Agro-Ecological Farming

Agro ecology is the basis for an alternative sustainable agricultural approach that incorporates the economic, environmental and social dimensions. This approach is rooted within the broader forms of social, political and economic forms of resistance. Traditional and local knowledge of farmers are central to implement sustainable agriculture. The chemical industrial model of agriculture, which is export driven, actively using agro chemicals, promotes the use of genetically modified organisms and agro fuels that impacts negatively on the health, environment and land based livelihood of small scale farmers and farm workers. This corporate profit driven model of agriculture further entrenches the neo liberal onslaught. Agro ecological farming is a direct alternative to the dominant corporate model of agriculture. SPP actively promotes and support this approach as an alternative.

Agro Ecology as Resistance

by Berenger Frehaut and Seema Rupani

South Africa’s agricultural system suffers from a legacy of racist agricultural policy as well as the post-apartheid adoption of the neo liberal industrial model. The apartheid government concentrated land and agricultural resources in the hands of the small white minority of commercial farmers, while systematically destroying access to these resources for the black landless and poor small scale farmers. The chemical industrial model today is unable to provide in the nutritional needs of the poor, concentrating resources such as land, water, seeds and wealth in the hands of a few farmers and companies. The end result is increased hunger and poverty, environmental destruction where profits is placed above the needs of people. The South African government has aligned itself with this corporate driven model of agriculture by amongst other things, adopting two controversial technologies: genetically modified crops and agro-fuels. The country has become the world’s eighth largest producer of GM crops.

The Surplus People Project (SPP) with farmers launched agro-ecological horizontal learning sites to spread and deepen our collective practice of agro ecological production. It is also a space of resistance, solidarity and collective action. It is hoped through initiatives like these farmers can begin to define their own food systems and build a movement that resists the neo liberal capitalist model of agriculture.

What is agro-ecology?

Agro-ecology has emerged as an important alternative to industrial agriculture. It is the science of applying ecological principles to the design of food systems. Agro-ecology reclaims the idea that an agricultural system must be viewed as an ecosystem. Agro-ecosystems must be managed by linking traditional knowledge, sustainable agriculture, and local food system experiences. Principles of agro-ecology include diversification, the use of renewable resources, minimizing toxics, the conservation of resources such as soil, water, energy, and capital, managing ecological relationships, valuing health and culture, and an overall holistic approach to agriculture. It is about making better use of natural resources (land, water, and biodiversity) and technologies. The combination of natural, community and human capital, with appropriate technologies and inputs that eradicate harm to the environment. In essence agro ecology utilizes the knowledge and expertise of farmers, thus creating space to solve problems by working together.

Why agro-ecology?

Agro-ecology is a counter movement to the neoliberal food regime. The current global food system is dependent upon commercial industrial agriculture, which is environmentally destructive, detrimental to human health, and putting small farmers across the world out of business. By trying to produce food cheaply and efficiently, industrial agriculture is actually destroying the life support systems on which humans depend. Our Earth can no longer bear the brunt of human-induced environmental damage. An agro-ecological approach to food production, in contrast, values diversity. Agro-ecology integrates scientific knowledge on environmentally sound farming practices with traditional knowledge. It conserves biodiversity while at the same time empowering small-scale farmers to define their own food systems. By combining socio-economic and ecological considerations into the design of food systems, agro-ecology is an approach that allows us to meet our food needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) conducted in 2008, composed of over 400 scientist and development experts from more than 80 countries, concluded agro ecological production provides more food and income to the poor, while at the same time providing solutions to the environmental devastation and crisis facing agriculture.

What is wrong with industrial agriculture?

 Industrial commercial agriculture is characterized by practices that have high social and environmental costs. The use of chemical inputs makes plants more resistant over time, resulting in the application of more and more pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and artificial fertilizers. Spraying chemicals also destroys natural habitats, erodes topsoil, contaminates fresh water supplies, and wastes energy and water in the production process. The health of farmers, residents, and consumers is at risk from constant exposure to these harsh chemicals. The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has effects on human and environmental health in ways we can’t predict. It also puts small-scale farmers at an economic disadvantage by forcing them to rely on expensive external inputs. Monocropping or monoculture, a method which entails growing the same crop on the same piece of land year after year, leads to a depletion of nutrients in the soil, and leaves the field more susceptible to disease from pests because the crops are made to be genetically similar. Further, the intensive breeding of livestock keeps animals in conditions that produce diseases such as Avian Flu, Mad Cow Disease which pose major health risks. The UN declared that the livestock sector contributes more to environmental degradation and global warming than all transportation combined. It also leads to a grossly inefficient use of grains, water, and food resources which could be used to feed the hungry millions. This model also undermines farmer’s rights to land, seed, water and determining their own food system.

What are agro-ecological practices?

 Agro-ecological practices such as cover-cropping and agro-forestry maintain vegetative cover to conserve water, soil, and nutrients. Planting multiple crop species close together and rotating them often provides the diversity necessary to resist diseases, pests, and weeds, and helps to enhance yields. Integrating livestock with crops is done in a way that achieves high biomass output and adds organic matter to the soil and compost. Agro-ecological farming promotes pest regulation through introducing or conserving natural enemies as opposed to applying harsh chemicals. Overall it uses locally available resources, like soil, water, and seeds, and practices nutrient recycling, to reduce the use of external non-renewable inputs. In summary agro ecological practices utilizes resource conserving technologies such as integrated pest management, integrated nutrient management, conservation tillage, cover crops, agro forestry, seed conservation, aqua culture, water harvesting and livestock integration.


What are the benefits to agro-ecological farming?

In developing countries like South Africa, agro-ecological practices can greatly increase productivity and reduce the adverse effects of environmental impacts. In developing countries, organic systems produce 80% more than conventional farms (Lim Li Ching, 2009, Is organic agriculture productive?). Agro-ecological farming practices conserve biodiversity and maintain healthy ecosystems, utilize local knowledge, allowing farmers to define their own food systems, and are proven to be productive and economically viable. Thus agro-ecology has the potential to meet food security needs and sustain the current global human population without putting more farmland into production, and without the negative environmental consequences of conventional agriculture.

Agro-ecology as resistance

Around the world, agro-ecology is being viewed as more than a method of farming. Because it serves as an alternative to the dominant neoliberal industrial farming model, agro-ecology is a symbol of resistance. It has contributed to shifting larger political frameworks and has introduced new ways of viewing global systems. Agro-ecology has led to campaigns like the Right to Agrarian Reform for Food Sovereignty, which emphasizes the right of small-scale farmers and the landless to participate in the development of agricultural policies that promote food sovereignty. Via Campesina, an international small-scale farmer organisation introduced the concept “food sovereignty” in 1996. Food sovereignty is the right of people to define their own food systems, in contrast to one’s food system being dictated from above by multinational corporations and governments acting on behalf of these corporations. By viewing food as a right, it emphasizes the importance of peoples access to land, water, seeds, and local resources, culturally appropriate and environmentally sound approaches to food production defined by the people of a  particular region themselves. This demonstrates agro-ecology’s potential to affect not just regional, but global change. Destroying the industrial model of agriculture and rebuilding local food systems must be premised on the building of agro ecological alternatives based on the needs of small scale farmers and the poor that resist the corporate control over the production and consumption of food.


Agro ecosystem – is an ecosystem under agricultural management connected to other ecosystems. This includes uncultivated land, drainage networks, rural communities, wildlife, and natural factors such as rainfall, soil and climate.

Ecosystem – is a complex set of relations or interactions among living resources, habitats, and residents of an area. It includes animals, fish, birds, micro organisms, water, soil and people. Everything that lives in the ecosystem is dependent on each other.


Food Regime – the food system could be regarded as a food regime. A food regime is a system of rules, relations and practices governing production and consumption of food on a world scale. The food regime is characterized by monopoly market power and huge profits. Majority of the world’s food system is tied to the corporate food regime. The food regime is controlled by a few multinational corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, Walmart and others.

(Food First backgrounder. Food Security, Food Justice or Food Sovereignty?

Winter 2010. Volume 16. Number 4.)

Genetic Modified Crops – is created by taking genes from one organism like bacteria and inserting it into a cell of another unrelated organism like maize, soya so that it develops certain “new desired characteristics.

Industrial Agriculture – is a form of modern capitalist farming that use industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish and crops. This method of production is very chemical intensive that uses pesticides, herbicides and other agro chemicals in the farming practices. The model of farming has devastating impacts on the environment and rural areas. (


Compiled by Berenger Frehaut and Seema Rupani

For the Surplus People Project,

Cape Town

Berenger Frehaut was part of an internship programme at SPP while completing his degree in Project Engineering in International Solidarity at the University of Bordeaux. Currently he is a member of the Reclaiming the Fields Movement in France.

Seema Rupani was a volunteer at SPP and currently completing her studies in Environmental studies and Global Poverty at the University of California, Berkeley.

Alfonso Wabo was responsible for the graphic illustrations in this booklet.

Ricado Jacobs (Research, Information and Advocacy Manager) edited this booklet

The publication was prepared by the Surplus People Project in Cape Town. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission from SPP.

© Surplus People Project – October 2010

PO Box 468, Athlone, 7760, South Africa

Tel: +27 21 4485605

Fax: +27 21 4480105




The Surplus People Project wish to acknowledge all the interns (Bjorn Viberg and Mateus Costa Santos) that have worked on this publication particularly for the first round of editing.

SPP wish to further extend our thanks to the Broederlike Delen (BD) and the United Church of Canada for funding the publication of this booklet.

© 2012 Surplus people project