Reflections and positions of Rikolto on aspects of sustainability

Rikolto's reflections and views on ecological aspects of sustainability

Sustainability is well on its way to become the most stuffed buzzword of our timeframe. Everything these days is sustainable (if not 'resilient' or 'climate smart'). But while the meaning may have eroded in public discourse, sustainability is still at the heart of what we do as an organisation. That's why we find it important to define more clearly what sustainability means to Rikolto and have a consistent understanding of the concept.

On this page we focus on the ecological aspect of sustainability. As an organisation we have to make decisions every day in response to changes in our environment. Each time, new questions arise about what the "true sustainable choice" would be. As you might expect, there are no easy answers.

In the following articles, we formulate our position on some specific questions and issues that our colleagues encounter in their efforts to build sustainable agricultural chains. We also enriched the texts with good practices from our various programmes. Enjoy reading!

You don’t make coffee or cocoa or any crop resilient to global warming or climate change, you make a family resilient to climate change as smallholders have a way of life in the fields which involves habits, culture and livelihoods.

Francisco Andrade Finance Manager Rikolto in South America


In general, the lower the diversity of the food system, the more vulnerable it is to potential threats due to a higher expected impact and a lower resilience against threats. In other words, less diversity means higher risks for food security. We therefore want to ensure conservation of the genetic diversity of important crops, and to ensure their accessibility for smallholder farmers. Farmers should not become dependent on expensive seeds or planting material from private companies. For smallholder farmers, this independence is important to secure healthy working and living conditions. Policies could enhance this by stimulating research and breeding by institutions that guarantee farmers free access to genetic material. Furthermore, regulations may be needed to guarantee such access.

Valuable ecosystems

Valuable natural ecosystems should be maintained in their original state and not be converted for other types of land use, such as for the production of food, feed or biomass, for housing, etc. It might be argued that food production is more important than protecting nature and that, therefore, valuable natural ecosystems should in fact be turned into agricultural land. Rikolto disagrees, however, as it is currently possible to produce enough food to feed the world’s population. Moreover, we need these natural ecosystems for their role in the conservation (and dynamics) of biodiversity and for the services they provide, including food production.


Rikolto supports the agro-ecological approach and is convinced that the approach and principles are an important inspiration for the necessary systemic changes of our agricultural and food system. In general we support each of the principles – see list in annex, being aware that it will take time to put them into practice. Agro-ecology focuses mainly on farming systems within their ecological and social environment and less within the economic sphere of relationships with other economic actors upstream and downstream the food chain. The commitment for agro-ecological practices should not only be taken up by farmers. Sustainable food and farming is a responsibility for society as a whole. All actors in the food chain, consumers, public authorities contribute with different roles.


We should avoid to narrow down the debate to the simplistic position “GMO’s are good” or “GMO’s are bad”. Rikolto tries to look for the best possible solution for a given problem, avoiding negative consequences, including negative side effects and negative consequences for future generations. Since the application of GMO’s is irreversible in time and space, it is our conviction that we have to be extremely careful and cautious. Yet we do not position ourselves as “against GMO’s” in all circumstances. For the moment being, we have not yet encountered a single GMO that offers the best answer to the complex challenges food production faces.

Climate change

Rikolto supports the idea of contraction and convergence. The Contraction and Convergence strategy consists of reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level (contraction), resulting from every country bringing its emissions per-capita to a level which is equal for all countries (convergence). Priorities for climate change should be differentiated: in developed economies ( 20% of people who are responsible for 80% of life cycle impacts of consumptions), the priority should be on doing more with less (drastic cut of emissions). In fast growing economies the priority is to leapfrog. For the least developed countries the priority is to eradicate poverty and lay a basis for sustainable and equitable growth.

Natural Resources Management

Rikolto emphasizes the need to shift away from heavy dependence on non-renewable inputs toward sustainable agricultural practices based on fostering ecological processes and conserving local natural resources including soil and water and on enhancing nutrient recycling mechanisms. Rikolto promotes farming systems that are sustaining nutrient supplies to crop plants through recycling, through the management of biologically-related processes such as nitrogen (N) fixation by clover and other legumes, and through the limited use of off-farm materials. The aim is to achieve as far as possible a closed nutrient cycle on the farm and to minimize adverse environmental impact.