Agroecological innovation

  • Les Levidow, Open University, United Kingdom

Innovation, in the broad sense of applying new ideas to daily practices, has always occurred. Agricultural practices have always responded to changing environmental conditions. Agroecology ‘is by definition an innovative, creative process of interactions among small-scale producers and their natural environments’ (IATP, 2013).

However, the term ‘innovation’ has become narrowly defined as meaning technological, commercialised innovation. From the 14th century onwards, social innovations have contributed to that narrowing, especially through various privileges and patent laws that reward novelty. By the early 20th century, innovation was understood as the commercial adoption of technological inventions. This, in turn, was seen as causing cultural or social changes – rather than being dependent on such changes (Godin, 2008 and 2015). Hence ‘innovation’ has underpinned a technological-deterministic explanation of societal change.

Emphasising capital-intensive technology, this model has become deeply embedded in policy and research frameworks. It ignores existing farmers’ networks, thereby marginalising the cooperative exchanges of knowledge which facilitate novelty. The prevalent definition of innovation has hidden and devalued farmers’ knowledge, which generates most agricultural improvements, while attributing those improvements elsewhere, for instance, to external innovators, agro-supply companies or patent holders.

All this has privileged laboratory-based knowledge, favouring agri-biotech in particular in research agendas, at the expense agroecology (Vanloqueren and Baret, 2009). As in industrial processes, a top-down ‘knowledge transfer’ from researchers reduces farmers to mere users of technology. Moreover, the transfer is targeted at individual farmers in isolated farms (Moschitz et al, 2015).

Agroecology faces the task of reclaiming ‘innovation’ for knowledge production and policy support. This includes innovation across the entire agro-food chain, linking farmers with other farmers and with inputs of natural resources, as well as consumers who support agroecological methods. Such initiatives act together to challenge the dominant models of innovation and agriculture. Agroecology embraces other forms of innovation, alongside the technological-scientific:

  • Know-how innovation: the development of new management approaches and the introduction of both new and traditional knowledge related to methods and practices.
  • Organisational innovation: introducing changes to the actual patterns of management and cooperation, right across the agro-food value chains as well as between the farmers that share common landscapes.
  • Social innovation: changing the behaviour of groups in society, while maintaining or strengthening cooperation within farmers’ networks, for example empowering primary producers vis-à-vis input suppliers and retailers, and altering the relationships between companies and the general public (IFOAM EU Group et al, 2012: 3).  

This section first examines farmers’ innovations, then takes a look across the agro-food chain.  Specific examples here come mainly from Brazil and Europe (especially France), where agroecological innovation is well documented and promoted as such.

Farmers’ agroecological know-how innovation

In promoting agroecology, expert studies have pointed to farmers’ traditional and local knowledge as a basis for innovation. This was highlighted in 2007-08 when stakeholders discussed the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). According to the IAASTD report, in systems of agricultural knowledge, science and technology (AKST) no official recognition is given to innovation by farmers:

Partly because the innumerable but diverse innovations resulting from local and traditional AKST are hard to present as statistical data they typically are overlooked, undervalued and excluded from the modelling that often guides AKST decision making (IAASTD, 2009: 71).

Enabling resource-poor farmers to link their own local knowledge to external expert and scientific knowledge for innovative management of soil fertility, crop genetic diversity, and natural resources is a powerful tool for enabling them to capture market opportunities (Ibid: 27).

Inequitable power relationships create barriers to such opportunities. To develop agroecology further, it is necessary to evaluate the extent to which farmers are able to innovate. They use and share their knowledge in innovative ways in order to adapt techniques to local conditions. ‘Analysing the drivers of farmers’ choices thus requires a flexible analytical framework, context-specific indicators and a focus on farmers’ capacity to innovate, rather than uptake and consume innovations.’ (Silici, 2014: 22).

Contrary to the prevailing system, in which technological fixes are meant to compensate for the limitations of nature and farmers, the agroecological perspective recasts ‘innovation’:

Innovations by agroecological farmers are in response to technological constraints/failures, in relation to issues of weed resistance, loss of soil fertility, and pesticide-related health problems…… Often extension services have not developed agroecological expertise and farmers have had to work collectively to find appropriate solutions (FAO, 2014: 7-8).

For the past decade, agroecological farmers and scientists in Brazil have been playing a globally leading role. Agroecological methods have been promoted there by small-scale farmers’ organisations, especially parts of the landless movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, 2015). Responding to the new demand, in 2004 Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture developed an agroecological programme to support family-based ecological agriculture. This initiative included a nationwide competition for documenting alternative experiences in agriculture (Caporal, 2006). An NGO that advises family farmers’ organisations tested various methods of documenting farm-level innovations. This encouraged more exchanges of information regarding farmers’ experiments with agroecology (AS-PTA, 2006).

Such informal exchange networks can be undermined by packages of top-down ‘technology transfer’.  To avoid this problem, Brazil’s agroecological innovation has been strategically linked with a programme for agricultural and societal transformation, in order to promote an economy based on solidarity (MST, 2015; Thies, 2013). In 2012 diverse stakeholder groups agreed a National Plan of Agroecological and Organic Production (PLANAPO), which included a broad definition of family farming that encompasses more activities and livelihoods. The Plan also involves substantial state funding to promote socio-economic innovation related to agroecology.

Partly thanks to La Via Campesina, this Latin American agroecology agenda has since inspired transformational strategies by farmers’ and civil society organisations elsewhere. These draw on farmers’ long history of agroecological experimentation, which has recently been gaining official recognition, especially in Europe (SCAR FEG, 2008). Indeed, agroecology should be given priority in research agendas, according to the EU’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research:

Approaches that promise building blocks towards low-input high-output systems, integrate historical knowledge and agroecological principles that use nature’s capacity and models nature’s system flows, should receive the highest priority for funding (SCAR FEG, 2011: 8).

The European organic sector and its supporters have worked together to promote agroecological research with the concept of ‘eco-functional intensification’. This links practical innovation, farmers’ knowledge and scientific research.

[Eco-functional intensification means] more efficient use of natural resources, improved nutrient recycling techniques and agro-ecological methods for enhancing diversity and the health of soils, crops and livestock. Such intensification builds on the knowledge of stakeholders using participatory methods… [It means] activating more knowledge and achieving a higher degree of organization per land unit. It intensifies the beneficial effects of ecosystem functions, including biodiversity, soil fertility and homeostasis (Niggli et al, 2008: 34).

Thus intensification can result in lower input costs and higher productivity through resource-recycling and biodiverse systems, not simply through increased yields.

A French network of small-scale farmers, the Réseau Semences Paysans, has played an important innovative role by saving, exchanging and improving seeds (RSP, 2008). Their long-standing experience provides the basis for participatory plant breeding (PPB.  This research process is carried out jointly with scientists, who now recognise that opportunities for farmer participation depend on the sources and methods of varietal breeding.

Farmers’ involvement in the breeding process is also closely linked to the vegetal material that is used, valued and shared. Depending on the type (genetic resources, segregating pure lines, populations or advanced material), farmers may be in a position to innovate, adapt or to manage the process dynamically. In addition, if farmers are allowed to handle the materials, this may help them to explain their preferences better when expressing opinions during interviews, in which they face the added pressures of the researcher or the social control of their peers (Chiffoleau and Desclaux, 2006: 123).

Their seed-breeding goals include climate resilience and higher productivity with minimal external inputs, which can be enhanced by heterogeneity, as appropriate (Bocci, 2014). To facilitate cooperation between farmers and researchers, a civil society organisation attempted to identify and overcome existing barriers. Its research project produced a number of recommendations, as well as a noteworthy book about farmers’ visions with respect to PPB research (Sciences Citoyennes, 2012). The project linked the co-piloting of research with civil society participation, in order to produce ecologically useful knowledge.

Organisational innovation across the agro-food chain

Beyond cooperation with other farmers and scientists, agroecological methods aim at improvements that affect whole landscapes, enhance the natural resource base and strengthen links with consumer groups that support such methods.

Promoting more diverse systems of local crop production at farm and landscape scale, to create more diverse habitats for wild species/ecological communities and for the provision of ecosystem services. This will require institutional innovations to enable efficient marketing systems to handle diversified production (IAASTD, 2009: 29).


New modes of governance to develop innovative local networks and decentralized government, focusing on small-scale producers and the urban poor (supporting urban agriculture; direct links between urban consumers and rural producers) will help create and strengthen synergistic and complementary capacities. (IAASTD, 2009: 6-7).

In this broad sense, ‘agro-ecological innovation’ has been promoted by a European alliance of farmers and civil society organisations (ARC2020 et al, 2015).

Over the past decade, Europe has seen more initiatives designed to bring food producers and consumers closer together. These are variously known as alternative agro-food networks, short food supply chains (SFSCs, or circuits courts), or agro-food re-localisation. As a social innovation, SFSCs complement product innovation, for example when local breeds and varieties are used or in the case of on-farm processed products (Galli and Brunori, 2013).  Such initiatives are necessary to incentivise and remunerate agroecological methods by securing consumer support, especially for those farmers who lack the premium price of certified organic products. More ambitiously, such networks can empower new citizen-community alliances as a counterweight to the dominant agri-food system and its competitive pressures (Fernandez et al, 2013).

Alternative food networks build up consumer support for agri-food methods, which (among other benefits) minimise external inputs and enhance aesthetic food qualities. Many farmers maintain regimes that aim to preserve the environmental quality of landscapes, maintaining agro-biodiversity by preserving local traditions and varieties. Although most such initiatives began by marketing organic products, they have also expanded the opportunities for producers to secure better remuneration and policy support for agroecological methods more generally (Karner, 2012). On-farm food processing is designed to conserve nutritional quality, minimise energy inputs and strengthen links with consumers.

In such ways, local food systems depend upon innovation in linking agroecological methods with the entire food chain. Farmers, entrepreneurs and others demonstrate the capacity to innovate, to find new forms which can promote sustainable communities, to reconstruct local identity and to enhance the local economy by building on local traditions. The potential to expand, and to bring meaningful change in the agro-food system, depends upon four main factors involving social innovation:

  • They must professionalise their skills, with help from specialist intermediaries.
  • They must build and maintain consumer loyalty, especially as supermarket chains sell more products labelled as ‘quality’, even as ‘local’.
  • They must constantly learn in order to keep up with changing circumstances and to remain competitive in the market.
  • They need the continued dedicated effort and innovation of leaders or ‘champions’, who can link diverse stakeholders and policy-makers (Karner, 2012).

In many places, social innovations have been promoted as agroecological methods. In Brittany in north-western France, an agricultural extension service persuaded municipalities to adopt policy measures which help link urban consumers with agricultural producers, thereby minimising resource burdens (Maréchal and Spanu, 2010). A citizen-led certification scheme in the region evaluates whole-farm sustainability. An agronomist makes two farm visits, the first to collect data and the second to give feedback and negotiate a progress agreement with the farmer (Galli and Brunori, 2013). This process generates a commitment to continuous improvement, rather than a priori criteria for certification.

At the same time, agroecological methods have recently been adopted by some actors who also promote conventional agriculture. Examples include agrochemical companies and some governments, especially France. As such,agroecological methods have also been incorporated into ‘sustainable intensification’, where they are combined with other methods (including biotech) to increase yields, while also lowering the pressure on land and natural resources.  This process has been criticized by some NGOs and farmers’ organisations (ARC2020, 2015: 1; Levidow et al, 2014; Levidow, 2015).

In this context of an incorporation process, agroecology provides an alternative strategy across the agro-food chain. It empowers primary producers vis-à-vis input suppliers and retailers; it alters the relationships between companies, civil society organisations and the general public. As a result, various agroecological innovations remain key to the transition of the agri-food system.


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