Agroecology shares family farmers' evolving knowledge — and should go mainstream, says Fernando R. Funes-Monzote.
Over recent decades, formal research and extension, led by governments and big enterprises, have led to novel answers for emerging problems in agriculture.
However, these have generally failed small-scale farmers — one fifth of the world's population. Every day, small-scale farmers face numerous challenges that include feeding their families, paying for labour, controlling pests, managing natural resources, coping with market demands, adapting to climate change and the rising cost of energy, and dealing with political and military conflicts.
On top of that, with typically less than 25 per cent of the total share of land in most developing countries, they produce 50-75 per cent of the domestic food supply from culturally and biologically diverse agriculture.
For sustainable food production to become a reality, it is crucial to fulfil family farmers' needs — and agroecology is arguably the most realistic way of achieving that.
A sustainable science
Widely considered the science of sustainable agriculture, agroecology fosters and spreads farmers' collective knowledge in particular environments — a knowledge that coevolves with a strong scientific foundation and a well-organised social base — to design and manage more efficient, productive and environmentally sound farming systems.
For example, farmers adapt to climate change by making choices according to short-term and site-specific weather patterns and a number of other approaches.
Research has shown agroecology to be flexible and dynamic enough to be adapted to various socioeconomic and environmental conditions; and it is easy for people to access, own quickly and adopt effectively.
A report by Olivier De Schutter, UN rapporteur on the right to food, states that "agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within ten years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty". 
However, most governments and institutions are still giving little attention (or financial support), regarding agroecology as an alternative rather than the leading option for future agriculture.
From science into practice
There are some successful projects, social movements and academic programmes dedicated to agroecological education and research in Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba and Mexico.
For example, the Farmer-to-Farmer Movement of the National Association of Small Farmers in Central America and Cuba disseminates technology and promotes socioeconomic empowerment by helping farmers mobilise and exchange experiences.
The Rede ECOVIDA de Agroecologia project in Brazil is working to strengthen small-scale farmers' capacity to cope with consumer demands and move towards commercialisation. And national agroecological laws in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua indicate growing political awareness.
Cuba, where I live, is considered a model of agroecology. But in spite of this, there is a renaissance of industrial agricultural production and the country still imports substantial quantities of food. 
“The best way — and the most difficult step towards building bridges between the discourse and real-life agroecological challenges — is to get scientists directly involved with farming, education, commercialisation and policy.”
Fernando R. Funes-Monzote, SOCLA
Agroecological innovation, together with social awareness, has the potential to solve this challenge through activities such as sharing locally adapted experience on how to apply ecological principles when managing agricultural systems.
Dilemmas for agroecology
But still, these activities have little impact on the broader discourse around sustainable agriculture.
Agroecological practice is often too dynamic and complex to be included in industrially standardised farming systems. There is a need to redesign infrastructures — for crop transformation, distribution and storage — for the demands of decentralized and smaller scale agriculture.
The challenge is enormous. One critical issue is that agroecology does not adhere to standards or guidelines, as organic agriculture does. Rather, it is subjective — "in the eye of the beholder". There are many variations of agroecology, which is problematic.
An emerging challenge is that agroecology is now being coopted by people and organisations that support its potential to coexist alongside biotechnologies. But this is not grounded in any evidence of success.
And any system that promotes monocultures and drives family farmers off their land has no agroecological orientation. For example, conservation agriculture is considered by some as an agroecological and environmentally sound system. But it can involve the use of large amounts of herbicides and transgenic crops.
What is well documented, on the other hand, is that making farmers dependent on industrial technologies, such as genetic manipulation, undermines their sovereignty — their ability to decide for themselves how to design and apply technology.
To transform the status quo of agribusiness into an agricultural system dominated by family farming and agroecology, we need 'farming like we're here to stay' — an approach that reflects a shared vision of the future. 
This goes beyond technology or technological innovation: it's about learning how to live in the countryside, understanding local dynamics and exchanging information about adapted experiences and technologies in order to modernise rural life.
The best way — and the most difficult step towards building bridges between the discourse and real-life agroecological challenges — is to get scientists directly involved with farming, education, commercialisation and policy.
One of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done is probably digging a well through rock on my farm, looking for water in the dry season — but it was how I found a metaphor for agroecology: the more you dig, the deeper the water goes.
Similarly, the more one looks into agroecology, the more benefits you find for sustainable agriculture.
Fernando R. Funes-Monzote is an agroecologist, researcher, international consultant and farmer based in Cuba. He is vice-president of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA) and can be contacted at [email protected]u
This article is part of the Spotlight on Producing food sustainably.