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Empowering smallholder farmers: Agroecology’s transformative potential


After decades of global progress on food security, the last few years have seen an increase in the number of people living in situations of food insecurity around the world. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was off track to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger by 2030.   

Obesity rates, acute malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies are rising in many parts of the world. Food systems are threatened by conflict in several regions, coupled with a global economic slowdown that introduces new obstacles to production, processing and transport as well as the purchasing power of consumers.  

Climate change and extreme weather events such as heat waves, floods and droughts are increasing, as is the degradation of natural resources on which agriculture and humanity depend. The emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance and endemic livestock illnesses further fuel food security concerns around the world, particularly for the Global South. These challenges threaten progress towards greater gender and social inclusion as women, girls and other equity-seeking groups increasingly face unequal access to services and opportunities, which limits their ability to fully participate in and benefit from socio-economic activities. 

Faced with these complex, inter-linked challenges, there is a global consensus that a paradigm shift is urgently needed for food systems to adequately feed the world in a healthier, more equitable and more sustainable way. Agroecology — an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable agriculture — has emerged as a promising means to redefine food systems through the integration of technical, scientific and political strategies.   

Rooted in the holistic application of ecological principles, agroecology combines concepts of agronomy and ecology to construct agricultural frameworks and practices that optimize the interactions between soils, plants, animals and local communities. Across the globe, agroecology has demonstrated its efficacy in tackling energy, water and food security challenges by promoting transformative changes, while bolstering local agri-food resilience and contributing to the rebalance of gender power relations.  

Despite the transformative potential of agroecology and its growing relevance in the face of the climate crisis, research and investment in the approach remain limited. IDRC stands out as a leader in this field, with a portfolio of 20 agroecology-related projects currently underway in the Global South, including 14 in Latin America and the Caribbean and six in Africa. These research projects represent an investment of CAD7 million and involve an array of partners.  

Fostering agroecology’s game-changing impact   

Smallholder farmers face a wide range of challenges in their efforts to transition to an agroecological approach. Some vary by location. But overarching obstacles persist, such as access to land and water, credit availability, restrictive regulatory frameworks, effective integration into policy and political agendas, and the replicability and scalability of successful experiences. Surmounting the se challenges is essential for the realization of agroecology's potential as a transformative force in global agriculture.  

IDRC-supported research is helping to address some of these issues through a portfolio of projects — from nurturing regional food supplies to fostering equitable trade interactions between producers and consumers to encouraging crop diversification, agricultural-livestock-forestry amalgamation and judicious food production planning. The research is also generating new evidence and supporting the production and sharing of knowledge to promote the wider transition to agroecology. 

“There are many open questions when it comes to applying the principles of agroecology at scale. There are no recipes, and the practices depend on each context,” said Angela Cordeiro, co-director of the multi-donor Agroecology Fund, with which IDRC collaborates. “In the same way that research was fundamental to promoting industrial agriculture, more investment is needed in research for agroecology contextualized to the territories,” she said. 

Cultivating bonds to promote sustainable food systems 

IDRC’s collaboration with the Agroecology Fund, together with the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, a Mexican public university, spans several countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico. Comparing experiences across diverse countries and regions brings invaluable insights into the common challenges encountered when applying an agroecological approach. 

Through participatory research methodologies, the project is building collaboration between grassroots organizations and academic researchers to generate robust evidence on agroecology’s potential. It is also strengthening the capacity of civil society and academic institutions to contribute to national discussions and decisions regarding food systems.  

In Colombia, where eight out of 10 Indigenous households are food insecure, Universidad Nacional is conducting pioneering research to explore how empowering Indigenous communities can drive the transformation of their agri-food systems. Supported by IDRC, the research is assessing how Indigenous knowledge, community innovations and agroecology can help build healthier, more inclusive and sustainable food systems, while enhancing the communities’ quality of life and self-determination.  

The project also promotes alliances among the country’s Indigenous territories — encouraging the exchange of assets ranging from seeds to knowledge. The aim is to ultimately shape the political agenda and public policies vital for the integration and expansion of agroecological initiatives on a larger scale.  

A key challenge is to "construct a collaborative understanding of sustainability that encompasses both territorial dimensions and food system functions and that necessitates cultivating bonds of trust in all community-related work," said Alvaro Acevedo from Universidad Nacional, an expert in agroecology who leads project activities in the region of Sur de Tolima.  

A rural mountain with green vegetation
Alvaro Acevedo
Rural area in the municipality of La Mesa in Cundinamarca, Colombia

Understanding agroecology’s costs and benefits 

In West Africa, where 60% of people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, another IDRC-supported initiative is focusing on trade-offs associated with agroecology. For example, the research is looking into how implementing labour-intensive agricultural practices could lead to increased farming drop-out rates, especially among youth, and how alternative tools and techniques, such as digital technologies, climate information and biological control of pests, could be used to counterbalance this possibility.  

IDRC is partnering with Agropolis Fondation, based in Montpelier, France, to support five research projects covering Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and Ivory Coast. The projects are implemented jointly by West African and French research institutions and are being supported by three institutions through a regional hub housed at the NGO ENDA-Pronat. They are analyzing the costs and benefits of agroecological transitions at multiple levels of the food system — from production to processing, and from distribution to marketing — with a strong gender-equality lens. To this end, novel gender-sensitive evaluation tools and methods have been jointly developed and are currently used by the research teams.    

Mamadou Goita, executive director of the Institute for Research and Promotion of Alternatives in Development (IRPAD), one of the three institutions coordinating the regional hub, said the project creates linkages among stakeholders to understand how and when the scaling of agroecology can contribute to the transition to better food systems. A baseline study conducted in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal on agroecology networks and stakeholders has already helped identify key knowledge gaps and institutions with which to partner. The aim is to encourage consideration of the notion of tradeoffs in discussions regarding the future of food systems in Francophone West Africa. Two key takeaways from the project's early phases are a deeper understanding of trade-offs and the significance of networks in fostering dynamic progress.  

It is hoped that the initiative will equip not only researchers, but also decision-makers and practitioners with gender-sensitive analytical tools for assessing agroecological impacts, and that it will craft recommendations and practical strategies for policymakers and practitioners to help forge more equitable and resilient food systems.