Defining Agroecology

Agroecology (ag´ rō i kol´ ə jē), n. An ecosystems approach to agriculture.

SmallCroppedWheatLandscapeAgroecology. It’s an unfamiliar term to many people. And even people who are actively engaged in some aspect of agroecology sometimes disagree about what it means. I have to admit, even though the term is pretty important to me, I was fairly oblivious (or at the very least, indifferent) to the ambiguity until very recently. But it seems more and more I find myself trying to define (and defend) my version of agroecology.

So why do I care? To be honest, I feel a bit of a connection to the term agroecology for a couple reasons. I obtained a degree in Agroecology from the first land-grant university in the country to offer one. I had a Bachelor of Science degree in Agroecology at a time when that was an exceptionally rare qualification. So rare, in fact, that after graduation I had to explain what agroecology was even to potential employers and graduate schools in my field.

I now teach courses and advise students in that same Agroecology program. Agroecology at UW is celebrating its 20th year this spring. Dr. Robin Groose, one of the faculty members at the University of Wyoming who was instrumental in the development of the Agroecology curriculum, wrote an article describing the program just as it was about to become available to students. I’ve posted the article in its entirety here. I’d link to the original article, but there is no online version of the Casper Star Tribune from 1993.

It is really interesting to read through Dr. Groose’s article 20 years later. Among the most interesting points is that there was literally no mainstream definition of the word agroecology at the time. And you couldn’t just go to wikipedia to figure out what it meant, either. Because, you know, 1993.

Agroecology. You won’t find the word in Webster’s. But someday you will.” -Robin Groose, September 1993

Almost prophetic, right? Dr. Groose goes on to describe what agroecology meant at the time, and also why this degree program was important.

“The word is a hybrid between “agronomy,” the science of crops and soils, and “ecology,” the branch of biology concerned with interrelationships among organisms and their environments.

“Agroecology strives to pull the components of crop production into a more complete picture and to view the agroecosystem as a whole – and in the context of today’s global economy and environment.

“Agroecology attempts to meet many challenges: Environmentalists demand better conservation of natural resources; consumers demand safer food; taxpayers demand an end to government subsidies; and so on. The critics are sometimes correct, sometimes not. And often the criticism is not constructive, tendered with no suggestion for improvement – or with utterly unrealistic solutions. And indeed, we in agriculture are often our own harshest critics. We know that much of prevailing agricultural practice is economically and environmentally unsustainable. Agroecology seeks solutions.

“Ultimately, our goal is to graduate independent thinkers who can recognize and solve real problems facing agriculture – and successfully refute the bogus challenges.”

Even in 1993, agricultural scientists were concerned about the prevalent unsubstantiated claims and unrealistic “solutions” proposed by critics of modern agriculture. And that was before these critics and their audience had easy access to the world wide web. One major goal of the UW Agroecology curriculum was (and continues to be) giving students the necessary scientific background to “recognize and solve real problems facing agriculture – and successfully refute the bogus challenges.”

And this, I think, is why I get a little defensive when the term agroecology is used in conjunction with “utterly unrealistic solutions” and “bogus challenges.” Most frustrating to me, is when agroecology is used in this context:

“We don’t need [insert technology here], because we have agroecology!

In the agroecology program at the University of Wyoming, we teach that proper use of technology is an indispensable part of achieving sustainability. After all, if technology in crop production was shunned, we’d have succumbed to the Malthusian catastrophe many generations ago. Technological innovations, in many cases, can help us maintain or increase production while minimizing the negative impacts of agriculture. This doesn’t mean that technological solutions should replace important traditional agricultural practices (like crop rotation, manure, appropriate tillage etc.). Technology is most certainly not a substitute for good agronomy. By studying agroecology, we can determine how to best use technology to increase the sustainability of agroecosystems. It also allows us to maximize the benefit of traditional agricultural practices and minimize their negative impact.

So why is agroecology often used to shun technology? It is difficult to imagine other, more established scientific disciplines being used in a similar context. It would be akin to claiming that we don’t need antibiotics because we have microbiology! It seems counter intuitive that any scientific discipline, especially agroecology, could result in such a broad conclusion. Studying nearly any other biological discipline leads to more innovation and technology adoption, not less. I’ve pondered for quite a while what exactly makes agroecology different. I think I found the answer, of all places, on Wikipedia.

“[Agroecology] is often used imprecisely and may refer to “a science, a movement, [or] a practice.”” – Wikipedia Accessed 20-May-2014

This sounds eerily similar to another term that is so imprecise that it leads to many misunderstandings and fruitless discussions about modern agriculture. The 3-fold usage idea (science, movement, practice) originates from several publications by Alexander Wezel and co-authors. For example, a paper in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability by Wezel & Soldat from 2009 states:

“At present, agroecology can be interpreted as a scientific discipline, as a movement or as a practice.

“Environmental movements in the 1960s often emerged in opposition to industrialized agriculture, when public policies did not consider the environmental impact of agriculture, in particular pesticides, or the social aspects of rural development. Initially, the term agroecology was not used explicitly to describe a movement. It was only in the 1990s when the word started to be used in this sense, especially in the USA and in Latin America, to express a new way of considering agriculture and its relationship to society, and its place within it.

“At the same time there emerged a third usage, that is, for designing a set of agricultural practices. In general, agroecological practices are seen as new, re-invented or adapted practices or techniques within more environmentally friendly agriculture, organic or alternative agriculture, or within traditional agriculture in developing countries.”

Wezel & Soldat tell us that the science of agroecology dates back to the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The first usage of the term was by a Russian agronomist by the name of Bensin, who suggested “agroecology” could be used to describe using ecological methods to study commercial crop plants. And this is similar to how many who teach the science of agroecology still use the term today. It is very close to Dr. Groose’s description of a simple hybridization of “agronomy” and “ecology.” But in the 1990’s, says Wezel & Soldat, the term also became associated with a movement that was largely “opposed to modern agriculture.” So even though the science of agroecology doesn’t support the notion that we should shun judicious use of technologies like biotechnology, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, the agroecology movement has no problem making such claims.

As a researcher and teacher who is actively engaged in the science of agroecology, this is a concerning disconnect. Simply due to the construction of the word, there is an implied scientific legitimacy. It is ironic that the name of such a useful scientific discipline has been co-opted by a movement to advocate positions that, in many cases, are not supported by the very science the term was originally used to describe. I think it is time that we reclaim this term for it’s original purpose, as one that describes the science of agriculture, viewed through an ecological lens. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any ideas on how to accomplish this. I welcome your thoughts.

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