• Jim Chamberlin

How Agroecological Methods can Feed the World

There are a lot of opinions on how we should best feed the world, but one thing is clear right now. We’re not doing a very good job. The Covid pandemic has shown the fragility of an agricultural system based on yield and inexpensive food. Here in the US the number of people who are food insecure is increasing. I’ve read that as many as 1 in 10 families are unsure where their next meal is coming from on any given day. The use of food shelves and community meals is also on the rise, yet the stock market is at an all time high. The Covid crisis has raised hunger and food insecurity around the world, with the United Nations(UN) World Food Program expanding their programs to feed an extra 100 million people world wide, more than doubling their outreach from previous years. For this extraordinary effort they were awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Growing up my impression of the UN was formed by their role as peacekeepers. I understood them as a neutral force that went to dangerous places of conflict. I grew up in the Vietnam era and remember a lot of talk about prisoners and how poorly US soldiers were treated by opposing forces. I was told the US followed the Geneva Convention rules and didn’t treat our prisoners that way, which stirred a lot of mixed feelings in me. An internal struggle between “an eye for an eye” and the pride of the moral high ground. The UN fit that ideal, of the moral high ground, and my conscience believed they were working for the global good. Years later I became aware of a different UN, one that teamed up with the World Bank and big corporations to start up mining operations, promote industrial agriculture, and finance other destructive industries in developing countries, polluting the environment and further oppressing the already poor. My opinion of the peacekeepers was in question.


Years later, after graduating college in my 30’s and starting my career in the conservation field, I started following the work of the Institute on Agriculture and Trade Policy(IATP), and once again became aware of the work of the UN, this time through the UN Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO). Through the IATP I became aware of a different type of agriculture, coined permaculture, that took a much more ecological approach to growing food. One of the first workshops I went to highlighted work the UN had done with the late Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in a severely impoverished refugee camp/ community in Mozambique.




The community was at the bottom of a large steep valley that had been over grazed and deforested. The regional climate caused extreme drought and hunger during the dry season, flooding and mudslides in the rainy season. They explained how they reshaped the degraded land using keyline design to capture water in swales and move it across the slope to dry ridges to form ponds. They planted nut and fruit trees below the swales and incorporated annual vegetables and grains in the flatter areas. They taught the people, mostly refugees eager to work, to compost and rebuild soil biology. The project had started ten years previous and the results were dramatic, not just from an ecological perspective, but also from a food security and overall economic outcome. Food became much more abundant, people started businesses distributing, processing, and cooking the food and building wealth. Water became more abundant. They were achieving food sovereignty.



Here's an example of keyline design on a farm in Iowa.

In 2015 the UN released the Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition Proceedings from the FAO International Symposium held the year before. It spends some 420 pages making the argument that following agroecological principles, like those used in Mozambique some twenty years earlier, is the best way to provide resilience in agricultural production and food security for the most people. Shortly after, the FAO published Agriculture at a Crossroads, a report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), completed over a four year period by over 400 scientists from around the world with multiple disciplines to answer the question “How can we reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods and facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development through the generation of, access to, and use of agricultural knowledge, science and technology?” Their answer was agroecological based food production.


In October of this year the UN World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley spoke at a webinar conference hosted by Global Minnesota. It was soon after winning the Nobel Prize and in his acknowledgement of the award, he spoke to the partnerships that came together to provide sustenance to those in need during this time of crisis. He said they worked closely with world governments, nonprofit organizations, agricultural companies and other UN programs such as the World Bank and FAO.. Beasley then spoke to the value of the FAO’s work around agroecology.. That the communities that are in dire need of food now were food insecure before the pandemic. That the communities and regions that they have worked to develop agroecological food systems are much better off than those who haven’t. And he spoke to the reason food insecurity most often happens, conflict, and how possibly making the food system more resilient might lead to less of that.


In the heart of the midwest, we seem a long way from famine, stark landscapes, and war. But we have our share of conflict, weather related disasters are becoming more common, and many people are hungry. The pandemic has been a wake up call for many when it comes to food security. Gardening and canning has exploded, with shortages of vegetables seeds and canning lids. There is renewed interest in ecosystem services markets, where producers receive a premium for meeting goals around pollution reduction, driven by large corporations such as General Mills and Cargill. Soil health is in the lexicon of most every farmer in the US and they are increasingly adopting practices to promote it, such as cover crops and adaptive grazing management. There is much to be optimistic for in agriculture.



How an agroecological design can better feed more people.

I’ve always tended to distrust large organizations, corporations and government. I’ve always tried to support local businesses and to be as self sufficient as possible. In conclusion of the Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition Proceedings they say “In summary, we urgently need new alternatives to address the current and future challenges facing our food systems. Agroecology represents a promising option, capable of providing win-win solutions by enhancing food security and nutrition, restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, delivering sustainable livelihoods to smallholders and building resilience to adapt to climate change.” Over the last decade or so, I’ve developed a trust of the UN, at least when it comes to how we should grow our food and feed people. As advocates for the win-win solutions advanced through agroecology, they’ve earned that.


“AGROECOLOGY is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the

design and management of sustainable food systems.* It focuses on the interactions

between plants, animals, humans and the environment. Agroecological practices work

in harmony with these interactions, applying innovative solutions that harness and

conserve biodiversity. Agroecology is practiced in all corners of the world, with the

traditional and local knowledge of family farmers at its core. Through an integrative

approach, agroecology is a realm where science, practice and social movements converge

to seek a transition to sustainable food systems, built upon the foundations of equity,

participation and justice.”

From the Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition Proceedings of the FAO International Symposium

18-19 September 2014, Rome, Italy