Eco friendly agriculture describes landscapes that support both agricultural production and biodiversity conservation, working in harmony together to improve the livelihoods of rural communities. While many rural communities have independently practiced eco-agriculture for thousands of years, over the past century many of these landscapes have given way to segregated land use patterns, with some areas employing intensive farming practices without regard to biodiversity impacts, and other areas fenced off completely for habitat or watershed protection. A new eco-agriculture movement is now gaining momentum to unite land managers and other stakeholders from diverse environments to find compatible ways to conserve biodiversity while also enhancing agricultural production.
The term "eco-agriculture" was coined by Charles Walters, economist, author, editor, publisher, and founder of Acres Magazine in 1970 to unify under one umbrella the concepts of "ecological" and "economical" in the belief that unless agriculture was ecological it could not be economical. This belief became the motto of the magazine: "To be economical agriculture must be ecological."
Eco-agriculture is both a conservation strategy and a rural development strategy. Eco-agriculture recognizes agricultural producers and communities as key stewards of ecosystems and biodiversity and enables them to play those roles effectively. Eco-agriculture applies an integrated ecosystem approach to agricultural landscapes to address all three pillars—conserving biodiversity, enhancing agricultural production, and improving livelihoods—drawing on diverse elements of production and conservation management systems. Meeting the goals of eco-agriculture usually requires collaboration or coordination between diverse stakeholders who are collectively responsible for managing key components of a landscape.
Eco-agriculture uses the landscape as a unit of management. A landscape is a cluster of local ecosystems with a particular configuration of topography, vegetation, land use, and settlement. The goals of eco-agriculture—to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services, manage agricultural production sustainably, and contribute to improved livelihoods among rural people—cannot be achieved at just a farm or plot level, but are linked at the landscape level. Therefore, to make an impact, all of the elements of a landscape as a whole must be considered; integrated landscape management is an approach that seeks to achieve this.
Defining a landscape depends on the local context. Landscapes may be defined or delimited by natural, historical, and/or cultural processes, activities or values. Landscapes can incorporate many different features, but all of the various features have some influence or effect on each other. Landscapes can vary greatly in size, from the Congo Basin in west-central Africa where landscapes are often huge because there are vast stretches of apparently undifferentiated land, to western Europe where landscapes tend to be much smaller because of the wide diversity of topographies and land use activities occurring close to each other.
Agriculture is the most dominant human influence on earth. Nearly one-third of the world’s land area is heavily influenced by cropland or planted pastures. An even greater area is being fallowed as part of an agricultural cycle or is in tree crops, livestock grazing systems, or production forestry. In addition, most of the world’s 100,000+ protected areas contain significant amounts of agricultural land. And over half of the most species-rich areas in the world contain large human populations whose livelihoods depend on farming, forestry, herding, or fisheries.
Agriculture as it is often practiced today threatens wild plant and animal species and the natural ecosystem services upon which both humans and wildlife depend. Over 70% of the fresh water withdrawn by humans goes to irrigation for crops, causing a profound impact on the hydrological cycles of ecological systems. Moreover, fertilizers, pesticides, and agricultural waste threaten habitats and protected areas downstream. Landclearing for agriculture also disrupts sources of food and shelter for wild biodiversity, and unsustainable fishing practices deplete freshwater and coastal fisheries.
Additionally, an increase in the planting and marketing of monoculture crops across the globe has decreased diversity in agricultural products, to the extent that many local varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains have now become extinct. Given that demands on global agricultural production are increasing, it is imperative that the management of agricultural landscapes be improved to both increase productivity and enhance biodiversity conservation. Wild biodiversity increasingly depends on agricultural producers to find ways to better protect habitats, and agriculture critically needs healthy and diverse ecosystems to sustain productivity.
Traditionally there has existed a divide between conservationists, who want to set land aside for the protection of wild biodiversity, and agriculturalists, who want to use land for production. Because more than half of all plant and animal species exist principally outside protected areas –- mostly in agricultural landscapes –- there is a great need to close the gap between conservation efforts and agricultural production. For example, conservation of wetlands within agricultural landscapes is critical for wild bird populations. Such species require initiatives by and with farmers. Ecoagriculture provides a bridge for these two communities to come together.
Farming communities play a vital role as managers of their ecosystems and biodiversity. As Ben Falk points out, they are often viewed as stewards. In his understanding, "Stewardship implies dominion, whereas partnership implies co[-]evolution; mutual respect; whole-archy, not hierarchy. A partner is sometimes a guide, always a facilitator, always a co[-]worker." Since a farmer's dependence on their land and natural resources necessitates a conservation ethic, their farm productivity critically demands their assistance in delivering a range of ecosystem services. Wild species often also play an important role in providing livestock fodder, fuel, veterinary medicines, soil nutrient supplements and construction materials to farmers, as well constituting an essential element of cultural, religious, and spiritual practices. The dominance of agriculture in global land use requires that eco-agriculture approaches be fostered by rural producers and their communities on a globally significant scale. To do this, farmers need to be able to conserve biodiversity more consistently in ways that benefit their livelihoods. Experiences from around the world suggest that there are a number of incentives to encourage and enable farmers and their communities to preserve or transition towards eco-agriculture landscapes:
Agricultural landscapes that aim to achieve the objectives of ecoagriculture –- enhanced biodiversity conservation, increased food production, and improved rural livelihoods –- should be managed in ways that protect and expand natural areas and improve wildlife habitats and ecosystem functions, in collaboration with local communities to insure their benefit. Specific land management practices that may be incorporated include:
Many indigenous peoples and rural communities have developed, maintained, and adapted different types of ecoagriculture systems for centuries. Local farmers, pastoralists, fishers, forest users, and other community members are the foundation of rural land stewardship. Their knowledge, traditions, land use practices, and resource-management institutions are essential to the development of viable ecoagriculture systems for their landscapes.
The mainstreaming of ecoagriculture approaches will be crucially dependent upon mobilizing local communities to become leaders in ecoagriculture, as teachers and as advocates for political and institutional change. Communities facing similar challenges can share questions, ideas, and solutions with each other. Local communities also need effective processes for sharing their expertise with national policymakers and the international community and thus play a more central role in settinge coagriculture objectives in policy and program development.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight ambitious targets which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, were put forth by the United Nations in 2000, to be achieved by 2015. Ecoagriculture strategies will be essential to achieving the MDGs, particularly for hunger and poverty, water and sanitation, and environmental sustainability.
The MDGs will not be reached without securing the ability of the rural poor to feed their families and gain income, while at the same time protecting the biodiversity and ecosystem services that sustain their livelihoods. Of the estimated 800 million people who do not have access to sufficient food, half are smallholder farmers, one-fifth are rural landless, and one-tenth are principally dependent on rangelands, forests and fisheries. For most of them, reducing poverty and hunger will depend centrally on their ability to sustain and increase crop, livestock, forest, and fishery production.
A key opportunity for enhancing progress towards the MDGs is investment in locally-driven land management approaches –- such as ecoagriculture strategies –- that build upon synergies between rural livelihoods, environmental sustainability, and food security.
The ecoagriculture movement was first recognized internationally in a joint study of the World Conservation Union and the Future Harvest Foundation published in 2001 called “Common Ground, Common Future” (McNeely and Scherr 2001). The report was later expanded to become a book called “Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity” (McNeely and Scherr 2003). The study confirmed the dominant influence of agriculture on wild species and habitats around the world, and also identified promising examples of land use strategies and practices that benefited both. The international non-profit "EcoAgriculture Partners" was incorporated in 2004 to promote ecoagriculture globally, with Scherr as President and CEO and McNeely as one of the independent governing board members. Scherr and McNeely edited a second book in 2009, entitled "Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture" (Scherr and McNeely 2009).
The values and/or principles of ecoagriculture have much in common with existing concepts, such as integrated landscape management, sustainable agriculture, permaculture, agroecology, integrated natural resource management, organic agriculture, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, protected area management, and others. In fact, ‘ecoagriculture’ landscapes often feature many of these approaches. Ecoagriculture draws heavily on these and many other innovations in rural land use planning and management. The landscape management framework defined by ecoagriculture has four particularly important characteristics: