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Agroecology: A New Story for a New Age

By: Richard Widows
Agricultural Scientist and Founder of Our Food Futures

Agroecology is a term that has been getting a lot of attention since the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations held an international symposium titled ‘Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition’ in September of 2014. Agroecology is not a new term, but this symposium represented a significant point in the movements history, suddenly agroecology was being held up as a legitimate solution to the ‘feeding the world’ debate, a reality that corporate agriculture is, understandably, very nervous about. I say understandably nervous because, in many ways, agroecology is the antithesis of our current conventional, corporate driven, monoculture based agricultural systems.

Where conventional agriculture seeks to simplify production systems, agroecology embraces complexity. Where conventional agriculture aims to eliminate biodiversity, agroecology not only builds diversity, but depends on it. Where conventional agriculture seeks to turn farmers into unskilled labourers, agroecology is heavily knowledge intensive. Where conventional agriculture is based in one size fits all solutions like genetically modified organisms, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, agroecology is built on the understanding that local problems require local solutions. But possibly most importantly, where conventional agriculture is largely degradative, agroecology is grounded in regeneration.

As I explored in this previous article - Agroecology: The Capitalist Elephant in the Room - probably the largest problem facing agroecology is that the capitalist system abhors it by its very nature. The central focus of agroecological systems involves utlising local resources to create self sustaining systems at the local level. That is to say, in agroecology there is very little to sell, at least on the input side. In an age of co-funded, industry driven research, who is going to push the agenda of a philosophy that is built on the traditions of the sharing economy?

It is for this reason that agroecology is often, and I believe correctly, referred to as more than just agrarian philosophy but also a political movement. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in the recent ‘Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology’, where the opening statement reads:

“Agroecology is the answer to how to transform and repair our material reality in a food system and rural world that has been devastated by industrial food production and its so-called Green and Blue Revolutions.  We see agroecology as a key form of resistance to an economic system that puts profit before life.

These are big statements to say the least, but I don’t think it is any coincidence that the recent increases in the use and general acceptance of the term agroecology are directly correlated to a growing apathy towards our political and economic realities. We live in a time of great change and people are beginning to see through the propaganda of the system. It is no accident that agroecology is becoming a powerful new story in this new age.

Whilst the money invested in agroecological research pales into insignificance when put besides investments in more traditional areas of conventional agricultural research, the difference is that agroecological research is underpinned by common sense. You don’t need to be a scientist to understand that, in our times of immense environmental destruction, continuing on with agricultural practices that degrade the environment cannot be justified. We need to move beyond discussions about how much more we can justify degrading our already degraded agricultural lands, and begin discussing how we can utilise practices such as agroecology to regenerate them.

There are simple truths that can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that, as Carbon Dioxide levels in our atmosphere begin to threaten human existence as we know it, our soils provide the most obvious opportunity for sequestering that carbon. Even more than that, our soils are desperately depleted of carbon. Increasing carbon contents in our soils is directly correspondent to increased water holding capacity and improved resilience. It’s a win, win solution on almost every single level. The only real loser is the capitalist system and those who would seek to monopolise food production.

In simple terms we are faced with two choices. The first is to continue our conventional agricultural practices that will ensure agriculture remains a large piece of the climate change problem. The other is begin to explore and implement agroecological practices that can turn agriculture into part of the solution. Surely, the choice is easy.

For the past few decades, one of the most significant thought leaders in the development of agroecological science and philosophy has been Miguel Altieri of the University of California in Berkley. During his career Miguel has authored over 200 scientific publications and numerous books, including the seminal agroecological text - Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture.

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