Agroecology:

John Ikerd

John Ikerd

I didn’t become fully aware of the importance of agroecology as a social movement until 2017. That year I was commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to write the regional report on Family Farms of North America in recognition of the International Year of Family Farming. At the international conference in Rome, where I presented my report, advocates of the global Food Sovereignty movement were well represented. They were clearly committed to promoting farming systems rooted in the science of agroecology as a sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. At a recent conference in California, a U.S. representative of the FAO told a group that the U.S. has been one of very few dissenting voices at recent FAO-sponsored international conference exploring the potentials of agroecology.

Perhaps the U.S. government, or agri-corporate lobbyists, see agroecology as a threat to their continued industrialization of global agriculture. Regardless, I believe U.S. farmers need to become more familiar with the concepts and principles of agroecology. Agroecology is not only a means of protecting or restoring food sovereignty to rural communities but is also a means of protecting the individual sovereignty of independent farmers. The agricultural economy of the U.S. is increasingly dominated and controlled by large multinational agribusiness corporations that have no compelling interest other than maximizing profits and economic growth.

First, agroecology applies the science of ecology to agriculture. Ecology is a study of the relationships of living organisms, including humans, with the other elements of their natural and social environment. There is a common phrase in ecology that relates directly to agroecology: “You can’t do just one thing.” The relationships in agroecosystems, such as those in the soil and among plants and animals, are incredibly complex. Everything is related, somehow and in some way, to everything else. Any one thing a farmer may do affects everything else on the farm—some in small ways and others in important ways. When farmers do one thing, they need to be aware of all of the other things that may be affected on their farm as a whole. The unintended consequences may appear either quickly or at some time in the distant future.

Second, as a farming system, agroecology respects the fact that the natural ecosystems upon which sustainable individual farming systems depend are inherently different or unique. Sometimes the differences are insignificant and sometimes they are critical to the performance of the farm as a whole. A set of specific farming methods and practices that are successful for one farmer on one farm may or may not work for another farmer or another farm—even though nature functions by the same principles on every farm. Agroecology respects the “natural ecology of place.” Agroecological farming systems are defined by principles rather than specific farming methods or practices. Methods and practices must respect the uniqueness of place.

Agroecology also respects “the social ecology of place.” Agroecology views humans as members of the earth’s integrally connected ecosystem. The farmer is treated as a member of a farm’s agroecosystem and the relationship between a specific farm and specific farmer is critical to the farm’s success or failure. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do traditional agricultural research relevant to agroecological farming systems, because what works for one farmer might not work for another, even on the same farm. Authentic organic farming also is rooted in the belief that a farm is an organism of which the farmer is an organ or integral part. This casts serious doubts on the ability to standardize authentic organic farming. Farming systems other than organic that treat farmers as members and caretakers of the earth’s integral community also may be consistent with agroecology.

Equally important, agroecology recognizes that farms are inherently interconnected with the specific communities and societies within which they function. The economic sustainability of a farm obviously is interdependent with the willingness and ability of people in its local community, or the larger society, to buy its agricultural products. Less appreciated, the quality of life of farmers and farm families are critically affected by their personal relationships with others in their communities—their customers, their neighbors, and people they meet in town through churches, schools, or participation in public service. These relationships may critically affect the farmer’s sense of acceptance, belonging, and self-esteem. The quality of personal relationships affect the quality of farm life and also may affect the economic success or failure of the farm.

Third, as a social movement, agroecology was a natural choice for the global “Food Sovereignty Movement.” Food Sovereignty proclaims “The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” Agroecology is a science-based approach to “ecologically sound and sustainable farming methods” that can be used to produce “healthy and culturally appropriate foods” and to retain the rights of people “to define their own food and farming systems” that respect the “natural and social ecology of place.” Perhaps more acceptable and more relevant to farmers in the U.S., agroecology seems a natural choice for a science-based conceptual foundation for the local food movement, which could well evolve into a new postindustrial sustainable food system for America.

The FAO of the UN, in its statement of support for agroecology, made the following points:

  • The global food system is at a crossroads. The industrialization of agriculture has created a situation where we are faced with a growing global population, persistent hunger and increasing malnutrition, soil degradation, water pollution and depletion, and loss of biodiversity during a time of climate uncertainty. In other words, the current industrial system of agricultural production is simply not sustainable.
  • The challenge is to transition to an agricultural system that is capable of meeting the food needs of future society, not only by increasing productivity but also by distributing food more equitably—while not only protecting the natural environment, but also renewing and regenerating the resources essential for agricultural productivity, and increasing agricultural employment opportunities. The social and economic impacts of agroecosystems are inseparable from the ecological impacts.
  • Agroecology focuses on optimizing the interrelationships among microorganisms in the soil, plants, animals, people, society and the geophysical elements of the earth. Agroecology based farming systems are capable of increasing food production and nutrition, alleviating hunger through more equitable food distribution, increasing biodiversity, restoring soil health, replenishing available water, and increasing agricultural employment and livelihoods, while sequestering soil carbon and mitigating the effects of climate change. Agroecological farming systems are multifunctional and thus have the capacity to be sustainable.
  • Agroecology is adaptable to the ecological, social, economic, and cultural diversity of the many different places on earth where agriculture is carried out to meet the nutritional needs of people. Agroecology works toward farming solutions that conserve and protect ecological integrity, above and below ground biodiversity, and respects diverse cultures, aptitudes, and knowledge bases by honoring the contributions of women and youth to family farming, rural communities, and agricultural productivity.
  • Fundamentally different public policies, priorities for public investments, and research and educational agendas for public institutions are needed to meet the agri-food challenges of the future. Agroecology is the logical basis for evolving food systems because it is equally strong in environmental, economic, social and agronomic dimensions. Agroecology is capable of evolving as new challenges emerge and its multiple ecological, social, and economic benefits evolve.

The FAO’s position is supported by decades of agroecological research, particularly in the so-called developing nations of the world that are in greatest need of food security. A 2016 independent study by an International Panel of Experts in Sustainability (IPES) cited more than 350 scientific sources and described the evidence supporting the indictment of industrial agriculture as “overwhelming.” The IPES members are from highly respected academic institutions and international organizations around the world. They concluded: “Today’s food and farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.”

The report concludes: “What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods. Data shows that these systems can compete with industrial agriculture in terms of total outputs, performing particularly strongly under environmental stress, and delivering production increases in the places where additional food is desperately needed. Diversified agroecological systems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.”

Olivier De Schutter, leader of the independent panel observed, “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. The way food systems are currently structured allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems. We must change the way we set political priorities.” If we are to reshape the future of farming and food production, in the U.S. as well as the rest of the world, we must reset the political priorities and fundamentally reform farm policy. Agroecology is a logical alternative to industrial agriculture.

Agroecology requires ways of thinking that are fundamentally different from the specialization, standardization/mechanization, and consolidation mindset of industrial agriculture. The “integral ecological” perspective of agroecology also differs from the mindset of many ecologists, in that it considers humans to be integrally connected with all of the other living species and nonliving elements of the earth. Pope Francis recently brought integral ecology to widespread public attention when he used it as a central theme in his 2015 landmark Encyclical on Climate Change, Laudato Si. He focused on the failure of the environmental movement to address the social and economic roots of growing threats to “our common home” – the earth. He wrote, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

Agroecology is a response to the need to abandon the “market fundamentalism” that supports and drives industrial agriculture. The economic industrialization of agriculture was a noble experiment and well-intended, but it failed. In addition to the host of ecological and economic problems it has created, it hasn’t even fulfilled its most fundamental purpose—it failed to provide food security. Even in the U.S. we have more people classified as “food insecure” or hungry than we had back in the 1960s. One-in-eight Americans are classified as “food insecure,” and more than one-sixth of American children live in food-insecure homes—meaning a home where they can’t depend on getting enough food to support healthy, active lives.

In addition the U.S. is plagued with an epidemic of diet related illnesses, including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and a variety of cancers. The industrial food system has failed to reduce either hunger or malnutrition. Diet related health problems threaten the future of America, both physically and economically. I don’t want to belabor the point, but an industrial food system is not sustainable. Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Industrial agriculture obviously has failed to meet even the basic food needs of the present—let alone preserve opportunities for the future.

Unlike industrial agriculture, which gives priority to economic efficiency, agroecology gives equal consideration to the multiple ecological, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability. Agroecology is consistent with some of the more popular approaches to sustainable farming but differs from others. Perhaps the most important distinction is that agroecology is “context-specific,” meaning it recognizes that farming methods and practices that are sustainable for a given farmer, on a given farm, in a particular farming community may not be sustainable for another farmer, farm, or community. Sustainability requires harmony among the farmer, farm, community, and society. Thus, any specific approach to farming that is based on specific farming practices—such as no-till farming, precision farming, or “certified organic”—may or may not be agro-ecologically sound for any particular farmer.

Integral ecology views the farm as a living organism. As suggested previously, it is consistent with the philosophy of organic farming, but the holism or integrality of agroecology conflicts with USDA certification standards which rely primarily on list allowable and non-allowable inputs to define “organic.” Current standards allow hydroponic organic production, meaning production without soil, which can hardly be reconciled with the farm as a biological, living organism. Current organic standards also allow organic animal products to be produced in large confinement animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which are far more like factories than farms. Agroecological farming—unlike no-till farming, precision farming, or other systems that focus exclusively on farming methods or practices—also requires economic equity and social justice for farm workers and consideration for the social and economic wellbeing of people in rural communities. Today’s corporately dominated agricultural operations simply lack the capacity to express the social and ethical values that are essential for agro-ecological integrity.

The most frequently mentioned motivations of consumers for buying local foods include freshness, flavor or taste, and nutrition. People have learned that shipped-in foods generally are not as fresh and flavorful, and are probably not as nutritious, as fresh-picked, locally-grown foods at farmers markets, CSAs, and other local markets. Many people consider local foods to be safer because they are more likely to be produced organically, or at least without pesticides or GMOs. In the case of meat, milk, or eggs, hormones or antibiotics are more common concerns. Most farmers who sell locally understand the concerns of people who buy local foods and attempt to address concerns that are not being addressed by the industrial food system.

In return, people who buy local foods often mention their desire to support local farmers economically and to help build stronger local economies and communities. Estimates based on comparison of local and industrial food production in general indicate that foods grown for local markets contribute about four-times as many dollars to local economies as commodities grown for industrial food production. That said, the popularity of local foods and the incentives to produce local foods cannot be reduced to economics. “Several studies have found that the social desirability of buying local food plays a central role in influencing consumers to participate in the local food economy.” Many local food advocates care about community.

People tend to trust “their local farmers” to not only produce “good food” but also to be good neighbors, good community members, and good stewards of the land. In other words, the local food movement in driven by the desire of a growing number of people to restore ecological, social, and economic integrity to their food system—by supporting local sustainable farmers. Some experts may question the importance of social, ecological, and unselfish economic motives for buying local. However, the fact that local foods clearly emerged in response to the perceived industrialization of organics suggests otherwise. Americans are trying to restore trust and confidence in “their food system” by “buying local.” For these reasons and others, farmers motivated primarily by profits or economics are unlikely to be successful in local markets. Eventually, their customers will see their foods as little different from industrial foods and will value them accordingly.

Agroecology is a science, a farming system, and a social movement. Perhaps most important it is a means of gaining a better understanding how the world works and our place within it, so we can find our purpose and fulfill our uniquely human responsibilities as members and caretakers of the earth’s integral community. What is at stake is not only the wellbeing of others of present and future generations but our own dignity and sense of self-worth.