Building an Evidence Base Is Key to Realizing the Potential of Agroecology

By Nuru Kipato, Research Methods Assistant, Statistics for Sustainable Development 

Agroecology has been at the center of many debates in agricultural arenas in recent years. As an up-and-coming researcher, I often wondered what the fuss was all about—so I decided to read about it. My understanding of agroecology is that it describes agriculture that is based not only on an ecological understanding, but also a social, economic, cultural, and political understanding of the place where it is applied.

Agroecological approaches could therefore be those which integrate these multiple dimensions of understanding in the production of food and the assessment of sustainability of agro-food systems.1 Now, this sounds like a sensible vision, right? One that, if realized in a timely way, could perhaps set a foundation for sustainable agricultural systems.

But for the vision of agroecology to really take hold globally and reach its transformative potential, it first needs to be accepted as credible and trustworthy by a critical mass of people. Which people? Everyone in the food-chain: farmers, civilians and consumers, researchers, legal experts, practitioners, and policymakers. All of these groups need to accept agroecology in order to widely practice it.

This wide acceptance and practice can be termed the ‘legitimization of agroecology.’ 2 To enable this, we need to think of agroecology’s acceptance criteria not only in the spheres of science and practice, but also across policy, civic, and legal spheres.

So, how can agroecologists provide evidence for the people in these various spheres to accept agroecology? I think one avenue is to look at the evidence route of industrial agricultural systems (which is said to be well-established), and then use this to shed light on what agroecologists need to set a strong legitimacy base for agroecology.

I recently attempted to map some examples of the evidence of the credibility of industrial agriculture in comparison to that of agroecology. (See table below.) Doing so, we can see where there are clear gaps in available evidence.

In the policy sphere, for example, there isn’t sufficient evidence (as there is for industrial agriculture) that agroecology is market-friendly and supports reliable, year-round food production. In the science realm, there isn’t yet a significant enough availability of evidence in support of agroecology, such that it can be easily validated by many people, instead of a small ‘elite’ group. These are some of the areas agroecologists will need to focus on in order to legitimize agroecology.

Agroecologists also need to provide evidence that apart from agroecology’s boast of offering long-term fixes, it can also produce ‘immediate’ fixes that are sustainable in the long run. How else could a farmer be convinced not to use excessive synthetic fertilizers? Or a consumer be convinced not to use plastic bags? In both instances, agroecology advocates must be able to make the case that changing behavior not only won’t be harmful, but is worthwhile as a short- and long-term fix that prevents environmental degradation.

Without synchronized evidence in all spheres, it could prove difficult to provide a strong legitimacy base for agroecology. In the long run, the vision could end up a mere fuss that passes away with time.


A summary of evidence needed to boost legitimization of agroecology adapted from a reflective analysis of the legitimization of industrial agriculture in five spheres.

Referenced papers:

  1. Méndez, V. E., Bacon, C. M. & Cohen, R. Agroecology as a Transdisciplinary, Participatory, and Action-Oriented Approach. Agroecol. Sustain. Food Syst. 37, 3–18 (2013).
  2. Montenegro de Wit, M. & Iles, A. Toward thick legitimacy: Creating a web of legitimacy for agroecology. Elem. Sci. Anthr. 4, 115 (2016).



Resource Type:

Learning / story

Community of Practice:

Farmer research network (FRN)