Agroecology as a sustainable response to future challenges

When transgenic plants were first introduced around 30 years ago, they were promoted as a particularly sustainable alternative to existing farming systems, or as a solution to the problems and challenges of (conventional) agriculture. Current discussions being held on the regulation of plants derived from new genetic engineering (new GE or new genomic techniques, NGT), are once again promising almost the same ‘benefits’, e. g. adaptation to climate change, securing the global food supply, or a reduction in the use of fertilizers and pesticides. It is claimed that with the help of optimized ‘superplants’ obtained from new genetic engineering, breeding can be accelerated, food and feed quality improved and a plant-based bioeconomy advanced. This should make the agriculture of the future more productive and sustainable.

If we look at the natural adaptation processes of ecosystems to changing environmental conditions, it becomes clear that evolution does not aim for individual species to be optimally adapted. In the long run, it is not ‘the fittest’ that survives, but those populations and ecosystems that are diverse enough to be able to respond quickly to new challenges, such as climate change. It is, therefore, more about diversity than optimized adaptation. Against this backdrop, agroecological strategies to increase diversity in agriculture by increasing variety- and species-diversity are now well established, both practically and scientifically.

The theory of agroecology focuses on promoting positive interactions and synergies among plants, animals, soil and water. It emphasizes diversification through, for example, the cultivation of mixed crops and intercrops, agroforestry and the use of locally adapted seeds. In particular, these practices serve to improve soil structure, regulate water balance and improve animal and plant health. As a result, synthetic chemical inputs can be avoided, and diverse, resilient and productive agroecosystems can be created.

Agroecological principles also apply to forests and grasslands: mixed forests respond much more resiliently to climate change than, for example, spruce forests in monoculture. Grasslands and pastures with a wide range of species and high genetic diversity can also be significantly more resilient than those with less species diversity and low genetic variability.

The systemic approach in agroecology not only supports these ecological issues, but also many socio-economic aspects, such as the various forms of (small-scale) peasant food production, food sovereignty and the equitable distribution of resources.

In contrast to the sustainability promises of new genetic engineering, the principles of agroecology already provide appropriate answers to many current and future challenges. Practical experience shows that the nature of overall agricultural systems and the choice of crops grown, often has a much greater impact on sustainability than the breeding of individual ‘superplants’. Genetic diversity within species and ecological networks is key to a wide range of possible solution approaches. Agroecology is therefore considered to have great potential with regard to a socio-ecological transformation of agricultural and food systems. The use of New GE crops, on the other hand, continues to rely primarily on the existing model of industrial agriculture, and may exacerbate the associated disadvantages for the environment and food production. Therefore, in the context of technology assessment for NGT crops, agroecology alternatives should also be considered and preferentially applied.

Further information:
TA report
EEA (2022): Rethinking agriculture

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