11. Is Agroecology the Antidote to Industrial Agriculture?

by Fritjof Capra with Anna Lappé

Systems Perspective: In this essay, which was originally published in slightly different form on the Center for Ecoliteracy website, Fritjof Capra and Anna Lappé explore how climate change must be understood as a systemic problem requiring systems-based responses.


Today it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time—energy, the environment, climate change, food security, financial security—cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means they are all interconnected and interdependent and require corresponding systemic solutions.1 To put it another way, systemic problems have harmful consequences in several different areas, while systemic solutions solve problems across different areas. This important insight can be illustrated with the example of agriculture and its causal connections with climate change.

Climate science is now an established scientific field, and its basic findings are well known.2 When sunlight warms the surface of the Earth, a large portion of the reflected thermal radiation is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In the early history of the planet, this “greenhouse effect” created the protective envelope in which life was able to unfold, but since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have generated excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, excessive amounts of heat have been trapped by the greenhouse effect, resulting in the global warming of the Earth's atmosphere beyond safe levels. Warmer air means that there is more energy and more moisture in the atmosphere, which can lead to a wide variety of consequences—floods, tornados, and hurricanes; but also droughts, heat waves, and wildfires. All of these consequences are threats to global food security.

The links between industrial agriculture and climate change are twofold: our modern industrial agriculture system is both victim and culprit of the climate crisis. On the one hand, the crops grown in the genetically homogeneous monocultures that are typical of chemical farming are vulnerable to the climate extremes that are becoming more frequent and more violent as a result of global warming. In addition, chemical agriculture, with its disregard for soil health and its reliance on synthetic fertilizers, leaves soil especially at risk to extreme weather events, such as droughts and flooding. The United Nations estimates that under current projections of climate change, yields of staple crops like wheat and corn could drop by half in some regions of the world over the next three decades.3 On the other hand, industrial agriculture contributes significantly to the greenhouse gases causing climate change, especially because the system is so energy intensive and fossil-fuel dependent.

The Origins of Industrial Agriculture

The origins of industrial agriculture can be traced back to the discovery of the ability to mass synthesize nitrogen into a usable form for fertilizer, known as the Haber-Bosch process for the scientists at the heart of the discovery. At the turn of the last century, Fritz Haber, a scientist in Germany, discovered how to synthesize ammonia; Carl Bosch, a chemist working for chemical giant BASF, commercialized the process allowing for an industrial scale of fertilizer production heretofore unknown. The Haber-Bosch process enabled farmers to develop monocultures because farmers were no longer reliant on crop rotations or nitrogen fixing crops to develop soil fertility and they no longer needed animals, integrated sustainably into production, as a source of fertility. Widespread use of industrial fertilizer took off after World War II. Between 1950 and 1988, fertilizer use worldwide jumped from 14 million tons to 144 million tons; today the figure has increased to more than 180 million tons.4

Industrial agriculture also developed as a result of the invention of chemical pesticides to control weeds, fungi, insects, and rodents. The use of these pesticides increased after the Second World War, when companies that had developed insecticides and other chemicals for use in warfare saw a vast potential for expanding markets in a post-war era by marketing them as tools for modern farmers.

The twentieth-century rise in industrial-scale livestock production grew out of these innovations. Producers were no longer required to maintain levels of livestock populations in concert with a farm’s capacity to feed those animals. Moving livestock into feedlots (cattle), concrete confinement operations (hogs) or into “houses” that hold tens of thousands of birds (poultry) became possible with the growth of monoculture commodity operations, producing soybeans, corn, and other crops for industrial livestock feed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, industrial agricultural practices spread into the Global South, especially with the introduction of wheat and rice varieties developed under the so-called Green Revolution. The implementation of the Green Revolution relied on using hybrid wheat and rice varieties, agricultural chemicals, and energy-intensive irrigation. The immediate yield jumps in certain commodities under these techniques led many to claim spectacular benefits under this regime. Today, more than half a century after its introduction in the Global South, the dark side of this chemical agriculture model has become painfully evident.

Critics point to the on-the-ground evidence that the Green Revolution has helped neither farmers, nor the land, nor the consumers.5 In the areas of India that adopted these practices, for example, farmers attribute a rise in cancers, reproductive problems, and birth defects to the use of insecticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals.6 The massive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides also changed the fabric of agriculture and farming, as the agrochemical industry persuaded farmers that they could make more money by planting large fields with a single highly profitable crop and by controlling weeds and pests with chemicals. This practice of single-crop monoculture entailed high risks of large acreages being destroyed by a single pest, and it also seriously affected the health of farmers, pesticide applicators and other agricultural workers as well as people living in agricultural areas.

With the new chemicals, farming became mechanized and energy-intensive, favoring large corporate farmers with sufficient capital, and forcing many small-scale family farmers to abandon their land. In areas of India and Latin America where the Green Revolution was introduced widely, the programs spurred mass migrations from rural communities to urban centers, growing the numbers of the urban unemployed.7

Globally, the long-term effects of chemical farming have been disastrous for the health of the soil, for human health and for our social relations. As the same crops are planted and fertilized synthetically year after year, the balance of the ecological processes in the soil is disrupted; the amount of organic matter diminishes, and with it the soil’s ability to retain moisture and carbon. The resulting changes in soil texture entailed a multitude of interrelated harmful consequences—loss of humus, dry and sterile soil, vulnerability to wind and water erosion, as well as less carbon retained in soil structures.

The ecological imbalance caused by monocultures and excessive use of chemicals also fosters what is known as the “chemical treadmill”: as pests and weeds develop resistance to chemicals, farmers use ever larger amounts, and more toxic doses, of those chemicals. It’s a vicious cycle of depletion and destruction. The hazards for human health increase accordingly as more and more toxic chemicals seep into the soil and contaminate the water table, or show up as trace residues in our food.

In recent years, the disastrous effects of climate change have revealed another set of severe limitations of industrial agriculture. As Miguel Altieri and his colleagues at SOCLA (the Sociedad Cientifica Latinoamericana de Agroecologia) point out in a recent report, the Green Revolution, and industrial agriculture more broadly, was developed under the assumptions that abundant water and cheap energy from fossil fuels would always be available.8 It also functions under the assumption of climate stability. None of these assumptions are valid today. The key ingredients of industrial agriculture—agrochemicals, synthetic fertilizer as well as fuel-based mechanization and irrigation—are derived entirely from dwindling non-renewable resources. With the volatility in the markets for fossil fuels and with falling water tables, the basis of industrial agriculture is further undermined. And, increasingly frequent and violent climate catastrophes wreak havoc with genetically homogeneous monocultures that now cover 80 percent of the 1500 million hectares of global arable land.9

Industrial Agriculture as Climate Culprit

The system of industrial agriculture contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions in several distinct ways. First, agriculture is a major driver of deforestation, for grazing livestock as well as cropland.10 In certain regions of the world, this role is particularly pronounced. In Latin America, for instance, livestock has been a major factor in the region’s significant net forest loss. Land for extensive grazing as well as feed crop production has resulted in significant deforestation over the past several decades, according to the United Nations.11

In part, because of its role in deforestation, the livestock sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, being responsible for 14.5 percent of all global emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It is the single largest source of food-sector emissions. A major source of livestock-related emissions are methane gases emitted by the digestive process of ruminants like cattle, and from manure left on pasture or collected in factory farms. These methane emissions are the source of nearly two-thirds of global agricultural emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.12

Another major agriculture-related contributor is synthetic fertilizer production and use. The mass production of synthetic fertilizer uses large amounts of energy. In places like China fertilizer production is delivered by coal-fired power plants. Moreover, the use of synthetic fertilizer releases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. (Rice production and the burning of savannahs are also contributors, but to a much lesser degree).

Finally, the breaking down of organic matter in the soil into carbon dioxide, during large-scale tillage and as a consequence of excessive synthetic inputs, further releases carbon into the atmosphere. The degrading of healthy organic soil by chemical fertilizers and pesticides increases the soil's vulnerability to drought by reducing its capacity to capture water and keep it available for crops. A further devastating effect of the over-fertilization that is typical of chemical farming practices is the nutritional overload in our waterways, caused by runoffs of agricultural nitrates and phosphates, which lead to oxygen depletion in rivers and lakes and to so-called “dead zones” in oceans, which are no longer inhabitable by most aquatic life. Studies have found more than 400 of these dead zones around the world, with new discoveries of such areas even in oceanic waters long thought too far from runoff to be affected.13

Beyond these agricultural emissions, the industrial food system, more broadly considered, is also a significant contributor to the climate crisis. Food processing, packaging, transportation, refrigeration, preparation, and waste all account for additional emissions. All together, the food sector is responsible for as much as one third of greenhouse gas emissions and for thirty percent of the world’s total “end-use energy consumption,” according to the United Nations, with more than two thirds of that energy use derived from activities “beyond the farm gate” in the processing, transporting, and preparing of foods. (In the Global North food-system related energy use tends to be for processing and transport, while cooking is responsible for a greater share in the Global South, where on average more unprocessed foods are consumed and more foods are locally raised and locally grown).14

From a systemic point of view, it is evident that a food system that is highly centralized, energy-intensive, and dependent on petrochemicals and fossil fuels; a system, moreover, that creates health hazards for farmers, agricultural workers, and consumers and is unable to cope with increasing climate disasters, cannot be sustained in the long run.

Agroecology: A Sustainable Alternative

Fortunately, there is a viable and sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. It consists of a variety of agricultural techniques, based on ecological principles that have been refined over the past century and are being adopted around the world, especially in the past two decades. With these techniques, healthy biodiverse foods are grown in decentralized, community-oriented, energy-efficient, and sustainable ways. These ecologically-oriented farming techniques include organic-certified farming, permaculture, and biodynamic farming. In recent years, the term “agroecology” has increasingly been used as a unifying term, referring to both the scientific basis and the practice of an agriculture based on ecological principles.15

When farmers grow crops according to the principles of agroecology, they use technologies based on knowledge of natural systems to increase yields, control pests, manage weeds, and build soil fertility. They plant a variety of crops, rotating them so that insects attracted to one crop will disappear with the next, for instance. They know that it is unwise to eradicate pests completely, because this would also eliminate the natural predators that keep pests in balance in a healthy ecosystem. Instead of chemical fertilizers, these farmers enrich their fields with nitrogen-fixing crops, manure, and tilled-in crop residue, thus returning organic matter to the soil to reenter the biological cycle.

Agroecology is sustainable because it dramatically reduces the need for off-farm inputs, is dependent on the saving and sharing of seeds versus purchased seeds, and can be fostered through farmer-to-farmer education not through expensive inputs. These practices are also based in a deep understanding of the complexity of soil: Organic farmers know that fertile soil contains billions of living organisms in every cubic centimeter, organisms essential to soil health. These farmers know soil is an ecosystem in which the substances that are essential to life move in cycles from plants to animals, to manure, to soil bacteria, and back to plants. Solar energy is the natural fuel that drives these ecological cycles, and living organisms of all sizes are necessary to sustain the whole system and keep it in balance.

Another key principle of agroecology is the diversification of farming systems. Mixtures of crop varieties are grown through intercropping (growing two or more crops in proximity), agroforestry (combining trees and shrubs with crops), and other techniques. On many sustainable farms, livestock is integrated to support the ecosystems above the ground and in the soil. Agroecological practices are labor-intensive and community-oriented, thereby reducing poverty and social exclusion. In these ways, agroecology is able to raise agricultural productivity in ways that are economically viable, environmentally benign, and socially uplifting.

Of critical importance for the future of agriculture is the observation that resilience to extreme climate events is closely linked to agricultural biodiversity, which is a key characteristic of agroecology. In recent years, several surveys conducted after major climate disasters—e.g., Hurricane Mitch in Central America (1998) and Hurricane Ike in Cuba (2008)—have shown that farms using agroecological practices suffered less damage than neighboring conventionally farmed monocultures. Other studies showed that diversified farming systems are able to adapt to and resist the effects of severe droughts, exhibiting greater yield stability and smaller decline of productivity than monocultures.16 In the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical farming systems, the Rodale Institute showed that corn and soybean yields from organic systems matched the yields from conventional systems in normal years and exceeded them by about 30 percent in drought years.17

When soil is farmed organically, moreover, its carbon content increases, and by sequestering carbon in this way organic farming can contribute to reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In other words, agroecology not only is more resistant to global warming than industrial agriculture; it also helps stabilize the climate, whereas industrial agriculture aggravates climate change.

In the Rodale Institute field trials, the Institute found that 27 years of organic practices increased soil carbon by almost 30 percent, while the fossil-fuel based systems showed no significant increase during the same time period.

There is abundant evidence that agroecology is a sound ecological alternative to the chemical and genetic technologies of industrial agriculture. The first global assessment of sustainable agricultural practices in the developing world was conducted by agroecologist Jules Pretty at the University of Essex and his colleagues in 2003.18 They documented clear increases in food production over some 29 million hectares, with nearly 9 million households benefiting from increased food diversity and security. A re-examination of the data in 2010, extending the survey to 37 million hectares, showed that the average crop yield increase was 79 percent.19

In the last two decades, the realization of the contribution of peasant agriculture and of agroecology to food security has gained worldwide attention. Two major international reports by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD)20 and by the UN Human Rights Council21 state that, in order to feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming systems, and they recommend a fundamental shift toward agroecology as a way to achieve those levels of food production. Based on broad consultations with scientists and extensive literature reviews, both reports contend that small-scale farmers can dramatically increase food production within 10 years in critical regions by using agroecological methods already available. These studies also remind the reader that a more sustainable approach to food systems globally would reduce the level of food waste—currently at about one third of all food worldwide—which itself would reduce the need for achieving higher yield growth or greater production.

What is promising about these approaches is that this kind of system-wide transformation can be achieved relatively quickly. As the United Nations notes in a recent report, upon introduction of these agricultural practices the “reversal from degradation to sustainable production has in some cases been very rapid, taking only a matter of years.”22

Consider the re-greening of parts of the Sahel region in Africa, lying just south of the Sahara Desert and stretching across the continent from Senegal to Eritrea, an area devastated by drought and famine in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Sahel, a program of agroforestry has improved food security for 3 million people during a period that saw little to no increase in overall rainfall. The efforts have included agroecological innovations like integrating greater diversity of crops, reintroducing traditional crops like sorghum and millet well-suited to the dry region, integrating trees into farms and developing simple ways to capture and direct what little rainwater falls there.23

The Growth of Agroecology

In recent years, agroecology has taken off around the world. The rapid growth of the peasant-led international movement La Via Campesina, representing 148 organizations in dozens of countries and giving voice to millions of small-scale farmers and fisher folk worldwide, is one example of its adoption. Additionally, the growth of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements with 800 affiliates in 124 countries speaks to the interest in scaling up this approach to agriculture. Organizations like SOCLA in Latin America and the Campesino a Campesino (farmer-to-farmer) network in Central America24 have reached thousands of farmers across the region.

All together, these groups have helped to train hundreds of thousands of farmers in agroecological approaches, proving that the shift from industrial agriculture to agroecological practices is not only urgently needed, but is also practical and can be achieved without new technologies or expensive investments.


From a systems point of view, it is evident that agroecology is a systemic solution par excellence. If we changed from our chemical, large-scale industrial agriculture to organic, community-oriented, sustainable farming, this would contribute significantly to solving three of the world’s most pressing problems: It would greatly reduce our energy dependence, because we are now using nearly one third of our fossil fuels in the food sector. The healthy, organically grown food would have a huge positive effect on public health, because many chronic diseases—heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and so on—are linked to our diet. And finally, organic farming would contribute significantly to fighting climate change by reducing food-system related greenhouse gas emissions, and by drawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it up in organic matter, in addition to producing crops that are more resilient to extreme climate conditions. What we need now to scale up agroecology from successful local and regional projects to the global level is political will and visionary global leadership.

Fritjof Capra, Ph.D., physicist and systems theorist, is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Capra is the author of several international bestsellers, including The Tao of Physics, The Web of Life, and Learning from Leonardo. He is coauthor, with Pier Luigi Luisi, of the multidisciplinary textbook, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge University Press, 2014). www.fritjofcapra.net.

Anna Lappé is an internationally recognized expert on food systems and sustainable agriculture and a bestselling author. She is a contributing author to ten books and the author or coauthor of three, including her most recent, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Forkand What You Can Do About It (Bloomsbury USA, 2010). She currently directs the Real Food Media Project and, with her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, is a founder of the Small Planet Institute and Fund. www.annalappe.com.