge, techniques, nutrients, biomass, and localized resources;
  • minimizing loss of soil nutrients and orient towards close-loop systems;
  • improving and restoring soil conditions, coverage, increasing soil organic matter and nutrients;
  • understanding and promoting biodiversity, and biological interactions and synergies; and
  • seeking to align agricultural production strategies to take advantage – and facilitate – these for purposes like pest management, weed control, waste management.

In addition, agroecology can be thought of as a scientific or analytical approach, or a set of agronomic practices and strategies. Agroecology has also taken on cultural and political dimensions, and has been embraced by some social movements in countries like Brazil and internationally, e.g. La Via Campesina.

With all these ways to describe agroecology, I still have a hard time defining it.  This is, perhaps, inherent to an approach which is rigorously context-specific. Paying so much attention to local conditions, local ecology, and local cultural and social institutions leads inevitably to diversity and variability. This diversity and variability can make it conceptually complex and hard to operationalize, much less take to scale. This can make it hard also to measure rigorously – both inputs, outputs, and impacts.

For an organization like Oxfam, agroecology has a lot of attractive features.  In particular, the validation of farmer initiative, localized knowledge and learning, and the prospect of improving livelihood resilience are very appealing.  The possibility of reducing some forms of risks – for example from input price volatility – is important.

Without taking formal or centralized decision, Oxfam has embraced agroecological approaches in many programs and places.  For example:

However, as I learned more about agroecology, I had to wince from time to time. It’s pretty clear to me that a lot of Oxfam’s existing and legacy program – including my own work – might contradict agroecological principles, at least in their purest form.  For example, I spent years championing the cause of African cotton producers.  This was good and important work.  But it would hard to describe the agriculture practices by these farmers as agroecology.  Oxfam has supported initiatives to develop organic cotton production.  But even that would be a far cry from agroecology as I understand it.  Other work that I’ve been involved in on shrimp, coffee, sugar, maize, chocolate – really anything engaging in value-chains (especially for export markets) is at best unrelated, and at worst contradictory to agroecological approaches.  I’d be happy to be shown that I’m wrong.  But I’m concerned that embracing agroecology would necessarily mean abandoning important efforts to help farmers get more power and benefits from markets.

SRI rice ready for harvest in Cambodia. Photo: Gawain Kripke / Oxfam

For me, agroecology is a field still evolving and emerging.  Agroecological practices have been around for thousands of years, and the field of agroecology study and strategy has been developing for decades.  And yet, it’s still in it’s infancy.  Certainly ecological studies are evolving and we know a lot more about how natural systems work today than we did 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago.  Remember when contour plowing was a new and important idea?  Remember when no-till farming was a new idea?

At it’s core, agroecology has a simple compelling insight.  There are huge advantages and benefits to aligning agricultural practices and strategies with natural systems and with traditional knowledge.  Among the potential benefits is higher productivity (land), lower input costs, reduced environmental costs and externalities, and social harmony.  Among the potential risks, however, are higher labor demands, lower productivity (especially labor productivity), and economic stagnation.

For me, it’s pretty clear that agroecology is something that Oxfam should take on board.  The potential to reduce agricultural risk and dependence on uncontrollable variables is important.  Agroecological approaches could be particularly important for farmers in specific situations: farmers who face serious risks of input access and volatility; farmers who are remote from markets and infrastructure; and farmers facing marginal or deteriorating growing conditions.

But I should say that I don’t think Oxfam could or should adopt agroecology to the exclusion of other approaches – at least not at this stage in Oxfam’s development and at this state in agroecology’s development.  It’s not clear to me that agroecology offers much support in the struggles that many producers face in claiming larger market shares and larger shares of value in markets.  This has been a central concern for Oxfam and something I think we have made some progress on.  Likewise, some important questions and information gaps remain about how agroecological approaches work out; in gender impacts for example, and longer-term viability.  Can agroecological approaches co-exist with in landscapes with more conventional agricultural approaches?

Lastly, while it’s right to be skeptical of simplistic or silver-bullet solutions it’s also true that the diversity and complexity of agroecological approaches is a big challenge – not just to Oxfam, but also for farmers themselves.  If simple solutions are often stupid, complex solutions can be unworkable.  Finding a happy medium seems to be the challenge.


Note: Thanks especially to Oxfam colleagues Stephane Parmentier of Oxfam-Solidarity for his excellent background discussion pape, “Scaling-up agro-ecological approaches: What, why and how?” and to Gina Castillo for providing useful insight and background.

Join the conversation

  1.  avatarChris Carnevale

    Great, honest article, Mr. Kripke. I’m curious why you think that applying ecological methods to agriculture mitigates farms’ ability to access markets. If it’s that they just don’t produce enough volume in any one single product (rather than a little of a lot of products) to justify tapping export markets, for example, then growers cooperatives are a good solution for farmers growing a smaller, and thus more ecological, scale. Also, how would you weigh the benefits of increased labor demand (i.e. providing jobs to the community) against the downsides (i.e. higher operating costs for the farm)?

  2. Jim French

    Gawain, your post on agroecology is very thorough and thoughtful. I am convinced that an agriculture that mimics natural sytems which are appropriate to location can be a target that one aims for regardless of the cropping pattern or scale of operation. I would also agree that agro-ecological practices often fit well with small holders and what is called “family farming.” And there are some very good examples of indigenous agriculture that has worked in harmony with natural systems.

    However, it is easy to romanticize. New England was once covered with virgin hardwoods before it was largely deforested in part by the “yeoman” farmer praised by Thomas Jefferson. Over grazing and tillage contributed to the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa.The tillage tools developed by our ancestors have contributed to soil degradation and loss of carbon.

    What may be the more important discussion is how agroecological practices can be identified and adopted in ways that support communities, increase resiliency, buoy up livelihoods and increase biodiversity. There may be no pure approach in any one eco-zone, but there can be goal to aim for, and improvements which can at least make agriculture less of a drain on nature. I would also put out there for debate, whether the agro-ecological tool box should be open to the new breakthroughs in bio-technology and nutrient management. I would say that we can’t afford to limit options.

    Also, Gawain, I would be willing to discuss cotton. The poor plant has been victim to industrial and governmental policies and practices. I am not sure that I would agree that it could not fit within a sustainable cropping pattern.

  3.  avatarStuart Thomson

    A really good reflective piece. It really sums up some of the key issues and ways forward for Oxfam as an organisation.

    The main thing I took from the meeting was that Agroecology (as an approach, science or movement) is based in the issue of power. Something Oxfam and our Partners work tirelessly in addressing to eliminate poverty and inequality in all its forms.

    So from where I sit the first question (among many) of which to ask when supporting agroecological approaches is one of power. Will this result in greater ownership and control over resources for women and small scale producers? Will it result in better and more nutritious household food choices? Will it work on making the food system more equitable in its distribution of befefits gained through food production?

    So for me it affirmed that the key driver for why Oxfam would support agro-ecology (and other approaches) is that it puts us on the path of greater power sharing and transferral to the most poor and vulnerable.

  4.  avatarConstantino Casasbuenas

    I think that Agro-ecology is an intermediate work that is always defined between 2 ‘extremes’ in terms of relying in nature or not. Most of the practices that I have seen operating are on the extreme closer to nature and at very different scale in different countries, even in a country like Brazil, Bolivia or Cuba, when you manage to combine both.

    I find interesting to see what is happening with the 2014 International Year of Family Farming, and how networks like COPROFAM (Latin America), AFA (Asia), ROPPA (Africa) are conceptualising their own practice. I don’t think that their positions have to do if they influence the market or not, but how they defend food sovereignty, good governance and their engagement in policy making.

    The 2nd point is about ancestral practices. It is important to see those practices implemented by indigenous populations and by afro-descendants in Latin America. Their practices are the best defense against a warming world, and they becoming an imporant source of top quality food.

    My impression is that agro-ecology is very strongly practised in many other countries and networks. We need to find the best ways to connect and learn from them.

    I did no understand your point on coffee and cocoa. Well, I am a Colombian, somehow being closer to good quality coffee and cocoa. I find that in both, you have small holders practising agro-ecology to supply the family, the community and the internal markets. If there is anything to export, well countries have the capacity to do this. Anyway, th important point is that if you go to a coffee plot, you will find some of the best agro-ecol practices, where you combine coffee with top quality water, with different types of vegetables (and animals) inside the offee plots. It’s a real delight to enjoy these ! On cocoa the situation is different and more complex, in the sense that each coffee tree lives in the order of 100 years and normally the smll holder or the family keep care of the tree in a kind of ‘personalised’ way. The cocoa trees could get even specific names! Again, it’s important to see the relation that cooa has with ancient indigenous cultures and how cacao was offered to the gods.

    Because of the media and the markets, it became ‘familiar’ to get an ‘American’ Starbucks coffee or to eat a Leonidas ‘Belgium’ chocolate. If we ask any of these and many other brands about ‘their’ product, they will emphatically indicate that the best quality of their product is coming from small-scale agro-ecological production systems. The big challenge for them is how to defend agro-ecology!

  5.  avatarPaul Jepson

    I enjoyed your thoughtful blog about agroecology and it struck me that you might be interested in our work that was published yesterday (see below) and also reported on the FAO website:

    Although it may not come as a surprise that toxic pesticides are in widespread use West Africa, this is the first rigorous study to quantify the risks and the compounds involved in such detail. We are very concerned that the extent and the severity of risks impairs the opportunity for agro-ecological approaches to flourish.

    We hope that this work can help to change the conversation about risks to one that focuses on actions and the ability to track progress.

    Thank you and best wishes, Paul Jepson


    “Measuring pesticide ecological and health risks in West African agriculture to establish an enabling environment for sustainable intensification”

    Abstract here:

    Full Text here:


  6.  avatarM. Jahi Chappell

    Mr. Kripke,

    A very interesting post on a topic dear to me. It’s always interesting to me when people say that they’re not quite sure what agroecology is (of course, I would find that interesting as I am an agroecologist). This is probably because it means different things to many people, yet this is true of many things that we still think it’s desirable to unambiguously strive for (gender equality, diversity, human rights, good science, and sustainability and resiliency are all things most people are “for”, even though they mean very different things to different audiences).

    On the one hand, the most elementary definitions of agroecology as practice and as a science are easy: as a set of practices, it is an evolving approach that seeks to minimize the environmental disruption caused by agriculture and maximize agriculture’s ability to take advantage of (and fit within or even promote) pre-existing natural processes. As a science, it seeks to support the goals of practice, to study exactly *how* agriculture interacts with ecological systems, and how the laws and patterns of ecology play out within agriculture (weed competition, pesticide resistance, and–I would argue–the inherent ecological resource inefficiency of monoculture for instance).

    A second level, too often neglected but inherently part of science and practice is how different agricultural approaches reflect and affect social systems, especially power and resource allocation for farmers. Systems of farming do not thrive or shrivel purely on some pure-market-based sense of efficiency (subsidization, research support, and other “interventions” have been common and frequent throughout the world and throughout history, as makes sense for the food provisioning apparatus of society). So what flourishes or spreads in agriculture and what doesn’t is necessarily a sociopolitical question; what kind of agriculture people want, inherit, and accept is cultural. So the practices and science must consider social, economic, and cultural forces around agriculture (see for example Gaetan vanLoqueren on “lock-in”: ; or Rangnekar on planned obsolescence:

    A third level is at the level of autonomy and mobilization: farmers’ rights to produce in a way that supports broader society but also their own family and community. This is closely tied to the concept of food sovereignty, which many farmers see as inseparable from proper agroecology.

    What is interesting to me is your conceptualization of the challenge of agroecology being so diverse and situation-dependent. You say “complex solutions are unworkable”, but of course, complexity depends on many different factors. I’d argue this complexity is mainly a problem of “legibility” for larger (better resourced) organizations attempting to interact with farmers, and with farmers who don’t have the resources (education, money, stability) to support the experimentation that allows for successful agroecological approaches. Yet, is it truly arguable that such experimentation is what will (in the long run) allow the most efficient, resilient, sustainable systems? Wouldn’t agriculture tailored to each specific ecosystem and culture almost by definition be the most sustainable, efficient, and likely to be maintained system? There would be regularities, but also many differences, just like with anything else cultural. But we know resources for experimentation, strong (but respected and resourced) local control, and basic resources like water, capital, and education can support agroecological systems. Need we understand the complexity of every single system if we can understand the pre-requisites for building them? (This is parallel to Ostrom’s work on common property management, which finds great effectiveness in locally-based organizations, with overall patterns, but whose exact rules have an enormous–some would call “unmanageable”–diversity: e.g.

    In the end, to me the question isn’t how “simple” or “complex” a solution is, but rather how well-suited it is to the task. Agroecology says that it takes constant adaptation and interaction between farmers, society, and researchers to maintain this well-suited relationship. This necessarily generates and supports diversity (when done right). While the perfect should not be the enemy the good, we should nevertheless plan continual progress towards perfect even as we implement measures to install the good. So to me (again, not unbiased) agroecology is an obvious commitment because it doesn’t (necessarily) demand everything *now*, but it does (as a framework) call for things to be as locally-suited and as diverse and as non-centralized as is possible and effective. It does not, for example, prohibit export crops, but it would on one level say (a) the crops should be grown and transported using methods with the least environmental impact and maximum social, cultural, and economic appropriateness for farmers possible, and (b) in the medium term, the effectiveness and efficiency of said exports must be scientifically and culturally queried, because of the governance and socio-environmental responsiveness possibilities of more (not completely) autonomous systems and the greater (but not complete) likelihood of more localized systems being more likely to remain grounded in the realities and needs and limits of local ecosystems.

    See ; ; ; ;


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