U.S. must shift towards agroecology

The IDDRI report lays out a concrete plan — and path — toward a safer, sustainable agricultural system that promotes human and animal health, and lightens agriculture’s environmental footprint.

Charles Benbrook, American agricultural economist, believes that major changes in the U.S. are both needed and inevitable. Charles writes that:

It is hard to imagine the U.S. agriculture sector and allied industries taking seriously the direction and mechanics of change of this magnitude, despite the compelling evidence that major changes are both needed and inevitable. But in time on both sides of the Atlantic, change is going to come.

One of the recurrent, entrenched arguments voiced by agricultural and food industry leaders who are resistant to change is that the U.S. must stay the course to retain the ability to produce enough food to meet consumer needs, and at least retain our share of global food exports. The inherent assumption behind such assertions is that widespread adoption of any other way to produce food — whether it be so-called sustainable, organic, agroecological, in vats, or on top of buildings — cannot possibly produce enough to meet our caloric needs.

This argument is both deeply flawed and dangerous. Deeply flawed because it simply is not true, and dangerous because this argument has successfully put off for a few decades a long overdue reckoning over aspects of “modern agriculture” that are obsolete and responsible for mounting collateral damage.


With respect to yields, the IDDRI report projects modest (i.e. ~10%) to sizable (up to 50%) yield reductions across crops after the shift to agroecological farming systems across Europe.

While yields will sometimes be lower with agroecology, in other years they will be higher, especially in dry years. As farmers gain experience with agroecological systems, and build their soil’s organic matter levels, yields will incrementally rise and yield variability will decline.

The IDDRI’s conservative estimates on yields assume that farmers will not become more skilled at the science and art of agroecology, just as they have every other farming system and technology they have adopted.

It fails to credit future farming systems — and total annual yields across all crops grown – for the much more complete use of the solar energy falling on each hectare of farmland across the continent. Today, the typical European crop farmer is growing something on his or her land for 4 to 6 months a year, when the sun and available moisture would support plant growth for 7-9 months.

Benefits of agroecology

Without doubt, the shift to agroecology will enhance soil organic matter content and promote plant health. Soils higher in organic matter will take in and store more water during heavy spring and summer rains, and mitigate the reduction in yields in those years when rainfall patterns poorly match crop water needs.

In fact, with smart investments in the infrastructure needed to support agroecological systems and practices, ten-year average food production per hectare in the EU will likely increase above today’s levels, despite the occasional lower yield of a particular crop within a farm’s diversified mix of crops, livestock, and other solar-driven enterprises.

Hopefully as European agriculture explores the various paths to agroecology, new confidence will grow that there are many win-win-win opportunities waiting to be pursued.

Ultimately, change will happen, because people will demand it and support it via their food dollars. Those farmers and food companies that figure out how to deliver quality food with a lighter public health and environmental footprint will profit and grow, and those that drag their feet, or are too stubborn to even try, will fade away, much like several of today’s iconic processed food brands and companies.