Small scale, big impact: Agroecology and climate change

seedlings sprouting from soil

Can small-scale farmers make a difference when it comes to climate change?

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine when you consider the scale of the challenge. Global warming has led to higher temperatures, rising sea levels, more extreme weather and more forest fires than ever before. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate are being made on an international scale with multinational agreements like the Paris Accord. It will take a massive effort to combat the effects of greenhouse gases on our planet. Agriculture is a sector that has the potential to make a major impact on climate change — but what can small-scale farmers do?

It’s not a question with a single answer. But the principles of agroecology could hold the key to helping small-scale farmers adapt to and even thrive within our changing climate — and ultimately make a difference in the future of the planet.

What is agroecology?

In short, agroecology is a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture that takes into account more than just growing food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agroecology “seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.”

Some people call it a science. Others call it a movement, or a farming system. However you classify it, agroecology focuses on using natural resources without damaging them, while also creating a sustainable food system that feeds communities and builds strong local economies, ultimately doing the most good for the most people.

From the United States to Ethiopia, organizations around the world are advocating for agroecology and supporting the small-scale farmers who are paving the way to a more sustainable future.

Fighting climate change, one farm at a time

There’s no one set of agroecological principles that apply globally — every location, community and microclimate is different, and will require different solutions. But many of the practices and principles directly fight climate change, both individually and (especially) as a farming system. Here’s a few:

  • Reducing or eliminating pesticides. Instead of using chemical-filled pesticides that contribute to climate change, agroecological farming systems rely on biological methods, like plants that repel pests. It doesn’t always have to be a full-scale rejection of pesticides — even reducing the use of chemical pest-management methods can help fight climate change. With small-scale and family farms making up around 75% of the world’s agricultural land, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides can quickly add up to a major impact.
  • Creating healthier soils. Agroecological farming also focuses on improving soil health. This category includes practices like increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, planting cover crops that help replenish nutrients in the soil, integrating livestock with crop production and, vitally, sharing knowledge among local farmers to help build better practices for the future. Soil contains more than double the carbon that is in the atmosphere — and soil with more carbon is better for plants, for the planet and for farmers. Healthier soil holds more water and maintains more nutrients, making crops less at risk of loss due to the extreme weather that’s become a signature effect of climate change.
  • Diversifying crops. Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket and relying on one crop, agroecological farmers plant a variety of crops suited for their location and microclimate. Not only does this help mitigate the risk of a single crop being lost to disease, pests or weather — it also fights soil degradation and increases the amount of diverse foods available to local communities. Crops can be rotated, allowing the soil to replenish itself and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. The long-term results: healthier soils, more resilient farmers and less food insecurity, even in the face of a changing climate.
  • Reusing waste. From manure to crop residue, there is always some waste in the agricultural production process. But agroecology recognizes that there’s potential in these products. Rather than burning crop residue like corn stalks — a practice that produces even more greenhouse gas emissions — that organic matter can be worked back into the fields to enrich the soil or used as animal feed. Waste from livestock can be used as an energy source in place of fossil fuels, further reducing global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Sharing knowledge. Agroecology recognizes the importance of the social aspects of agriculture. By sharing best practices and spreading information about what works best for certain crops, challenges or climates, agroecology encourages small-scale farmers to create a pool of knowledge to help everyone learn and improve their own operations. Shared knowledge helps turn individual action into collective impact, amplifying the power of each farmer to help fight climate change.

The win/win of agroecology

Agroecology isn’t just good for the planet — it’s good for farmers, too. According to a report by Springer Nature, farmers are experiencing record low crop yields due to extreme weather and an increase in pests and diseases that destroy their crops. Agroecological practices focus on solving the challenges farmers are facing today: diversifying crops to help mitigate the risk of crop loss, reducing pests through organic methods and improving soil health to maximize water retention.

Agroecological methods can also help small-scale farmers save money — another vital short-term win that helps incentivize these methods. Practices like recycling crop and livestock waste, reducing the amount of water needed to grow healthy crops and growing cover crops that can feed livestock all help reduce costs for small-scale farmers who are working to make the most of every penny.

Ultimately, agroecology is a system that helps create long-term change through near-term improvements like these. By implementing agroecological practices to help make crops more resilient and soils more healthy, small-scale farmers can start to see better, more profitable harvests in the climate we have today — while also making an impact on the climate of the future. Add up the impact from the more than 570 million small-scale and family farms across the globe, and the potential is almost limitless. That’s how agroecology can fight a challenge as massive as climate change: one planting season, one harvest and one small-scale farm at a time