Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Exploring Buzzwords: Agroecology

Currently, the agriculture science policy community stands at the brink of being swarmed by a new buzzword: “Agroecology”. Buzzwords have a tendency to sound important, but are often misunderstood. (In fact, ‘buzzword’ is itself one, so for clarity I will work with the definition proposed by the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary: an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen.) It is difficult to implement good policy based on a popular concept that is not well-developed. It is important to have a clear idea of what the concept represents in the physical world, and what metrics can be used to determine whether a situation accurately reflects the concept, before one can measure progress and/or success.

So, what is agroecology? And how can we determine whether it is a valuable concept for agriculture science policy? A number of definitions are available, including the classic and the contemporary:

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (entered 1967):
Agroecology is an ecological approach to agriculture that views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices

Webster’s Online Dictionary (entered 2003-2008):
Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems

…and the complicated:

"Loosely defined, agroecology often incorporates ideas about a more environmentally and socially sensitive approach to agriculture, one that focuses not only on production, but also on the ecological sustainability of the productive system. [This definition] implies a number of features about society and production that go well beyond the limits of the agricultural field.
"At its most narrow, agroecology refers to the study of purely ecological phenomena within the crop field, such as predator/prey relations, or crop/weed competition."
[Susanna B. Hecht, "The Evolution of Agroecological Thought," in Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture, ed. by Miguel Altieri (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1987)

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) has not yet developed a working definition of the term ‘agroecology’. However, the major groups* --Science and Technology, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and Farmers--have all made reference to agroecology in their comments to the Commission during sessions of multi-stakeholder dialogue on sustainable agriculture.
*The UNCSD major groups represent various stakeholders in civil society. Follow the link for more information about the major groups and their role in informing the UNCSD.

The NGO Major Group voices: a need for further support for ‘agroecological approaches or ‘investments in agroecological participatory methods’. The Farmers Major Group offered a few examples of agricultural practices that might be included in agroecology. And the Science & Technology community has weighed in with the following statement: “Advanced knowledge in agroecology offers the potential to increase productivity while providing critical ecosystem services, including improved soil and water quality and carbon sequestration.”

Other documents drafted by NGOs, e.g., the Kenya Food Security Steering Group, use the term ‘agro-ecology’ to refer to the characteristics of a given landscape, including agricultural practices and biodiversity, as well as climate and common natural disaster conditions. This treatment of the word is slightly different from the concept of agroecology as a discipline of study.

The latter use of the term follows on an early model from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). As early as 1978, the FAO reported: The Agro-Ecological Zones concept represents unique combinations of agroclimatic zones and soil units that would likely be homogeneous with regard to their capacity to support (rainfed) production of a wide range of food and cash crops.

More recently (2007), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) branch drafted a brief outlining the emerging science of agro-ecology. They use Gliessman’s definition:

Agro-ecology is the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems.

(From: Gliessman, S. Agroecology: the ecology of sustainable food systems. Boca Raton, Florida, USA, CRC Press. 2007)

The briefing also provides a concise history of the development of the concept:

In the past, agriculture was mainly studied through an agronomic approach, rather than an ecological or social one. In the 1960s and 1970s, ecological analysis of agriculture gained momentum, and in the 1980s the traditional agricultural systems of developing countries started to be recognized as important natural resource management systems. By the 1990s, agro-ecology had emerged as a scientific discipline with a conceptual framework and defined methodology for the holistic study of agro-ecosystems, including human and environmental elements, and the provision of principles for the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems.

And it is true; there are now a number of resources available for working groups in agroecology to reference for assistance in defining their approach to the concept. But because agroecology remains a flexible term with various approaches and definitions, it is important for a group working with the concept of agroecology to establish a working definition suitable to the purposes of the group, to avoid confusion. Likewise, it is important for a group to have clearly determined metrics, whether trying to determine if a research program fits within the study of agroecology, or trying to determine if the study of agroecology itself is succeeding at its own purported goals. Successful communication will rely on mutual understanding of the group terminology.

For those of you interested in further discussion of concepts related to sustainable agriculture and how to define and measure it, the Tri-societies’ Committee on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture (COSA) will be meeting at the Annual International meetings in Houston to discuss: Promoting Sustainability through use of Metrics, Policy and Education.

COSA roundtable: “Promoting Sustainability through use of Metrics, Policy and Education”
Date: Monday, October 6th
Time: 7:00 – 9:00 pm
Place: Lanier Grand Ballroom E, Hilton Americas Houston Hotel

Some links to agroecology resources:

Agroecology Research Group at UCSC:
The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC:
Agroecology in Action at UCB:
The Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology, Inc. at UM: