Proving the value of agroecology for farmers and food systems: what methods and evidence do we have?

Proving the value of agroecology for farmers and food systems: what methods and evidence do we have?
11 contributions

Proving the value of agroecology for farmers and food systems: what methods and evidence do we have?

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© Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum Photos for FAO

Agroecology at farm level is about good agricultural practices, such as crop diversification and rotation, intercropping, crop-livestock integration, manure recycling and integrated pest management. It also includes elements of farmer resilience building, farmer organisations, fair wages for farm workers and soil management. More broadly, agroecology is connected to entire food systems, building circularity (and reducing waste) in agriculture supply chains. 

Some construe agroecology to be the same as ecological/regenerative agriculture or climate-smart agriculture. Also, agroecology is linked to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicator 2.4.1 on the “proportion of agricultural area under productive and sustainable agriculture”. Around the world, it is evident that a movement is afoot to promote agroecological transition through policy and programmes in different countries and contexts. But do we really understand the value of agroecology in terms of its potential contribution to poverty alleviation, human health, and the environment? 

Given the complexity involved, it is understandable that there has been a limited number of initiatives for measuring the impact of agroecological transition. Some consider agroecology to be merely a buzzword that is aspirational, with no real-life significance. And in the absence of clear empirical evidence and methodologies to measure the impact of agroecology, it is hard to dismiss such arguments. It is, therefore, important to learn from ongoing (and maybe innovative) initiatives for measuring the impact of interventions promoting agroecological transition. 

There have been discussions on this forum on a methodological approach developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), including the Tool for Agroecological Performance Evaluation (TAPE). Building on these discussions, we would like to invite the EvalForward community to share its experience on the following questions: 

  • How can we measure the performance of agroecological interventions at farm level (or at food systems level) in terms of their contribution to poverty alleviation, human health, and the environment?
  • What have been some of innovative methodological ways of measuring agroecological transitions on different scales? Are these innovations replicable in different contexts? 
  • Do we already have some demonstrative empirical evidence proving or disproving the value of agroecology? 

At the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) and, as part of the Knowledge & Research for Nutrition project, EU-funded and implemented by Agrinatura we have developed a practical empirical approach to understanding the status of agroecological transitions at farm level. This includes survey data from 1695 households, focus-group discussions, and key informant interviews in Madagascar to measure agroecology (diversity, resilience, efficiency and recycling aspects) at farm level and assess the linkages between agroecology interventions and poverty, nutrition and women’s empowerment-related outcomes. We have so far undertaken one measurement (a baseline in 2022) and expect to conduct another in 2024‒25 to see the effect of interventions. In the course of these discussions, we will share more details on this pilot programme. 

Looking forward to hearing from you! 

Ravinder Kumar


This discussion is now closed. Please contact for any further information.
  • Many thanks Daniel for your grounded, thought provoking and inspiring response. You have really hit the nail on its head.  The moot point is that the current performance metrics for agroecology often fail to take the type of multifunctional approach and benefits of agroecology. It sounds obvious that we need harmonized (as Jilian indicated) and at the same time context-relevant approaches that can adequately measure the performance of agroecological systems towards poverty reduction, human health, and environment. Many examples that you have cited and the story of inspirational farmer (Mr Zepheniah Phiri) are all indicative of the potential of agroecology if rightly understood and implemented. In many academic debates, agroecology is cited as a political agenda of anti-capitalist and deindustrialization activists. There is clearly a need for proving that the pursuit of agroecology is worth all the investments that are currently being undertaken. Your post provides a useful answer to arguments that questions the need for ‘agroecology’. We need to improve both our understanding and application of agroecology as well as multifunctional approaches to measure the ‘worth’ of agroecology. A way to go, indeed!


    Thanks and Best,


  • Agroecology Fund

    Agroecology Fund

    We just launched a free e-course with Stats4SD on Grassroots Evidence for Agroecology here:

    The course describes the process developed by Stats4SD and the Agroecology Fund to create evidence-based cases for agroecology for grassroots organisations and summarises the learning from a pilot when grantees of the AEF produced a handful of cases between 2020 and 2022. 

    The aim is to provide a clear idea of what an evidence-based case is and increase the capacity of grassroot organisations to propose and develop cases that persuade audiences about the efficacy and importance of agroecology.

  • Dear Ravinder,

    Many thanks for your post on agroecology and its call for explaining and measuring its value. Really interesting, hence this reply. Coincidentally I worked at NRI from 1997-2002, thoughI never made it to Associate Professor 😏

    I thought your first question, ‘hidden’ in your introduction was great, so I've tried to answer it. I then provide, I hope, some useful references by way of answering your third question on available evidence.  

    1.    But do we really understand the value of agroecology in terms of its potential contribution to poverty alleviation, human health, and the environment?

    I think there remains widespread misunderstanding about the environmental impact of food production. Modern-day agriculture is not a battle between “good” organic farmers and “bad” industrial ones.  Just because a farm is organic does not mean it has sidestepped environmental and social drawbacks of large-scale farming. Organic farms, for instance, can still employ a damaging monoculture approach. Rather, it is between sterile monocultures of a limited number of foods and a more diverse approach to farming. One which marries a particular place’s unique ecology with local farmers’ knowledge of how to make their landscapes useful to humans: Agroecology. The only way to feed the Earth’s rapidly growing population without destroying the planet. Many farmers practice what is referred to as “climate smart agriculture”. Thing is we often do not know about them. Worse, we don’t seek to find them and learn. More often than you would hope or expect, the starting point is that research institutions can offer them ways to practice ‘it’. The example of Mr Zepheniah Phiri, an indigenous innovator, is a wonderful example of an agroecological farmer. (See later.) The opportunity for support is less about extending climate smart agricultural practices to him and his farm, more about extending his approach to others (and preferably not through farmer field schools!)

    Moving on. The productivity of nearly one-half of all soil worldwide is decreasing. Another 15 percent can no longer be used for farming because its biology has been so depleted. Biodiversity is fading, too. Look at Africa: Fallow areas have virtually disappeared. On average the rate of fallow is 1.2 percent with fallow having all but disappeared with the exception of Tanzania (7,8%) and less so Uganda (5%). The result of African farmers more than doubling annual increases in cropped land from 1.7Mha in 2004-2007 to just under 4Mha in 2016-2019. Production gains have been through an increase in area under cultivation; that is, as opposed to gains in productivity. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the world where production increases have been realised exclusively through increases in physical yields. Studies have shown that if progress on crop yields in Africa does not improve, the continent will lose large amounts of its natural habitat to farmland. In many countries across Sub-Saharan Africa, researchers estimate that cropland could almost triple by 2050. This will come at the cost of wildlife: in these same projections, 10% to 20% of animal habitats will be lost.

    For some smallholders, adopting an agroecological approach to farming is an option. One, also, that makes their farm more robust so insulates themselves from debilitating pests and weather patterns. Such an approach also has the potential to undo some of the environmental degradations of conventional farming by restoring nutrients to the soil. All this said, however:

    1.    African smallholder farmers, unlike their European counterparts, are taxed in the form of subsidising urban consumer prices and lack a voice and agency to reform such govt interference.  
    2.    There is little or no evidence that such practice will boost yields to the extent needed; 
    3.    It assumes farming households, where often labour not land is the binding constraint, will be in a position to allocate more time to farm this way when household members are malnourished; and, relatedly 
    4.    Food security for some households is not necessarily best pursued through own production.

    Agroecological techniques replace the "vicious cycles" bringing down our planetary support systems with "virtuous circles" that mimic nature's own systems. For instance, agroecology can restore soil fertility and sequester carbon naturally rather than spewing it dangerously into the atmosphere or as acid into the ocean. Its nutrient cycling approach — whereby nitrogen passes again and again through food systems, roots, and soils — can turn waste into raw materials rather than pollutants.

    As already mentioned, current performance metrics for agroecology often fail to take the type of multifunctionality set out above into account. Rather they focus disproportionately on productivity and profitability. This limits its assessment of the multiple economic, environmental, and social values created by agroecological farming systems.

    3. Do we already have some demonstrative empirical evidence proving or disproving the value of agroecology?

    Sone examples that, if you have not already seen them, I hope will be helpful.

    A systematic overview of the effects of agroecological practices on socio-economic indicators using a sustainable livelihoods framework 
    Agroecological practices also bring ancillary benefits to poor rural regions. This study found that, since this kind of farming is labour-intensive, it can create valuable employment opportunities in communities starved for jobs. In addition, the emphasis that agroecology places on biodiversity dramatically improves nutrition in many developing countries, especially in areas formerly reliant on cereal-based systems that produced large quantities of rice, wheat and maize, which lack vital micro-nutrients. and here: 

    A farmer case study 
    An inspirational mentor of mine – Master water harvester Mr Zepheniah Phiri from Zvishavane District, Zimbabwe – who said Farming systems need to “rhyme with nature” if they are to be sustainable. Mr Phiri’s farm integrated scientific understanding with his knowledge of how to make his local landscapes useful to humans. He celebrated the value of diverse and complex methods of land stewardship. His approach re-integrates livestock, crops, pollinators, trees, and water in ways that work resiliently with the landscape.

    Unlike other farming systems that rely only on annuals that grow rapidly during the brief rain periods, his system focuses on perennials, or at least multi-year species like bananas, reeds, bamboo, sugar cane and yams. With deep and extensive roots, they can access water and nutrients at a deeper level. The roots also have a stabilizing effect, tying up the soil and preventing surface erosion by wind and water. As the roots slow down water runoff, they can help manage streams and avoid dry or flash flood situations.

    The wide diversity of crops, livestock and other products provides him with a steady and resilient income through the vicissitudes of economic and ecological crisis, cycle and change. He has become very resilient to droughts, for he is putting far more water into the soil than he takes out. Phiri practices a wide diversity of crop rotations tailored to meet the different soil-water conditions and to help manage weeds, pests and diseases. 

    The Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project 
    This reviewed 40 agroecological projects in 20 African countries. Between 2000 and 2010, these initiatives doubled crop yields, resulting in nearly 5.8 million extra tons of food. But agroecology doesn't just increase the output of farms. It values farmers' relationships with and knowledge of their lands. 

    Scaling-up agroecological approaches: what, why and how? 
    A useful discussion paper produced by Oxfam in 2014 that provides an extensive body of evidence demonstrating how efficient scaling-up of agroecological approaches can contribute to ensuring sustainable and resilient agricultural and food systems today and in the future. 

    My thanks again.


  • Dear all

    I am finding Pablo Tittonell's new book, A Systems Approach to Agroecology (July 2023), enormously helpful and insightful on many fronts.


    best, John

  • Dear participants, 

    Thank you all for your contributions. Here are my responses and I look forward to hearing more from you and members of the EvalForward community insights and experiences. 

    Jillian, thanks for sharing this highly relevant paper as it analyses and summarises the development in the field of measuring agroecological transitions at farm /household and landscape /food systems level. The paper is a ‘must’ read for those working on the intersection of implementing, researching and measuring agroecology impacts. And as the paper says, “there will never be a perfect tool or framework for assessing agroecology that can meet every objective in all possible contexts”, therefore we need to discuss and debate differing perspectives and experiences around the key questions of ongoing methodological experiments /innovations in different context (including measuring agroecology at landscape /food system level which the paper found to be less prevalent) but also any demonstrative empirical evidence that prove /disprove the worth of agroecology. Will be great to hear such perspectives /experiences from EvalForward community. 

    Dushyant, thanks for providing this idea on possibilities of using satellite data at village /farm level to track change in agroecological transitions at farm level. I am intrigued and would be great if you can share an example where this was done at this scale (farm /village). This would be hugely beneficial for programmers /researchers /M&E professionals to understand where this has been achieved and how this approach can be applied to track agroecological transitions. 

    Dario, thanks for summarising utility of TAPE in understanding agroecology transitions and in creating demonstrative evidence on agroecology contribution to poverty, human health and environment. In Nutrition Research Facility project, we have taken considerable inspirations from TAPE in developing our methodology for assessment of agroecology interventions in the context of an EU programme in Madagascar. This is a quasi-experimental (difference in difference approach) research for which baseline was conducted in 2022 and we intend to carry out the endline research in 2024/5 to see the effects of agroecology interventions. Apart from a household survey (n=1695), we have deployed a qualitative approach to understand all the factors that hamper or promote agroecology at farm or food systems level. These factors in the Malagasy context are – insecure land tenure status, land fragmentation and conflicts, shifting pattern of agriculture production, low quality and high costs of agriculture inputs (seeds, agrochemicals), insecurity and theft of crop and livestock, limited collectivisation and negotiating power of producers, limited storage solutions, scarcity of manure, limited financial linkages and indebtedness of producers, low women empowerment status (agency, opportunities, and outcomes). These and many other challenges encountered by the producers limit their ability to apply agroecology principles and practices. One of our key insights from this research – for agroecology to achieve poverty, human health and environmental outcomes, constraints to its adoption would have to be resolved. This would require understanding of and finding solutions to context-specific challenges. The question is whether the agroecology programmes are designed in flexible and holistic ways to understand and address these context-specific challenges?   

    Ram, thanks for very useful inputs to this ongoing debate /discussions. Community scorecards is an excellent idea, which the FAO’s TAPE methodology also incorporate. In our research in Madagascar, we have used community score card methodology in focus group discussions on several elements of agroecology such as resilience, synergy, farm workers welfare and rights etc. In the household survey also, some kind of a score card is used as a 5-point scale is used to assess different aspect of agroecology. This has been useful in quantifying the status of agroecological transitions. We are expected to use community score card methodology again in 2024/5 when conducting endline research in Madagascar and therefore will be able to assess how far these agroecological transitions are taking place and more importantly, how these transitions (if underway) are contributing to poverty reduction, human health and to the enviornment. Will come back on this forum to share the results of this research. 

    Regarding your other points, it will be interesting to hear more from you in terms of how (and where) you have used these indicators and what are the results indicating in terms of the value or worth of agroecology related interventions as this is also one of the point under discussion.     

    Many thanks Expedit for sharing your experience and Abdoulaye for reinforcing the message about  the value of TAPE. Interesting to know that you have used TAPE in several studies in Benin. It will be truly great if you are able to share further on these experiences, in terms of what adaptations you have carried out in TAPE to address context specificities and what empirical evidence you are getting in terms of proving /disproving worth of agroecology related interventions. These insights would provide useful lessons to this community to understand and design better methodologies to measure agroecology. 



  • Thank you for this information 
    Indeed TAPE is still a very interesting tool, but it needs to be adapted to your needs.

    [translated from French]



  • For me, TAPE is a very good and effective tool for assessing the ecological and economic sustainability of our farming systems. And I've already used it in several studies I did in Benin. However, I think that the implementation of the three phases of TAPE seems too complex and certain themes or concepts have no equivalent in developing countries. I suggest that researchers try to adapt it to the local realities and concepts of their country.

    [Translated from French]


  • Dear Ravi ji,

    Thanks for raising this important point. I have my two cents' input based on my limited experience in this area. 

    1. Agro-ecology is a multi-dimensional concept at different levels or scales so capturing the multifunctionality of agro-ecology for assessing the performance by developing a common framework may be challenging. Given its externalities/known–unknown/unknown-unknown interactions and functions, performance assessment by using quantitative techniques at the household or farm level will not be adequate. Participatory tools such as community scorecards, by using people’s observations/satisfaction can be useful. 
    2. Environmental, economic and social/institutional aspects are important to see the performance but also its likelihood of continuation of the results. The performance indicators may vary depending on the local context but I used some indicators such as the presence of pollinators, level of pest attack, dilatory diversity & food security, use of traditional/indigenous crops, diversity of plants/crops used for food & medicinal purpose, contribution in farm income, level of stress (such as climate risks) tolerance and so on.   

    Best regards,

    Ram Chandra Khanal 

  • Dario Lucantoni

    Dario Lucantoni

    Agroecology and livestock specialist FAO

    Dear Ravi, 

    With reference to the Tool for Agroecological Performance Evaluation (TAPE), please find below my answers to the points you have raised in the discussion topic: 

    1. Measuring Performance of Agroecological Transitions:

    TAPE adopts a comprehensive approach to i) characterize the level of agroecological transitions of any kind of production system in agriculture, and to 2) assess performance across environmental, social, economic, and cultural dimensions. For poverty alleviation, it considers economic indicators, such as productivity, value added and income. For human health it measures dietary diversity, food security, and exposure to pesticides. For environment, is measures, among others, agrobiodiversity and soil health.

    The tool's versatility allows users to customize assessments to fit specific farm or food system contexts, providing a nuanced understanding of performance.

    2. Innovative Methodological Approaches to Measuring Agroecological Transitions:

    TAPE employs a participatory approach. The tool is context-specific and adaptable. The methodology encourages the establishment of baseline data, allowing for the tracking of changes over time and the assessment of the effectiveness of interventions.

    TAPE's flexibility makes it replicable in various contexts, enabling its use across different scales and geographic locations. The tool has reached already more than 10.000 production systems in more than 50 countries across all regions of the world. 

    3. Demonstrative Empirical Evidence on Agroecology:

    TAPE has been created, among other things, for producing evidence on the performance of agroecology. 

    Numerous case studies and projects employing TAPE have showcased positive outcomes, demonstrating the value of agroecology in fostering sustainable and resilient food systems (results from MaliArgentinaLesotho have been already published).

    I hope this helps.

    Best regards,


  • Season's Greetings Ravinder,

    Your work and approach sound interesting, although most of it is not in my direct area of work. I can think of possible ways involving satellite data that can provide some insights at moderate/low resolution (village or farm field level). It should be possible to assess the impact of different practices on the vegetation / food system productivity, and consequently on SDG goals. 

     Please feel free to connect in case you would like to know more.

    Best regards,
    Dushyant Mahadik
    Asst Professor
    School of Management, 
    National Institute of Technology Rourkela 769 008
    Ph: +91-661-246-2809

  • I would like to contribute the following paper to the discussion. It was recently published by Outlook on Agriculture in a Special Issue on Agroecology:

    “Measuring agroecology and its performance: An overview and critical discussion of existing tools and approaches”

    Matthias S Geck, Mary Crossland and Christine Lamanna 

    Outlook on Agriculture 52:349-359


    Agricultural and food systems (AFSs) are inherently multifunctional, representing a major driver for global crises but at the same time representing a huge potential for addressing multiple challenges simultaneously and contributing systemically to the achievement of sustainable development goals. Current performance metrics for AFS often fail to take this multifunc-tionality into account, focusing disproportionately on productivity and profitability, thereby excluding “externalities,” that is, key environmental and social values created by AFS. Agroecology is increasingly being recognized as a promising approach for AFS sustainability, due to its holistic and transformative nature. This growing interest in and commitment to agroecology by diverse actors implies a need for harmonized approaches to determine when a practice, project, investment, or policy can be considered agroecological, as well as approaches that ensure the multiple economic, environmental, and social values created by AFS are appropriately captured, hence creating a level playing field for comparing agroecology to alternatives. In this contribution to the special issue on agroecology, we present an overview of existing tools and frameworks for defining and measuring agroecology and its performance and critically discuss their limitations. We identify several deficiencies, including a shortage of approaches that allow for measuring agroecology and its performance on landscape and food system scale, and the use of standardized indicators for measuring agroecology integration, despite its context-specificity. These insights highlight the need for assessments focused on these overlooked scales and research on how best to reconcile the need for globally comparable approaches with assessing agroecology in a locally relevant manner. Lastly, we outline ongoing initiatives on behalf of the Agroecology Transformative Partnership that aim to overcome these shortcomings and offer a promising avenue for working toward harmonization of approaches. All readers are invited to contribute to these collaborative efforts in line with the agroecology principle of participation and co-creation of knowledge.