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Editorial – Agroecology Measurable and sustainable

The Sustainable Development Goals, recently endorsed by the United Nations, explicitly mention the need to transform our current input heavy food systems in order to make them more sustainable.  Agro ecology driven by family farmers is clearly seen as a way to achieve this and a number of experiences on the ground in countries like India stand as evidence to this. In a country like India, where majority of the population still depend on farming for their livelihoods, farming by agro ecological methods is no more a choice. As agro ecology contributes towards mitigating very many challenges which the country is facing, like hunger and malnutrition, poverty, climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity etc., it is more of a necessity, to adopt such approach.

Measuring sustainability in agro ecology

Practising agro ecology, around 1500 farmers in 150 villages in Odisha have attained control over every aspect of farming including their land, water, forest, seeds and income.  Food sovereignty of these small farmers and the agro ecological food systems has ensured good health, justice and dignity for all. (Jena, p.21). In this experience we see that agro ecology has resulted in a number of positive outcomes, of which some are measurable and some are not. Some of the outcomes are social, some economic, some environmental and so on. Given the complexity of agro ecology, how do we measure sustainability? Ecosystems comprise of various components – living (people, plants, animals, microbes etc) and inert (soil and water). With interactions happening at various system and sub system levels, one cannot measure everything.

One way of overcoming the problem of measurement is to develop indicators on various aspects – for eg., ecological, social, economic etc. We focus on key components and subsystems which can represent the various interactions and develop suitable indicators. According to Clara Nicholls (p.18), “Agroecology is like a four legged table where practice is only one of its legs. You cannot measure impact without looking at the social, political and cultural dimensions, alongside the technical ones”.

The responses specific to each context shape the evolution of agroecology paradigm in that particular context. In some contexts, while it evolved through organised social movements based on issues of equity and entitlements, in others, it evolved building on the untapped community knowledge evolved over generations based on resilience, adaptation, innovation, social and cultural preferences of the local farming communities.

Indicators are developed in different ways by different people, mostly based on what is felt as important to them. For example, a farmer who is more concerned about his resources on farm, like soil and water employs simple indicators for soil fertility like soil colour and presence of certain plant species. Farmers who are more inclined commercially, look at farm yield and income as the indicator. So is the case with the government departments whose progress is measured in terms of yield or acreage. Whereas yield increases are considered central in modernised agriculture, they can be seen as just one element of impact in peasant farming. (Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, p.11)

Lessons to learn

Measuring impacts through various approaches is a way to understand how things are going on. It helps to pause, reflect, monitor and look for improvements to achieve the programme objectives. For instance, measuring the impacts of agro ecology over several parameters of different kind, beyond income, infact helped farmers in parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh realize the various benefits that they could realize by diversifying their farm enterprises. By building their capacities to record and analyse different parameters or indicators helped positively in influencing their mindsets in moving towards more diversified farming systems from a highly focused monocropping of paddy as the major staple and cash crop. (Anshuman Das, p.6)

Quantifiable indicators of the sustainability of agriculture will enable policymakers, farmers, businesses, and civil society to better understand current conditions, identify trends, set targets, monitor progress, and compare performance among regions and countries. If appropriately designed, they can foster incentives for the sector or nations to improve performance. And they make managing the nexus between agriculture and the environment easier. (Katie Reytar, p. 24).

As agro ecology is still evolving amidst conventional forms of agriculture, the positive measurable impact will serve as a powerful tool to convince the administrators and policy makers for influencing change.  It is important to measure the impact of agroecology in order to demonstrate to the sceptics that agroecology is a form of agriculture capable of producing enough good and accessible food without harming the environment or contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, opines Clara Nicholls (p.18).

Positive stories on the impact of agroecology also help in motivating farmers to adopt agro ecology.

While family farmers are the real keepers of the knowledge and wisdom on agro ecology, disseminating such knowledge promotes practice of agro ecology.(T M Radha, p.14). For scientists, it is important to know if the initiatives promoted are really reaching the levels of sustainability that is strived for and to check if the principles on which the science of agroeoclogy is based are being applied in practice. Impact studies are crucial for the amplification of agroecology. (Clara Nicholls, p.18)

Documentation and dissemination provides evidence that agroecology works, generates insights for policy change and strengthens the agroecology movement. (Janneke Bruil and Jessica Milgroom). Supporting farming communities on the ground can help them to diagnose and prioritise their problems; identify and test agroecological principles and to engage in learning networks. In an initiative where the capacities to document and share the impact results were enhanced, organizations have achieved much more than what they assumed that they could do. For instance, GEAG show cased field evidences for influencing policies, initiating new development programmes, debates in academia and Government programmes. By producing a magazine on agro ecology in the local language, GEAG is popularising agroecology practice and Family Farming movements.(KVS Prasad, p.28)

Concluding thoughts

Though developing indicators to cover the entire spectrum of factors affecting sustainability of small farms may not be possible, those that are available are sufficient to advocate promotion of agro ecology. Policies that favour agro ecological farming can help family farming sustain as a livelihood option, while protecting the environment. Sustainability, like development, is all about people. There may be little point achieving a sustainable system that reduces the quality of life of the people in that system.