How would agroecology work in practice? What would a world built on agroecological principles look like? Forum’s partner, Jamie Heng, Programme Manager at GROW, explores these questions and outlines steps for a more sustainable food future.

It’s no secret that agriculture is one of the largest drivers of the climate crisis: food production is responsible for ~12% of the world's GHG emissions; depending on diet, we need 2000 to 5000 litres of water to produce the food consumed daily by one person; the proliferation of synthetic fertilisers has allowed for a great increase in food production capacity but also resulted in environmental problems such as soil nutritional imbalances.

There are a few models or themes around sustainable agriculture from regenerative agriculture, nature-based solutions to agroecology. Without going into the specifics of each of these concepts or arguing about which is the "right" approach, this piece focuses on agroecology and its role in sustainable food systems. There will come a time when there is a stronger consensus on what “sustainable agriculture” looks like, and it will likely resemble a combination of all of the above.

What is agroecology?

In a nutshell, agroecology is not just a farming method; it is a holistic approach that seeks to harmonise agriculture with natural ecosystems. It emphasises the importance of biodiversity, environment preservation, soil health, social equity and economic viability, to create resilient and sustainable farming systems. Instead of relying on synthetic inputs, agroecology promotes the use of organic and regenerative practices.

The 10 elements of agroecology | Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

What does agroecology look like in practice?

The Oakland Institute published 33 case studies in 2015 sharing success stories of agroecological agriculture in the African continent. The case study on water harvesting in Zimbabwe, summarised below, provides a useful example of what an agroecological farm looks like. Read more about Mr Phiri’s efforts here, and the 32 other agroecology case studies put together by The Oakland Institute.

The year is 1966. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko is a struggling smallholder farmer in Zvishavane, Zimbabwe. The average annual rainfall in Zvishavane is 450 mm but during droughts, there can be just 250 mm of rain.

Over four decades, Mr. Phiri managed to transform his farm and life through innovation and experimentation. Here’s how:

  • He studied the water flows in his fields and built deep pond-like dams, stone walls, earth bunds, sand traps, ponds, etc., to ensure maximum rainwater retention and infiltration (which otherwise would have quickly evaporated) and controlled the flow of water across his fields and avoided erosion.

Direction of water flows on Mr. Phiri’s land | Source: The Oakland Institute

  • He surrounded ponds with shade trees, reeds, and banana groves to keep them cool and sheltered to reduce evaporation.
  • He studied the heterogeneity of his soils and treated/utilised them accordingly: clay-rich soil while suitable for crops, grew rock hard when dry. He transformed it with cattle manure and extensive mulching with green manure and crop residues. For sandy soil that can neither hold moisture nor nutrients, he mixed it with clay dug out of his man-made ponds.
  • Mr. Phiri grew a wide variety of 55 crops, such as legumes (groundnuts, round nuts, beans, etc) that sustain soil nitrogen levels, perennials or multi-year species (bananas, reeds, bamboo, sugar cane, etc) that have deep and extensive roots able to access water and nutrients at deeper levels while stabilising the soil.

Diversity of crops cultivated on Mr. Phiri’s land | Source: The Oakland Institute

  • Mr. Phiri’s livestock feed on field crop residues and grasses planted for plant cover, and the livestock provides manure that fertilises the fields and the power for ploughing, transporting etc.

This manner of farming and innovation enabled Mr. Phiri to establish a sustainable and resilient farming system that is able to weather droughts and economic uncertainties.

What would an agroecological world look like?

“Agroecology” and “industrialisation” are two things that do not fit together. Industrialisation of food systems conceptually is about homogeneity, monocultures, maximum yield at all costs. While it has been critical and necessary in feeding our burgeoning global population, the negative impact of continuing to produce at this scale (and more) has taken a toll on our planet.

But what if the world transformed into an agroecological one? What would it take?  Using futures imagination to envision how an agroecological world looks like might illuminate the systemic changes that need to happen. In this possible future:

  • Consumers are educated about the source of their food. They can scan an item’s QR code to view where and how it is produced (types of inputs e.g. seeds, fertilisers, water), how far it travelled to reach the shelves. For less concerned consumers, they can rely on an internationally recognised “impact-grade” rating, which ranges from A-E, to select across the same category of products.
  • Consumers also have a personal impact dashboard they can access on their mobile devices that aggregates their consumption and activities, from the food they buy, to their mode of transportation, to their use of air conditioning.
  • Nations have introduced an “impact tax”, where individuals and corporates are taxed and rewarded based on their impact rating, forming the backbone of incentive structure in this new world. There is an international committee that provides the guidelines for this taxation framework.
  • Research on different ecological environments and how they are suited for different agricultural practices is mainstreamed, with a free-to-access database that is easy to search and filter by location/conditions. Farmers share their farm data freely and researchers employ big data and AI to build models where farmers can plan and build a digital twin of their farm to simulate alternative crop rotations or strategies across the changing climate.

While this might be a dream especially for those committed to a more sustainable, regenerative future, it probably sounds like a nightmare to everyone else. More tax? Why should I be paying? Why are you tracking my every move? Why can’t I eat whatever I want? Why should I care about the planet?

The fact is that nothing worth having ever comes easy. The success of any long-term sustainability goal is underpinned by three factors that do not always develop evenly, making it hard for any attainable impact to be commensurate with the scale and pace of the challenges we face:

  1. Unification: uniting on a common goal to preserve our only habitable planet for generations to come, while uplifting the living standards of global citizens
  2. Quantification: we cannot assess what we cannot track. Even if it is imperfect and incomplete, having some barometers to track our impact is better than nothing. With iteration, it can only get better. For instance, the race to net-zero has been called out for having ‘carbon tunnel vision’ and while it is not the only thing we should account for, it provides a good though challenging start, paving the way for other metrics to come.
  3. Collaboration: while principles such as agroecology are not in and of themselves scalable, the learnings and technologies employed can be, especially through collaboration at all levels (e.g. across governments, researchers, corporates, farmers, innovators).
So, what can we do?

A lot of the change we need happens at the policy and international level. Only with systemic change to incentive structures or reporting requirements can there be substantial impact.

As someone in the innovation space, I see a lot of promising technologies that are raring to tackle sustainability challenges head-on. However, many of the start-ups building these incredible solutions do not survive the glacial timeline it takes for institutions to introduce the necessary incentives or disincentives.

1. Follow impact conversations

For example, the conversation around carbon: how climate leaders such as the EU collaborate and establish frameworks around carbon accounting, how carbon credit rating agencies verify credits, how corporates take to all these, are all lessons to be learned for the broader environment conversation that is to come.

The EU's banning of greenwashing and misleading product information is another one to pay attention to. The new rules aim to make product labelling clearer and more trustworthy by banning the use of general environmental claims like “environmentally friendly”, “natural”, “biodegradable”, “climate neutral” or “eco” without proof. This will have huge implications for the agriculture and food industry.

2. Learn from each other

At a national level, countries like Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Norway, Finland, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand are actively leading efforts to build a sustainable food future by implementing innovative policies, promoting sustainable agricultural practices and addressing issues related to food security and environmental impact. A deep dive into each of their progress and plans could give us some good ideas about what can be done.

3. Consume responsibly and consider the impact of food choices on your health and the environment

As individuals, there are personal decisions we can make to signal for a more sustainable food future, some examples are to:

  • Choose seasonal produce.
  • Eat more plants and pulses instead of meat and have a diet that is more diverse.
  • Choose caterers with a sustainable menu when catering for events.
  • Not over-order food when eating out.
  • Support stores that enable you to bring your own containers.

While agroecology could be hard to scale in practice, it can also provide a centre to kickstart deeper conversations necessary for change. It's not to say whether agroecology is "the" answer or not, but it provides a flame to illuminate the complexities of building a sustainable food future.

In the pursuit of sustainable food production, challenges become catalysts for positive change. Through innovation, global collaboration, and mindful consumer choices, we navigate these hurdles towards a greener, more regenerative future.


Jamie Heng is a Programme Manager at GROW, an ecosystem catalyst advancing innovation, sustainability, and resilience in the food system.

Forum and GROW recently collaborated on a whitepaper that explores the role financial actors play in embedding agroecological principles into Southeast Asia’s protein transition, as part of Forum’s Protein Challenge Southeast Asia initiative.

The views presented in this blog do not necessarily represent that of Forum’s or GROW’s.

Download the whitepaper here

This article first appeared on Jamie’s LinkedIn.