HomeArticles Earth First Small-scale farming communities across the world are using agroecology to simultaneously tackle food security, soil health, and gender relations. Sustainable agriculture promises a win-win for farmers and the environment. Boosting soil health can improve drought resiliency and reduce reliance on synthetic fertilisers while helping to protect watersheds. Growing multiple crops at once, known as inter-cropping, helps to mitigate pests and disease without relying on synthetic pesticides. Adding compost to soil boosts nutrients, reduces erosion and runoff, conserves water, and more - all of which leads to increased production and profitability for farmers.Learn more about the critical role that soil health plays in our food future.But since these sustainable farming practices can also be more labour and knowledge-intensive, it's possible that they can lead to unequal outcomes for communities, says Rachel Bezner Kerr, Professor of Global Development at Cornell University. “You can produce a lot of food in an environmentally friendly way and still have deep inequity in a food system,” says Kerr.Kerr has worked with the Malawi-based nonprofit Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) for decades to study how new farming models can bring lasting change to communities in need, and they have seen incredible results. Using agroecological farming principles such as planting indigenous legumes and focusing on crop diversity, communities are addressing soil health and food security by confronting deeply embedded social issues like gender relations.Thinking beyond the fieldLike sustainability, there is no singular definition for agroecology. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation writes that it “simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems.”1For Kerr, “agroecology is really a holistic approach to food systems to try to create a food system that provides healthy, nutritious food in a way that is equitable.” It goes beyond thinking about the farm. By optimising the interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment, agroecology also inherently addresses social inequities.But in Malawi, deeply rooted social inequities mean that simply using more sustainable farming practices isn’t enough to meet communities’ needs. The majority of farmers are small-scale, subsistence producers, and low soil fertility combined with a lack of dietary diversity and gender inequality are driving food insecurity and malnutrition. According to Kerr, women in Malawi do about half of agricultural labour in addition to household work, almost all the childcare, water collection, and food production. Prevailing social norms mean that many men are aware of gender imbalances but do not help with “women’s work,” for fear of being laughed at or judged by their friends.2Deeply rooted social inequalities mean that, in many parts of the world, women tend to carry most of the burden across farming and domestic responsibilities. (Mark Mainz/Getty Images)During one study focused on intercropping indigenous crops, Kerr’s team conducted interviews with families that revealed major labour imbalances and issues of domestic violence at home. For those women, more time spent with farm labour meant less time for other important activities like caring for the sick or elderly, looking after children, or doing other activities that are important for health and well-being.“If you're increasing farming activities, that can really have devastating impacts on the household and on women's individual well-being because of that inequality to begin with,” says Kerr. “It's not just about labour, it's really about power dynamics within households and within communities.”Another one of Kerr’s studies focused on growing legumes, and farmers were excited to take up new agroecological practices. But soon, researchers found that many of the men were taking the harvest, selling it, and using the extra money for alcohol. “We weren't benefiting food security. We were creating an alcohol program. That had to do with decision-making, high levels of domestic violence, inequity, and power dynamics within the household,” says Kerr. “That had nothing to do with the improvement of soils, which was happening at the same time.” For these communities, food security could not be solved without addressing gender relations—so SFHC made that a key component of its agroecological training.3Community-led transformationAgroecology is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It needs a combination of locally produced strategies, says Kerr.4 First, SFHC provides farmer training on agroecological principles, typically by giving a number of seeds and allowing the farmer to test agroecological practices on a small area of land. Second, they organise farmer-to-farmer exchanges so farmers can meet with peers to discuss what they’re learning, which experiments have worked, and more. Finally, they host community-based education around topics like gender. The SFHC strategy focuses on the co-production of knowledge, meaning that the methods are adapted based on the local, cultural, and social context.This type of participatory action research - where researchers and participants work together to research, reflect, take action, and iterate - is a linchpin of agroecology, according to Kerr. “We tried a number of different strategies for how to address gender inequity, and the strategies were largely ones that [community members] came up with,” says Kerr. For example, local farmer leaders in one study suggested that Kerr’s team host a verbal presentation of their findings in addition to a drama. They used theater to show how agroecology could improve livelihoods, and “that stimulated a lot of discussions and a brainstorming session amongst the farmer research team members about what [they can] do differently,” says Kerr. 80% of Malawi’s population live in small rural communities, with the agriculture sector employing 64% of the country's workforce. (Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)Over the last two decades, the SFHC model has been used in hundreds of villages in Malawi. Communities are not only seeing improvements in the distribution of labour within households, but also improved soil health, climate resiliency, income, and food security. Importantly, the farmer-to-farmer exchanges have increased farmers’ social capital—they have more people to turn to during times of stress.5 By challenging social norms, facilitating open discussions, and providing a network of local support, the communities saw lasting change.Kerr’s team replicated this program’s success in Tanzania. They found a small but significant improvement in the division of farm labour after one study, with men taking on about 30 minutes more work per day. And using a standardised measure of mental health, researchers saw a decrease in the probability of depression for women due to both improvements in food security and gender equity.“The short term benefits of agroecology to addressing women’s specific needs can eventually bring about wider change. Improvements in income, food and nutrition security, self-confidence, organisational capacities and economic wellbeing lay the foundations to instigate shifts in gender relations, women’s status and decision-making roles within families and communities,” Tsuamba Bourgou of Groundswell West Africa and Peter Gubbels of Groundswell International write in the October 2020 issue of Farming Matters.6 Through the holistic lens of agroecology, true agricultural transformation cannot be achieved without addressing power, gender norms, and the distribution of labour.A global shiftSmall farms, or those less than two hectares in size, account for 84 percent of all farms worldwide.7 Small-scale farmers produce roughly 35 percent of the world’s food, yet 40 percent of them live on incomes of less than €2 per day.8 There is an inadequate supply of subsidised fertiliser and prices are rising for farmers, all of which is exacerbated by the threat of climate change. These difficult conditions are pushing farmers to try different approaches.“The conventional approach to farming is becoming less viable for farmers,” says Kerr. It’s not difficult to find farmers interested in trying an agroecological approach, but she says the challenge is around resources to support farmers’ training.“[Transitioning to agroecological practices] requires political will more than anything, because the current way we farm there are a lot of economic interests that are benefiting from that,” says Kerr. But it’s increasingly clear that conventional agriculture doesn’t serve long-term economic interests, given the indirect cost of environmental damage. Kerr sees a shift occurring “in terms of people's recognition that the way we grow food right now is not sustainable,” but more action is needed globally to shift the dial.Evidence shows that countries in the Global South are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and introducing agroecology would clearly improve resiliency.9 But given that food systems are responsible for one-third of all man made greenhouse gas emissions, Kerr thinks that a shift to agroecological practices in the Global North could considerably reduce the region’s emissions, in turn reducing climate risk for those vulnerable communities.10“Hopefully, with the number of extreme events that we've seen globally, and the way we've seen with COVID that our food system is actually fairly fragile, this will renew interest in a different way of producing food and distributing food,” says Kerr.The average income in Malawi is a couple hundred euros per person per year. Many of those experiencing poverty also face resource scarcity in addition to social, environmental, and economic challenges. Still, “we’ve been able to achieve really exciting results with not all that much money. That gives me hope,” says Kerr.