What is agroecology?

Agroecology as a science, practice, social movement, and as a way of living is inspiring more and more people worldwide in the quest to find alternative production methods for an ecological and just agriculture. But agroecology means different things to different people. One of the pioneers of scientific agroecology, Miguel Altieri (1983), defined it as the application of ecological principles to agriculture. This definition of agroecology includes peasants and peasants’ knowledge and it sees them as stewards of the landscape, of biodiversity, and of the diversity of foods. In essence, it aims to mimic or apply ecological rules to agriculture – working with nature instead against it.

In 2009, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) documented the need for the agroecological transformation of agriculture, food production, and consumption and positioned the concept of agroecology in the debate on food politics (McIntyre et a., 2009). The report also showed that agroecological transformation is a worldwide challenge requiring a global effort to convert conventional, large-scale as well as small-scale farms into productive agroecological systems. It must involve farmers, scientists, and policymakers, at regional, national, and international levels. De Schutter (2010) also pointed out that the concept of agroecology includes the participation and empowerment of food-insecure groups, because it is impossible to improve their situation without their participation.

Hence, agroecology is neither a set of rules for a production system nor a uniform production technique. Rather, it is a set of principles and practices intended to enhance the sustainability of a farming system and it is a movement that seeks a new way of 'nature-smart' and just food production, developing and adapting it to changing environments. It is a systemic, holistic, integrative, transdisciplinary, participatory, and action-oriented approach – an approach that is vital for global food sovereignty.

In principle, agroecological systems should be based on five ecological principles as developed by Altieri (1995): 1) recycling biomass and balancing nutrient flows and availability; 2) securing favourable soil conditions for plant growth by enhancing organic matter and allowing soil processes to ensure continuing, optimal soil fertility; 3) minimising losses of solar radiation, water and nutrients by managing the microclimate and soil cover and practising water harvesting techniques; 4) enhancing biological and genetic diversification on cropland; and 5) enhancing beneficial biological interactions and eliminating the use of pesticides. Subsequently, several different authors have developed agroecological principles that can be found in the scientific literature. In addition to the environmental principles, these also encompass social, cultural, economic, and political aspects.

In a multi-stakeholder consultation process (2015 – 2019) 10 elements of agroecology were developed and approved by the 197 Members of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations FAO (Barrios, 2020; FAO, 2019). In 2019, the High-Level Panel of Experts report for the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) on ‘Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition’ subsequently consolidated the increasing number of principles and elements into a list of 13 principles which all correspond to the FAO elements: 1) recycling, 2) input reduction, 3) soil health, 4) animal health, 5) biodiversity, 6) synergy, 7) economic diversification, 8) co-creation of knowledge, 9) social values and diets, 10) fairness, 11) connectivity, 12) land and natural resource governance, and 13) participation (HLPE, 2019; Wezel et al. 2020).

Principles Agroecology

Figure 1: 13 principles of agroecology. Source: GIZ (2020)

Corporate Capture of Agroecology

While the need for an agroecological transformation of the agrifood system as documented by IAASTD is widely accepted, the question of what changes shall be implemented through what means and who the key players are, remains more controversial.

In 2015, the participants of the Forum for Agroecology in Nyéléni, Mali pointed to the risk of co-optation of agroecology by the industrial food system with key slogans such as ‘sustainable intensification’ or ‘climate smart agriculture’. They subsequently rejected the practices behind these slogans as incompatible with agroecological principles and decided to fight corporate capture of agroecology (Nyéléni, 2015).

Sustainable intensification aims to increase agricultural production by increasing yields instead of increasing the area of agricultural land. Thereby, it focuses on technological and productivity-oriented innovations (including new genetic engineering techniques, precision agriculture, big data, robotics, artificial intelligence) in order to improve resource efficiency while selectively and strategically incorporating agroecological principles with the aim to mitigate the worst environmental and health impacts of the current industrial agrifood system.

When economic conditions and structural injustices remain unchanged, such innovations allow continuing with business as usual – avoiding a structural transformation of the agrifood system and offering new profit opportunities under the slogan of sustainability. In this way, the threat of agroecology to capitalist industrial agriculture is neutralised while simultaneously capitalising on its momentum. Today’s major public-private initiatives promoting sustainable agriculture (such as the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative or the New Vision for Agriculture) all adopt this concept of sustainable intensification to produce more with less and are led and/or dominated by large transnational corporations of the agrifood sector such as Unilever, Néstle, Cargill, Corteva, Syngenta, or Bayer Monsanto (Alonso-Fradejas et al. 2020). Thereby, these corporations influence what changes in the current agrifood system are made, and even more importantly, what stays the same.

Agroecologists, in contrast, rather see the problem of hunger and malnutrition in distributive injustices. They analyse that the overall core problem of unsustainability and food crises is structural (related to capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism) and not merely technical and hence call for structural change instead of technofixes. Consequently, agroecologists criticize sustainable intensification as a way to introduce capital-intensive technologies (such as new genetic engineering techniques) into new markets (such as organic agriculture).

Contrary to the sustainable intensification’s positivist approach, agroecology is highly transdisciplinary and decentres science as the only form of knowledge production. Instead, it also embraces and promotes a diversity of critical methods and forms of knowledge, including citizen- and community-based research, participatory action research, and indigenous and traditional knowledge. While genetic engineers seek mastery over nature (control) and focus on symptoms, agroecologists want to work with nature (convivir) and focus on root-cause problems (see Montenegro de Wit, 2021).


  • Alonso-Fradejas, A. et al (2020) ‘Junk Agroecology’: The corporate capture of agroecology for a partial ecological transition without social justice, Friends of the Earth International, Transnational Institute and Crocevia.
  • Altieri, M. A. (1983). Agroecology: the scientific basis of alternative agriculture, Div. of Biol. Control, U.C. Berkeley.
  • Altieri M. A. (1995) Agroecology: the science of sustainable agriculture, second edition. Westview Press, Boulder, USA
  • Barrios E, Gemmill-Herren B, Bicksler A, Siliprandi E, Brathwaite R, Moller S, Batello C, Tittonell P (2020) The 10 elements of agroecology: enabling transitions towards sustainable agriculture and food systems through visual narratives. Ecosyst People 16(1):230–247.
  • FAO (2019) Report of the Conference of FAO. 41st Session. Rome, 22– 29 2019.
  • GIZ’s Sector Project Sustainable Agriculture (SV NAREN). (2020). Agroecology. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).
  • McIntyre, B. D. et al. (2009). International assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development (IAASTD): global report.
  • Montenegro de Wit, M. (2021). Can Agroecology and CRISPR Mix? The Politics of Complementarity and Moving Toward Technology Sovereignty. Agriculture and Human Values, 1–23.
  • Nyéléni. (2015). Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology. Nyéléni, Mali.
  • De Schutter, O. (2010). Agroecology and the Right to Food. United Nations.
  • Wezel, A., Herren, B. G., Kerr, R. B., Barrios, E., Gonçalves, A. L. R., & Sinclair, F. (2020). Agroecological principles and elements and their implications for transitioning to sustainable food systems. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 40(6), 40.