Agroecology Broadens the Scope of Research

A ladybug on a hairy vetch cover crop. Photo by Cassandra Uchida.

In a world struck by crises of water shortages, unpredictable weather, pest pressure, and labor rights issues, is there another way to approach agriculture? 

For several years, ecologists have focused largely on natural systems, while agronomists have focused on cultivated systems. In the 1970s, these ideas began to converge, creating the concept of agroecology in the western world. 

According to Agroecology and Sustainable Systems by Steve Gliessman, “Agroecology is the integration of research, education, action and change that brings sustainability to all parts of the food system: ecological, economic, and social. It’s transdisciplinary in that it values all forms of knowledge and experience in food system change.” 

Agroecology aims to reduce the use of natural resources, improve the quality of life of farmers and the environment, and protect the resource and legal rights of minority farmers. This includes methods such as intercropping, polyculture systems, and the development of local markets. 

In the US, one of the biggest concerns about agroecology, or any alternative agricultural system, is its economic viability and research basis. It is hotly debated whether or not alternative systems can feed the world.  

The agroecology movement, and especially indigenous peoples within it, highlight that there are “politics of knowledge” that prevent different types of research and knowledge from being seen as valid. 

“Agricultural research is typically very narrow in focus, measuring a limited number of indicators, like yield—or the amount of crops grown per acre—and it has a strong bias toward easily quantifiable data and indicators. By contrast, many of the rich benefits of agroecological and regenerative food and farming approaches cannot be quantified in this way; they take account of environmental impacts, inclusive decision-making, quality of life, health and well-being, mental health, and sustainable livelihoods,” comments Lauren Baker in an article on Civil Eats. 

“Ultimately, the evidence in support of agroecology from farmers, research, science, social movements, and policy arenas is extensive and exists in abundance. In use by millions of people worldwide, agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous food and farming practices sustain health and well-being, are economically viable, culturally appropriate, protect nature, and respect the planet,” she continues. “And yet the fact that this wealth of knowledge is not acted upon on a larger scale boils down to what type of evidence is considered valid, and by whom.” 

In order to provide defense of alternative systems, recently many researchers have shifted to quantifying sustainable approaches in agriculture in order build a formal literature basis that can be cited. 

In the book Healing Grounds by Liz Carlisle, four American land stewards and researchers involved in agroecological practices are highlighted. In exploring this topic, Carlisle began to realize that sustainable agriculture was a topic deeply interconnected with history, racial justice, colonization, and land ownership. 

Carlisle writes, “I began conducting literature searches on the history of cover crops and the use of perennial plants in farming systems… To my amazement, I found that practices commonly promoted within regenerative circles as new innovations had been used for many hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years—not just in far-away ancient civilizations but continuously and right here on the North American continent. Accompanying these practices were sophisticated analyses of soil health, as well as guidelines for stewarding it… 

“Some of the most profoundly influential and knowledgeable land stewards in this country had no formal education in soil science, and many were not even counted as farmers by the USDA’s Census of Agriculture. But in places that few of my fellow agricultural researchers ventured to look—vacant lots, immigrant neighborhoods, Native American reservations—regenerative agriculture kept periodically popping up,” she continues. 

Some posit that agroecology could be the answer to crises in conventional agricultural systems and the environment. 

Historically, European-American agriculture has sought to reshape the land however it sees fit, regardless of the obstacles. This has led to the draining of wetlands, razing of forests, and expulsion of people from the land in order to gain agricultural land. 

This reshaping of the land has often come back to bite American farmers. Agricultural lands that were previously wetlands continue to try to be wetlands, resulting in flooding and agricultural difficulties. Razed forests and grasslands end up with unique moisture, fertility, and erosion problems. 

Subdisciplines associated with agroecology, such as agroforestry, provide alternatives that allow working with wetlands and forests, so that ecosystems can be sustained, and carbon can be sequestered alongside food production.  

The growing body of research surrounding agroecology suggests that agriculture doesn’t need to exist outside of nature but can exist within it. 

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