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Agroecology

Introduction

There are over 7 billion humans on this planet, and the number is growing rapidly. Some argue that today's highly industrialized agriculture is necessary in order to feed all these people. However, this type of agriculture is "efficient" only in those resources that have a monetary value (labor, certain types of land), but are extremely inefficient in their use of energy and nutrients, in addition to causing numerous adverse impacts on ecosystems. Agroecology is a proposed method that can, in theory, feed the world with humane and sustainable farming while also helping to restore and conserve the environments and societies in which we live (see De Schutter 2011).

Agroecology is…

According to agroecology.org, a website managed by the University of California – Santa Cruz, agroecology covers many different areas within the agricultural sector. The website provides three different definitions:

  1. “the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems”
  2. “a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences”
  3. “linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities” 

Agroecology has also been described as the “science of sustainable agriculture”, and seeks to determine best method approaches for sustainable options.

Context within NORA

Relationship to Needs

The most obvious need that agrecology would increase abundance of is that of food. The point of agrecology is to create a sustainable agricultural system that works with rather than against natural systems. Other needs include clean air and clean water, since pollution is not a part of a sustainable agricultural system. Meaningful livelihoods become possible through agroecology because providing food for one’s family or for an income without causing adverse effects on the environment can be very fulfilling. Agroecological methods can also be used to produce fibers for making clothing.  Perhaps there is even a contemplative/spiritual connection since living within the bounds of nature can be a source of spiritual connection with the natural world. Finally, being at home in the place where on lives comes into play, in that within an agroecological system, ideally the farmer will live very close to where he or she works making it a comfortable working environment.

Relationships to Resources

Agroecology manages every resource that comes in contact with an agricultural field including air and atmospherewaterlandenergyminerals, and living things (including humans). One major principle of agroecology is leaving as little of an impact on the earth’s resources as possible, which means avoiding practices that would pollute the air or water, leach the soil of fertility or cause erosion, overuse non-renewable energy sources, overuse beneficial minerals in unneeded ways, or upset the local biotic community. Essentially, agroecology would not only work to fit in with the ecological processes of the area, but would also serve to increase these resources. 

Relationship to Organizational Forms

To be successful, agroecology should be implemented using community-based or individually based organizational forms, i.e. of the self-provisioning or community solidarity cluster. Farmers must take pride in what they are doing, and must feel that what they are doing is important, and having a community to provide aid and support is imperative. Agroecological practices also are a form of natural resource management, managing the land, water, and living things (crops, livestock, and the entire agroecosystem). In addition, the produce of agroecological farms can be sold either as individual sales (for example, sales to customers in a farmers market or a grocery store) or as committed sales or services (for example, long-term contracts to wholesalers or cafeterias, or community-supported agriculture), both of which involve currencies and markets

How does it work?

Agroecology takes pre-existing knowledge from farmers, and combines it with what is known about natural processes. Farmers who implement agroecological methods already understand the dynamics of their local environments and of producing food and other products they need, as well as already having the knowledge of how to make best use of available resources. 

 This graphic, obtained from the Groundswell International website, represents the relationship between productivity and sustainability of certain agricultural systems. According to the graphic, there is a trend that goes from high productivity with low sustainability to low productivity with medium sustainability in the transition period, and finally to high productivity with high sustainability once agroecological methods have been properly implemented. 

The relationship can be seen differently, however, once we begin to question how "productivity" is defined. Productivity is supposed to signify large output at low cost. Industrial agriculture indeed minimizes the monetary costs of production to the farmer (for example, labor and land costs), and is productive in this sense. However, it ignores numerous costs to other people and the environment, such as the impacts of pesticides on people's health and of numerous plant and animal species (including the micro-organisms that keep the soil healthy), the environmental costs of producing massive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, and the impacts due to those nutrients being carried off the fields and into bodies of water (causing eutrophication and dead zones). If all these costs were included, industrial agriculture would be seen to be far less productive than it's usually claimed to be. Only if we assess all the costs can we truly measure the productivity of an economic activity, and depending on how we value the various costs, many practices of industrial agriculture are likely to be less productive than even many of the "peasant/low-input" systems.

Unquestionably, it is of vital importance to reduce the adverse impacts of present agricultural practices while keeping up food production, and this requires sophisticated agro-ecological research.

 

Applications

Among multiple examples, here are a few:

1. Asian farmers discovered that a natural way to control pests without pesticides and herbicides was to introduce ducks. The ducks feed on unwanted pests, and the feces of the ducks enhances the soil which they stir up with their beaks and feet (further oxygenating the soil). The ducks then also serve as an additional source of income for the farmers as they can be sold at harvest time. [2]

2. Joel Salatin is the owner of Polyface Farms, an alternative farming operation in Virgina. He refers to himself as a grass farmer, and is convinced that the success of his farm is intimately connected with the health of his farm's grass.The homestead mimics a natural polyculture, or an agricultural system set to work as a natural ecosystem by using multiple crops and animal species in the same area. Salatin uses chickens, cows, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs to create this polyculture. Just one example of his closed-loop farm: his herd of cows feed on a different quarter acre of grass every day producing manure. After three days of letting this manure sit, he releases three hundred laying hens to eat the fly larvae in the cowpats. In the process of eating these larvae, the chickens help spread manure and further fertilize the pasture with their own nitrogen-rich excrement. The pasture is then ready for more grazing, thus creating a loop. [3]

These are both specific examples that employ the natural processes of nature in an agricultural setting, thus making the system sustainable and increasing the possibility for abundance. 

Strengths/Weaknesses 

Strengths include the promise of agroecological methods to increase agricultural productivity or intensification. Agroecology offers a practical way to restore agricultural land without extensive and expansive inputs required in conventional agriculture. It also offers an environmentally sound and affordable way for small-holders to sustainably intensify production. Additionally, agroecology has the potential to reverse anti-peasant biases that are inherent in strategies that emphasize purchased inputs and machinery, instead supporting small-holders economically and psychologically. Agroecology is an approach to increasing global abundance that is more likely to decrease, rather than exacerbate, inequality while also enhancing sustainability.

The major weaknessess associated with implementation of agroecoogical techniques come from the infrastructures of current food systems. These systems, backed by major corporations with a lot of political clout, are a major obstacle to promoting agroecological methods. Common agroecological methods (including organic farming) are perceived by the general public to be not as effective or potent at dealing with world hunger as current conventional methods, and this is a perception that must be changed should these methods be successful. Additionally, agroecology takes time to work, which means that there is a period of transition when yields may be low. The societal push for higher yields drives farmers to turn to conventional input-heavy methods simply because they show results almost immediately, while agroecological methods require that transition period to restore the land before results become apparent. It could be difficult for an impoverished farmer to be able to survive during this transition period without financial assistance.

Most importantly, the current agricultural system does not take into account the negative externalities or long-term implications of current practices: farmers (and consumers) do not pay for the environmental damages they cause. Meanwhile, those farmers who are trying to do the right thing must take more care or effort, which comes at a cost. This means that environmentally damaging crops can be sold at a lower price and outcompete the organically or agroecologically produced crops. Agroecological methods will, however, become the most advantageous for farmers if they are made to pay for the environmental damages of ecologically inappropriate methods.

 

Possible Improvements

Agroecological research is needed to better understand agroecosystems and improve management methods. This involves collaboration among farmers, who are constantly testing new approaches in the real conditions of their fields, and applied researchers who can provide scientific tools of understanding. It also involves dissemination and sharing of research results among more farmers, so that innovations can quickly spread.

Education of the public is also key. Due to a disconnect between agricultural systems and consumers, most people are ignorant of the need for agroecological methods. Conventional agriculture has, for the most part, discounted natural ecological processes, replacing them with industrial inputs. The vast majority of western populations do not understand the dire impacts of agriculture on the environment and on farm workers and peasants. By emphasizing the importance of the switch in both industrialized and developing countries, the implementation of agroecological methods can be made smoother with less resistance.

The economics of agriculture would be deeply transformed through the introduction of commons trusts on natural resources. The idea is that people pay into the trust based on their use of the resource, and are paid equally out of the trust based on their common ownership of the resource. Such a system would reward people who tread lightly on the earth, while penalizing those who degrade our commons resources (such as clean air and water, and biological resources). Since the poor consume less than the rich, it would also reduce income inequality.

Links

Community Agroecology Network

Food First – Institute for Food & Development Policy

Grow a Farmer – Farm & Garden Apprenticeship

Groundswell International: Agroecology

The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

P2P Foundation: Agroecology; includes Six Proposed Policy Principles for Scaling Up Agroecology by Olivier de Schutter and Gaëtan Vanloqueren

 

Literature

Altieri, Miguel A. Agroecology, Small Farms, and Food Sovereignty. Monthly Review (2009) 102-113. 

Altieri, M.A. 1987. Agroecology: the scientific basis of alternative agriculture. Boulder: Westview Press. 

Altieri, M.A., D.K. Letourneaour and J.R. Davis. 1983. Developing sustainable agroecosystems. BioScience 33: 45-49. 

Altieri, Miguel A., Fernando R. Funes-Monzote, and Paulo Petersen. Agroecologically Efficient Agricultural Systems for Smallholder Farmers: Contributions to Food Sovereignty. Agronomy for Sustainability Development (2012) 32:1, 13 pp. 

Altieri, M.A. 1999. The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 74: 19-31. 

Crucefix, David. Organic Agriculture and Sustainable Rural Livelihoods in Developing Countries. Natural Resources and Ethical Trade Programme (1998) 61 pp. 

De Schutter, Olivier. 2011. Agro-Ecology and the Right to Food. Report presented at the 16th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council [A/HRC/16/49], 8 March 2011.

Gari, Joseph A. Biodiversity and Indigenous Agroecology in Amazonia: The Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza. Etnoecologica (1999) 5:7, 21-37. 

Gliessman, S.R. 1998. Agroecology: ecological processes in sustainable agriculture. Ann Arbor Press, Michigan. 

Vandermeer, J. 1995. The ecological basis of alternative agriculture. Annual Review of Ecological Systems 26: 201-224.

References

Agroecology

Khan, Malik, et al. Integrated Rice-Duck: A New Farming System for Bangladesh.

Polyface

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