Agroecology can help fix our broken food system. Here’s how.

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Courtesy of Ensia

The various incarnations of the sustainable food movement need a science with which to approach a system as complex as food and farming.

This story was co-published with Food Tank, a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.

Thumb through U.S. newspapers any day in early 2015, and you could find stories on President Obama’s “fast-track” plans for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, antibiotic scares and the worsening California drought. Economists reported on steadily rising income inequality, while minimum-wage food workers took to the picket lines. Americans fled their kitchens and Chipotle welcomed them with farm-friendly appeal. Scientists recorded the warmest winter in history.

These seemingly disconnected events have a common thread: They all are symptoms of a political economy out of kilter with the welfare of the planet and the people who live on it. They are also nestled deep in the way food is grown, distributed and consumed today. What we sometimes call the “agri-food system” is clearly broken — just ask farmworkers and food workers (exploited and underpaid), honeybees (collapsing), forested landscapes (fragmenting), the climate (warming), and the ever-growing number of people without access to nutritious food, or the land and resources with which to produce it.

“Sustainable food” attempts to heal this fragile system, and it’s been a buzzword for three decades. Its mushrooming incarnations — local, organic, biodynamic, fair trade and “slow,” among others — suggest a broad yearning for something better. But modern capitalism is wondrously efficient at disciplining outliers. It hasn’t taken much for the dynamics of competition and price to sweep countercultural ideas into the industrial mainstream, forcing enterprises in many – not all – sustainable food niches to expand in size, adopt monoculture techniques and replicate the basic model of industrial overproduction.

What some have described as “input-substitution organic,” for example, swaps out chemical inputs for biological ones. These farms are therefore marginally better in terms of pollution but have barely budged the needle on monoculture cropping, not to mention labor issues. In any of these alternatives, price is prohibitive: Most low- to middle-income earners — and this includes most workers in the food system — cannot afford to buy the fruits of this so-called food revolution.

In short, there’s a systems problem with the many incarnations of “sustainable food.” Good intentions notwithstanding, most alternatives leave untouched the underlying structures and forces of the agri-food system. They don’t ask how farmers can listen to their land, scientists can listen to farmers, eaters can listen to restaurant workers and the government can listen to people’s needs. Sustainable food, it turns out, lacks a science with which to deal with a system as complex as farming and food.

But there is an approach that embraces complexity and change. It involves developing the capacity to listen, to grow new connections, and to build solidarity among animals, plants and people. It’s called agroecology.

As the name suggests, agroecology is based in ecology, a science grounded in the interactions among organisms and their environments. Agroecology has roots that go back to the 1930s, but only recently has it come into its own as a science, practice and social movement. Steve Gliessman, a modern pioneer in the field, defines the term in a nutshell: “Agroecology applies the principles of ecology to the design and management of sustainable food systems.” What that means in practice is that farmers and researchers work together to develop farming practices that enhance soil fertility, recycle nutrients, optimize the use of energy and water, and, perhaps most importantly, increase the beneficial interactions of organisms with and within their ecosystems.

A key ingredient in agroecology is agricultural biodiversity — aka agrobiodiversity — says Miguel Altieri, another leader in the field. Farms include “planned biodiversity” (the crops and livestock farmers intentionally introduce) and “associated biodiversity” (the various flora and fauna that colonize the area as a result of farming practices and landscape), says Altieri. What’s important, he says, is identifying the type of biodiversity interactions that will carry out ecosystem services (pollination and pest control, for example, or climate regulation) and then determining which farming practices will encourage such interactions — in other words, working with biodiversity to provide the farming system with ecological resilience and reduce dependence on costly, often harmful, conventional inputs.

Knowledge of how to establish agroecological systems has grown increasingly sophisticated over time. Gliessman’s first edition of his textbook Agroecology reflected 1990s thinking, where transitions moved from increasing the efficiency of conventional production, to substituting industrial inputs with bio-based alternatives to, finally, redesigning the entire farm to mimic nature. People, however, were largely absent from the “agroecosystem.” But economic, social and cultural factors slowly crept into the conversation, and by 2006 the second edition featured on its cover images of a woman Costa Rican coffee grower proudly displaying a handful of beans, a farmers market and a cow. The salient idea was connecting consumers and producers through alternative distribution networks instead of conventional supply chains — linking growers to eaters, the urban to the rural.

By 2014, agroecology had become as much a political endeavor as an ambition for farming. The third edition, published that year, showcased the interplay of science, practice and social movements. It’s a framework, says Gliessman, that has evolved because we need food systems that “once again empower people, create economic opportunity and fairness, and contribute to restoring and protecting the planet’s life-support systems.”

Cross-pollinating Diverse Knowledge

If you’re reading this in the U.S., you may be asking yourself, “If agroecology is so great, why don’t more people do it? Why have I never heard of it?”

Though not yet widely used in the U.S., agroecology is more recognized and established in countries such as Mexico and Brazil, stemming from their response to Green Revolution interventions when packages of standardized seeds, fertilizers and chemicals were introduced across much of the developing world. As much scholarship has since concluded, the Green Revolution contributed to temporary yield increases in some regions, yet its resulting monocultures also led to widespread loss of traditional seed varieties, environmental pollution, increased dependence on fossil fuels and human exposure to harmful chemicals. In addition, this technological revolution was not scale neutral: wealthy, large-scale farmers could more easily afford the irrigation systems, tractors, plows and large tracts of land required to make “magic seeds” work than could poorer, smaller-scale farmers. From the 1940s through the 1980s, many smallholders lost their farms under combined forces of debt, land concentration and deteriorating health, swelling the ranks of the rural and urban underemployed.

Latin America has led the agroecological revolution in recent years, with the governments of Brazil and Ecuador creating the first national policies in support of agroecology, a farmer-to-farmer agroecological tour de force underway in Cuba, and the emergence of SOCLA, a lively network of agroecology scientists (including this TEDx storyteller). Indeed, many nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America most affected by the turbulences of the Green Revolution are anticipating the rollout of a “New Green Revolution” today by recognizing agroecology as key to both rural and urban food security. Simultaneously, the largest international coalition of peasant farmers, La Via Campesina, representing some 300 million small-scale farmers, has formally recognized and adopted agroecology as its preferred paradigm for rural development. Urban farmers and eaters are increasingly a part of this global movement.

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