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What is Agroecology and how can it be used to fix our food systems?

As the world strives to find a sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to farming, we will be hearing more about Agroecology. Here it is explained.

Overton and Patricia with their children Chisomo, Victoria, Rebecca Unboni, Zisiya. Photo: Karen McHugh. Overton and Patricia with their children Chisomo, Victoria, Rebecca Unboni, Zisiya. Photo: Karen McHugh.

As the compounding effects of climate change, Covid-19 and conflict continue to exacerbate global hunger, we urgently need new approaches to tackle growing food insecurity.

More than a quarter of the world’s population, some two billion people, do not have regular access to nutritious and sufficient food. The World Food Programme is warning of a doubling of those globally who are facing hunger and food insecurity due to the pandemic.

At the same time, industrial agricultural systems are contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss, both above and below ground levels.

Without a change in our current approach, the global agricultural food system will not deliver on the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030. It is clear that current agricultural and food policies are leaving a large number of the world’s poorest people behind.

For these reasons, there is an urgent need for a global transition towards more sustainable and equitable agriculture and food systems.

The world now faces the unprecedented challenge of pursuing human development and ensuring the right to adequate food for all on a planet where the population is estimated to increase to over 9 billion people by 2050. This must be done in ways that don’t breach essential ecological and planetary boundaries, while tackling poverty and extreme inequality.

Small scale producers, women farmers, pastoralists, and landless agricultural workers in low-income countries are amongst those most severely impacted by food insecurity, biodiversity loss and climate change.

A sustainable alternative

We urgently need food systems that deliver on the right to adequate food for all, while building resilience to climate change and other challenges. Agroecology is a sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to farming that offers an alternative to the current broken system.

Trócaire’s projects around the world that support agroecological approaches demonstrate the potential for economic, social and environmental benefits, both on and off farm. Amongst the benefits of these agroecological approaches are the creation of employment opportunities, the production of diverse crops that support nutritional diets, improve soil health and build resilience to increasingly volatile climates.

For example in Malawi Trócaire, in partnership with CADECOM Zomba, have helped families to set up their gardens using an agroecology approach. The techniques of agroecology are a vital tool for farmers adapting to a climate that has radically changed.

In the last few decades Malawian farmers have had to deal with an increase in extreme, intense rainfall and flooding and an increase in hot days and dry periods. The vast majority of households in Malawi are headed by small farmers who depend on reliable rainfall and fertile soils to get by.  Most small farmers have relied on maize as their main crop. It is a crop that is particularly vulnerable to crop failure in this new climate.

From one to many crops

Trócaire and CADECOM Zomba are helping families in Malawi to diversify their crops and move away from being heavily dependent on maize. Local farmers Patricia and Overton, who have six young children, are growing tomatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins together. They are also growing other local vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, mustard vegetable and amarathus.

Growing a number of different crops close together is a common feature of the agroecology approach as it can help to conserve and enrich soil quality, and make maximum use of the available space. The garden is enclosed to protect it from livestock.

These gardens in Zomba, often referred to as kitchen gardens, are working with nature in a way that’s designed for long term sustainability. One of the key goals is to make sure the soil stays fertile which means avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides Patricia showed us how they use a natural pest killer made with neem leaves in their garden.

Garden in a bag

Overton and Patricia also use sack gardening using stones and manure. This ‘vertical gardening’ is a great way to grow drought resistant crops in a way that conserves water and makes maximum use of limited space.

“We spend about two hours a day working on the garden but it is worth it!”

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