Opportunities for agroecology

There is a growing consensus among researchers and practitioners that approaches to food production centred only on maximising yield could hamper the future sustainability of our agroecosystems, and this should be replaced by a more holistic focus on whole-ecosystem performance. In order to improve resilience without compromising yields, ecological intensification practices are considered a good option to leverage on ecosystem processes rather than external chemical and energy inputs. In other words, farmer's choices should be dictated by agroecological principles (where agroecology is defined as the application of ecological concepts in farming) capable of stewardshipping agrosystems toward maximum efficiency rather than productivity.

Agroecological principles allow farmers to work with nature, not against it.

Practices such as cover crops and whole-system approaches, like organic fertilisation and soil microbiome management, both fall under the umbrella of ecological intensification because they have the potential to reduce or replace the use of synthetic inputs with ecosystem services. Similarly, agroforestry systems and spatial crop associations are designed to make use of the synergies that multiple plants and/or animals can establish, ultimately maximising the efficient (circular) use of nutrients and reducing the need of bioactive compounds such as pesticides. However, the diffusion of such practices among farmers faces many barriers, the most important of which would be the natural reluctance of practitioners to uptake practices they do not know well, and could potentially put their whole business in danger.

Agroecology is the foundation for creating resilient and sustainable food systems

In order to change farmers' behaviour, a mix of policy-driven and market-driven mechanisms are typically at play. For the former, the Common Agricultural Policy is the main instrument to enforce whole-system changes at the European level. Together with the Climate and Environmental Policies, such instruments are being used to support the Green Deal agenda in reducing net greenhouse gas emissions in the EU by at least 55% by 2030, and are progressively doing so by rewarding farmers for reducing their footprint or for maintaining other ecosystem services. However, these policies will have a reduced impact if the market would not equally support the shift. Interestingly, also thanks to the impact of the movie Kiss the Ground, there is a current hype for the term "regenerative agriculture", which provides a great opportunity for farmers to obtain extra revenues for changing their production approaches. In fact, similarly to what was the main driver for the diffusion of organic agriculture, the premium prices potentially linked to selling "regenerative food" are a great motivator. However, the market for regenerative agriculture is in its infancy, and access to premium prices is generally precluded to individual farmers. Therefore, opportunities must be created by aligning various actors of the value chain in transmitting to consumers the extra value of purchasing regenerative food. How such alliances could be promoted in the rural context is presented in the section on living labs as a tool for systemic change.