DETROIT, Michigan- The practice of agroecology first came to my attention while reading Tracie McMillan’s “The American Way of Eating,” a journalistic account of the author’s experiences while working in various food production jobs across the country. Starting in a grape vineyard in California and ending at a Brooklyn Applebee’s, McMillan explores the business of food in the United States, most notably the inaccessibility of healthy food for the majority of the nation.
While working at a Wal-Mart in Detroit, a city known as a ‘food desert,’ McMillan encountered a farming technique initiated by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. The community organization uses sustainable farming techniques in urban locations to grow well-tended fruits and vegetables. Michigan State University found that such a practice that could, potentially, provide more than half of Detroit’s fruit and vegetable consumption.
To better explain how such a practice could replace the industrial food system and possibly revolutionize food distribution in developing countries, here is a five-point list explaining the what, where, and why of agroecology.
What Is Agroecology Exactly?
Agroecology is a portmanteau of agriculture, the practice of farming and ecology, the study of how organisms relate to one another and their surroundings. Combined, agroecology uses ecological theory to create sustainable farming practices. Agroecologists study several factors in order to create and implement resource-conserving farming methods that produce high yields.
Agroecologists typically factor economics, cultural practices, and politics in their results. Agroecology applies to many agricultural practices, including food production, pharmaceuticals and even timber harvesting.
Because the results depend on several factors and vary widely depending on the location, no one course of action is prescribed by agroecologists. That means that organic production is not necessarily touted over non-organic or that synthetics are completely renounced. Instead, they provide a general list of principles that help determine a farm’s level of sustainability.
Where Did Agroecology Begin?
The concept of ‘crop ecology’ has existed since at least 1911, when F.H. King wrote “Farmers of Forty Centuries.” His posthumously published book explored how Chinese farmers managed to cultivate the same land for 40,000 years, which he found to depend largely on crop rotation, conservation of resources and soil and a general ‘no-waste’ mentality.
The actual term ‘agroecology’ was not coined until 1928, when Czechoslovakian agronomist Basil Bensin petitioned the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome for an agroecologically-based research project.
40 years later, increased awareness of environmentalism during the ‘Green Decade’ led to greater interest in agroecology and consequently the discipline’s first textbook, written by Stephen Gleissman of the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Since then, at least 17 schools across the country now offer agroecology as a field of study, including Penn State, the University of Wyoming and Iowa State University.
Why Is Agroecology Important?
As agriculture visionary Fred Kirschenmann stated in 2010, the four largest problems facing agriculture all deal with conservation: energy constraints, water availability, climate change and ecological degradation.
Unfortunately, the most prevalent means of farming in the world share these traits as a common weakness.
Current industrialized food systems negatively impact the environment and human health and are unsustainable. Critics argue that their reliance on cheap fossil fuel for fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment manufacturing and operation will eventually lead to rising food prices and increased food insecurity.
Already, agroecological programs are shooting up around the world, notably La Via Campesina, an international movement comprised of approximately 150 local and national organizations located in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. The organization represents nearly 200 million farms and defends their right to food sovereignty, primarily small-scale, sustainable agriculture.
Expanding agroecology’s reach could help alleviate modern food issues, if not solve them entirely. By determining what foods can be grown where, the best methods of their growth, and maximum resource efficiency, agroecologists could increase food security around the world and fix many other global issues along the way.
– Emily Bajet
Sources: La Via Campesina, Sustainable Table, Local Foods, Earth Journalism Network, Berkeley, Resilience, Farmers, Third World Network, CSR, Encyclopedia of Geography, Les Kishler
Photo: La Via Campesina