Agroecology education

‘Agroecology’, as a fairly new term in India, is finally catching up. The principles of agroecology have been practised for several generations following traditional agriculture. Of late it has taken different names and forms like sustainable agriculture, natural farming, Zero budget natural farming, permaculture etc., with the underlying principles and values remaining the same.

Agroecology is all about nurturing the diversity, be it plants or microbes. The basic underlying principle is that everything is connected to everything else. While this makes it complex, it also makes it flexible to a given situation. It is totally opposite to the modern approach of ‘one size fits all’. Being knowledge-intensive, agroecology necessitates building and co-creation of knowledge. Positioned as an alternative paradigm, agroecology implies an approach to collective learning that is also transformative.

While the concept of agroecology itself sounds complex, how do we take it to those interested. What are the different ways in which it is being promoted? Who are the players in agroecology education? What approaches are being used to teach this complex subject? In this issue, we have attempted to include some emerging initiatives in agroecology education.

Approaches to education

In the conventional agriculture education, farmer always remained as a knowledge receiver from the extension system. Participatory approaches became central to development processes promoted by NGOs in the early eightees. Approaches like Farmer Field Schools and Participatory Technology Development which recognised farmers knowledge and built on what they already knew, were used by AME, since the ninetees. Pedagogy has to be built around Adult Learning Principles based on practical learning, importantly, experiential learning methods.  The pedagogy enables them to discover the ‘truth’ and understand the ‘science’ behind the practice through studies, games, models, to mention a few, thus, demystifying concepts through innovative learning events.(Prasad K V S, p.11)

Farmer exchanges is yet another approach to co create knowledge on agroecology. Agroecology centers like the Thanal Agroecology center and the Agroecology school in Karnataka are striking examples where agroecology farming is practised and people learn a lot on agroecology by visiting these farms which include a  lot of discussion and knowledge exchange.

Only since recently, specific programmes/courses are being designed to educate students and farmers on agroecology. These are mainly from the NGOs. For example, Welthungerhilfe has been organising course on Agroecology for researchers, activists and practitioners since last 7 years with a paradigm shift from a linear to a cyclical approach to learning focusing on an active action reflection based pedagogy. “How we learn to see the world influences what we do in future. There is an urgent need to re-think education and shift the overall focus in education from theoretical knowledge alone to the competences which is coming out from their experience”, says Anshuman Das of Welthungerhilfe (p.6).

Farmers’ experience, knowledge on local resources and their uses are key to promoting agroecological approaches. While training, it is very important for the trainers to become facilitators and to understand the local ecosystem.(Chandrasekhar et.al., p 21). Agroecological approaches are highly location specific as they connect the links between the food needs, livelihoods, local culture, environment and the economics. Education on agroecology is therefore a holistic approach connecting these links, where farmers are in the centre of the entire process.

Besides institutions, many passionate farmers are giving back to the society by sharing their knowledge and experience on growing food in an eco-friendly manner. Mr. Ayyub Thottoli from Mananthvady in Wayanad, Kerala is one such passionate and innovative farm teacher, who feels sharing knowledge is a social responsibility. Till now, he has taught more than 1000 people including farmers, retired personnel, women and students. (Archana Bhatt et al., p.33).

Strengthening agricultural advisory services to make agroecological knowledge and practices available to small and marginal farmers is critical to transition towards agroecology and organic farming. Digital learning tools are emerging as a cost-effective way to reach out to large number of farmers, training them on agroecological practices, encouraging farmer-led experimentation and local innovation, and upscaling agroecology. For example, Access Agriculture’s video-led learning approach has reached an estimated 90 million smallholders in over 100 countries since it started in 2012, enabling them to learn about agroecological principles and rural entrepreneurship, leading to improved rural livelihoods and sustainable food systems.

Organisations are catching up with the internet era, and reaching out to farmers through various means. For example, the Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) has developed Pestoscope as one such app which is useful for pest identification at the field level. Similarly, a Youtube channel, ekrishi.tv run by CSA has various video based content covering the experiences, preparations, films on various topics in different languages.(CSA). This has particularly been very helpful during the pandemic, by which farmers were kept in touch and reached out with agroecological approaches. Farmers too are reaching out to other farmers using social media.

Photo : S. Jayaraj for AMEF

Way forward

The beginning has been made. How we move forward depends on how much importance we give to promoting agroecological approaches for sustainable food systems. Farmers who practise agroecology and grassroot organisations that promote agroecological approaches can only show the way, but the impetus has to come from the government and policy makers to include it in the mainstream institutions. Presently some of the mainstream institutions include agroecology as a chapter or a course, that is narrowly defined, which will not make a great impact on the learners. What we need is a strong commitment to educate the younger generation in the agriculture sector, so that they transform into professionals in promoting sustainable food systems, in a given ecosystem. This needs a paradigm shift in the thinking, pedagogy and practice.

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