Agroecological symbiosis

Agroecological symbiosis (AES) is a model for a generic arrangement for the food system that aims to achieve systems-level sustainability. This model addresses the primary production of food by integrating food production, food processing, and energy production. In addition, the AES model supports the on-the-ground development of a food community through the implementation of human-scale food production and processing. A food system premised on AES has the following goals:

  • To practice farming and food processing based on renewable bioenergy
  • To close nutrient cycles
  • To break away from the consolidated food chain
  • To be more transparent and connected with consumers
  • To revitalize the rural spaces

The AES concept originated as part of a co-creative process focused on redesigning organic food production in Palopuro village, Finland. The parties to the initial development were farmers, other local-level actors in the food system, and researchers from the University of Helsinki and the Natural Resource Institute Finland (LUKE) (read more about this project here).

Figure: Helenius et al. (2020)

Definition for agroecological symbiosis (Helenius et al. 2020)

“Agroecological symbiosis (AES)is a form of food production and processing in which the farms, the food processors, and the energy producers function in an integrated manner. The operations are running in spatial proximity to each other allowing efficient material and energy integration. In an AES, nitrogen as plant nutrient for the primary production is biologically fixed. The main source of energy is renewable, generated from the biomasses produced within the AES in a biorefinery, such as a biogas plant, belonging to the AES. In case of a biogas plant, the biorefinery has the dual purpose of providing the energy, and in the form of the digestate, producing the organic fertilizer and soil-conditioner for recycling plant nutrients back to the farmland. An AES sells agricultural or horticultural products, food products, and if produced in excess, bioenergy. The volume of the production, and the reach to the surrounding farmland within the AES are limited by the biophysical potential of the specific agroecosystems without compromising the other ecosystem services. The spatial extent of the biophysical operations is limited to sustainable logistic efficiency for the transport of the feedstock and the recycling fertilizers. The AES strengthens the local socio-economic connections and diversifies the regional food culture.”

Network of Agroecological symbiosis (NAES)

However, a single AES operating in isolation cannot change the food system outside of its immediate context. Thus, we propose that rearranging many different farming, food processing, and energy systems to follow the concept of AES could create a Network of AES (NAES). The development of an NAES would result in a shift to sustainable food production at system level, which would serve as the foundation for the emergence of a food system that is agroecology-based, place-based, and culturally contextualized.

Figure: Helenius et al. (2020)


Koppelmäki, K., Lamminen, M., Helenius, J. and Schulte, P.O. (2021). Smart integration of food and energy production delivers on multiple ecosystem services. Food and Energy security.

Koppelmäki, K., Helenius, J., and Schulte, R. P. O. (2021). Nested circularity in food systems: a NORDIC case study on connecting biomass, nutrient and energy flows from field scale to continent. Resour. Conserv. Recycle.164:105218.

Helenius, J., Hagolani-Albov, S.E., and Koppelmäki, K. Co-creating Agroecological Symbioses (AES) for sustainable food systems networks. (2020). Front. Sustain. Food. Syst. 229. DOI=10.3389/fsufs.2020.588715

Koppelmäki, K. et al (2016) ’Palopuro Agroecological Symbiosis’ A pilot case study on local sustainable food and farming (Finland). In: Challenges for the New Rurality in a Changing World. P. Rytkönen & U. Hård (eds.) 7th Int. Conf. Localized Agri-Food Systems, 8–10 May 2016 Stockholm, Sweden.

Koppelmäki, K., Parviainen, T., Virkkunen, E., Winquist, E., Schulte, R.P.O., and Helenius. J. (2019). Ecological intensification by integrating biogas production into nutrient cycling: Modeling the case of Agroecological Symbiosis. Agricultural Systems. 170. 39.