Agroecology: principles and strategies for designing sustainable farming systems.

Miguel A. Altieri

University of California, Berkeley

The concept of sustainable agriculture is a relatively recent response to the decline in the quality of the natural resource base associated with modern agriculture (McIsaac and Edwards 1994). Today, the question of agricultural production has evolved from a purely technical one to a more complex one characterized by social, cultural, political and economic dimensions. The concept of sustainability although controversial and diffuse due to existing conflicting definitions and interpretations of its meaning, is useful because it captures a set of concerns about agriculture which is conceived as the result of the co-evolution of socioeconomic and natural systems (Reijntjes et al. 1992). A wider understanding of the agricultural context requires the study between agriculture, the global environment and social systems given that agricultural development results from the complex interaction of a multitude of factors. It is through this deeper understanding of the ecology of agricultural systems that doors will open to new management options more in tune with the objectives of a truly sustainable agriculture.

The sustainability concept has prompted much discussion and has promoted the need to propose major adjustments in conventional agriculture to make it more environmentally, socially and economically viable and compatible. Several possible solutions to the environmental problems created by capital and technology intensive farming systems have been proposed and research is currently in progress to evaluate alternative systems (Gliessman 1998). the main focus lies on the reduction or elimination of agrochemical inputs through changes in management to assure adequate plant nutrition and plant protection through organic nutrient sources and integrated pest management, respectively.

Although hundreds of more environmentally prone research projects and technological development attempts have taken place, and many lessons have been learned, the thrust is still highly technological, emphasizing the suppression of limiting factors or the symptoms that mask an ill producing agroecosystem. The prevalent philosophy is that pests, nutrient deficiencies or other factors are the cause of low productivity, as opposed to the view that pests or nutrients only become limiting if conditions in the agroecosystem are not in equilibrium (Carrol et al. 1990). For this reason, there still prevails a narrow view that specific causes affect productivity, and overcoming the limiting factor via new technologies, continues to be the main goal. This view has diverted agriculturists from realizing that limiting factors only represent symptoms of a more systemic disease inherent to unbalances within the agroecosystem and from an appreciation of the context and complexity of agroecological processes thus underestimating the root causes of agricultural limitations (Altieri et al. 1993).

On the other hand, the science of agroecology, which is defined as the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems, provides a framework to assess the complexity of agroecosystems (Altieri 1995). The idea of agroecology is to go beyond the use of alternative practices and to develop agroecosystems with the minimal dependence on high agrochemical and energy inputs, emphasizing complex agricultural systems in which ecological interactions and synergisms between biological components provide the mechanisms for the systems to sponsor their own soil fertility, productivity and crop protection (Altieri and Rosset 1995).

Principles of Agroecology

In the search to reinstate more ecological rationale into agricultural production, scientists and developers have disregarded a key point in the development of a more self-sufficient and sustaining agriculture: a deep understanding of the nature of agroecosystems and the principles by which they function. Given this limitation, agroecology has emerged as the discipline that provides the basic ecological principles for how to study, design and manage agroecosystems that are both productive and natural resource conserving, and that are also culturally sensitive, socially just and economically viable (Altieri 1995).

Agroecology goes beyond a one-dimensional view of agroecosystems – their genetics, agronomy, edaphology, and so on,- to embrace an understanding of ecological and social levels of co-evolution, structure and function. Instead of focusing on one particular component of the agroecosystem, agroecology emphasizes the interrelatedness of all agroecosystem components and the complex dynamics of ecological processes (Vandermeer 1995).

Agroecosystems are communities of plants and animals interacting with their physical and chemical environments that have been modified by people to produce food, fibre, fuel and other products for human consumption and processing. Agroecology is the holitstic study of agroecosystems, including all environmental and human elements. It focuses on the form, dynamics and functions of their interrelationships and the processes in which they are involved. An area used for agricultural production, e.g. a field, is seen as a complex system in which ecological processes found under natural conditions also occur, e.g. nutrient cycling, predator/prey interactions, competition, symbiosis and successional changes. Implicit in agroecological research is the idea that, by understanding these ecological relationships and processes, agroecosystems can be manipulated to improve production and to produce more sustainably, with fewer negative environmental or social impacts and fewer external inputs (Altieri 1995).

The design of such systems is based on the application of the following ecological principles (Reinjntjes et al. 1992) (see also Table 1):

1. Enhance recycling of biomass and optimizing nutrient availability and balancing nutrient flow.

2. Securing favorable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing organic matter and enhancing soil biotic activity.

3. Minimizing losses due to flows of solar radiation, air and water by way of microclimate management, water harvesting and soil management through increased soil cover.

4. Species and genetic diversification of the agroecosystem in time and space.

5. Enhance beneficial biological interactions and synergisms among agrobiodiversity components thus resulting in the promotion of key ecological processes and services.

These principles can be applied by way of various techniques and strategies. Each of these will have different effects on productivity, stability and resiliency within the farm system, depending on the local opportunities, resource constraints and, in most cases, on the market. The ultimate goal of agroecological design is to integrate components so that overall biological efficiency is improved, biodiversity is preserved, and the agroecosystem productivity and its self-sustaining capacity is maintained. The goal is to design a quilt of agroecosystems within a landscape unit, each mimicking the structure and function of natural ecosystems.

Biodiversification of Agroecosystems

From a management perspective, the agroecological objective is to provide a balanced environments, sustained yields, biologically mediated soil fertility and natural pest regulation through the design of diversified agroecosystems and the use of low-input technologies (Gleissman 1998). Agroecologists are now recognizing that intercropping, agroforestry and other diversification methods mimic natural ecological processes, and that the sustainability of complex agroecosystems lies in the ecological models they follow. By designing farming systems that mimic nature, optimal use can be made of sunlight, soil nutrients and rainfall (Pretty 1994).

Agroecological management must lead management to optimal recycling of nutrients and organic matter turnover, closed energy flows, water and soil conservation and balance pest-natural enemy populations. The strategy exploits the complementarities and synergisms that result from the various combinations of crops, tree and animals in spatial and temporal arrangements (Altieri 1994).

In essence, the optimal behavior of agroecosystems depends on the level of interactions between the various biotic and abiotic components. By assembling a functional biodiversity it is possible to initiate synergisms which subsidize agroecosystem processes by providing ecological services such as the activation of soil biology, the recycling of nutrients, the enhancement of beneficial arthropods and antagonists, and so on (Altieri and Nicholls 1999). Today there is a diverse selection of practices and technologies available, and which vary in effectiveness as well as in strategic value. Key practices are those of a preventative nature and which act by reinforcing the “immunity” of the agroecosystem through a series of mechanisms (Table 2).

Various strategies to restore agricultural diversity in time and space include crop rotations, cover crops, intercropping, crop/livestock mixtures, and so on, which exhibit the following ecological features:

1. Crop Rotations. Temporal diversity incorporated into cropping systems, providing crop nutrients and breaking the life cycles of several insect pests, diseases, and weed life cycles (Sumner 1982).

2. Polycultures. Complex cropping systems in which tow or more crop species are planted within sufficient spatial proximity to result in competition or complementation, thus enhancing yields (Francis 1986, Vandermeer 1989).

3. Agroforestry Systems. An agricultural system where trees are grown together with annual crops and/or animals, resulting in enhanced complementary relations between components increasing multiple use of the agroecosystem (Nair 1982).

4. Cover Crops. The use of pure or mixed stands of legumes or other annual plant species under fruit trees for the purpose of improving soil fertility, enhancing biological control of pests, and modifying the orchard microclimate (Finch and Sharp 1976).

5. Animal integration in agroecosystems aids in achieving high biomass output and optimal recycling (Pearson and Ison 1987).

All of the above diversified forms of agroecosystems share in common the following features (Altieri and Rosset 1995):

a. Maintain vegetative cover as an effective soil and water conserving measure, met through the use of no-till practices, mulch farming, and use of cover crops and other appropriate methods.

b. Provide a regular supply of organic matter through the addition of organic matter (manure, compost, and promotion of soil biotic activity).

c. Enhance nutrient recycling mechanisms through the use of livestock systems based on legumes, etc.

d. Promote pest regulation through enhanced activity of biological control agents achieved by introducing and/or conserving natural enemies and antagonists.

Research on diversified cropping systems underscores the great importance of diversity in an agricultural setting (Francis 1986, Vandermeer 1989, Altieri 1995). Diversity is of value in agroecosystems for a variety of reasons (Altieri 1994, Gliessman 1998):

  • As diversity increases, so do opportunities for coexistence and beneficial interactions between species that can enhance agroecosystem sustainability.
  • Greater diversity often allows better resource-use efficiency in an agroecosystem. There is better system-level adaptation to habitat heterogeneity, leading to complementarity in crop species needs, diversification of niches, overlap of species niches, and partitioning of resources.
  • Ecosystems in which plant species are intermingled possess an associated resistance to herbivores as in diverse systems there is a greater abundance and diversity of natural enemies of pest insects keeping in check the populations of individual herbivore species.
  • A diverse crop assemblage can create a diversity of microclimates within the cropping system that can be occupied by a range of noncrop organisms – including beneficial predators, parasites, pollinators, soil fauna and antagonists – that are of importance for the entire system.
  • Diversity in the agricultural landscape can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity in surrounding natural ecosystems.
  • Diversity in the soil performs a variety of ecological services such as nutrient recycling and detoxification of noxious chemicals and regulation of plant growth.
  • Diversity reduces risk for farmers, especially in marginal areas with more unpredictable environmental conditions. If one crop does not do well, income from others can compensate.

Agroecology and the Design of Sustainable Agroecosystems

Most people involved in the promotion of sustainable agriculture aim at creating a form of agriculture that maintains productivity in the long term by (Pretty 1994, Vandermeer 1995):

  • optimizing the use of locally available resources by combining the different components of the farm system, i.e. plants, animals, soil, water, climate and people, so that they complement each other and have the greatest possible synergetic effects;
  • reducing the use of off-farm, external and non-renewable inputs with the greatest potential to damage the environment or harm the health of farmers and consumers, and a more targeted use of the remaining inputs used with a view to minimizing variable costs;
  • relying mainly on resources within the agroecosystem by replacing external inputs with nutrient cycling, better conservation, and an expanded use of local resources;
  • improving the match between cropping patterns and the productive potential and environmental constraints of climate and landscape to ensure long-term sustainability of current production levels;
  • working to value and conserve biological diversity, both in the wild and in domesticated landscapes, and making optimal use of the biological and genetic potential of plant and animal species; and
  • taking full advantage of local knowledge and practices, including innovative approaches not yet fully understood by scientists although widely adopted by farmers.

Agroecology provides the knowledge and methodology necessary for developing an agriculture that is on the on e hand environmentally sound and on the other hand highly productive, socially equitable and economically viable. Through the application of agroecological principles, the basic challenge for sustainable agriculture to make better use of internal resources can be easily achieved by minimizing the external inputs used, and preferably by regenerating internal resources more effectively through diversification strategies that enhance synergisms among key components of the agroecosystem.

The ultimate goal of agroecological design is to integrate components so that overall biological efficiency is improved, biodiversity is preserved, and the agroecosystem productivity and its self-regulating capacity is maintained. The goal is to design an agroecosystem that mimics the structure and function of local natural ecosystems; that is, a system with high species diversity and a biologically active soil, one that promotes natural pest control, nutrient recycling and high soil cover to prevent resource losses.


Agroecology provides guidelines to develop diversified agroecosystems that take advantage of the effects of the integration of plant and animal biodiversity such integration enhances complex interactions and synergisms and optimizes ecosystem functions and processes, such as biotic regulation of harmful organisms, nutrient recycling, and biomass production and accumulation, thus allowing agroecosystems to sponsor their own functioning. The end result of agroecological design is improved economic and ecological sustainability of the agroecosystem, with the proposed management systems specifically in tune with the local resource base and operational framework of existing environmental and socioeconomic conditions. In an agroecological strategy, management components are directed to highlight the conservation and enhancement of local agricultural resources (germplasm, soil, beneficial fauna, plant biodiversity, etc.) by emphasizing a development methodology that encourages farmer participation, use of traditional knowledge, and adaptation of farm enterprises that fit local needs and socioeconomic and biophysical conditions.

Table 1. Ecological processes to optimize in agroecosystems
  • Strengthen the immune system (proper functioning of natural pest control)
  • Decrease toxicity through elimination of agrochemicals
  • Optimize metabolic function (organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling)
  • Balance regulatory systems (nutrient cycles, water balance, energy flow, population regulation, etc.)
  • Enhance conservation and regeneration of soil-water resources and biodiversity
  • Increase and sustain long-term productivity


Table 2. Mechanisms to improve agroecosystem immunity
  • Increase of plant species and genetic diversity in time and space.
  • Enhancement of functional biodiversity (natural enemies, antagonists etc.)
  • Enhancement of soil organic matter and biological activity
  • Increase of soil cover and crop competitive ability
  • Elimination of toxic inputs and residues



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