Building Sustainable Futures with Agroecology

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What is a sustainable future? What does ‘sustainability’ even mean? The word has a constantly evolving definition that brings in multiple viewpoints from all levels from corporate to individual, and is becoming one of the most used words in environmental lexicon today.

Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager at Nature’s Path Foods, told me that  “A truly sustainable system would be if humans weren’t here at all. True sustainability is something that you strive for. We think of sustainability as an outcome.”

But what if we can create sustainable futures by using lessons from the past teamed with today’s innovation and technology? We can. We are. Through agroecology, a new approach to agriculture, we are creating new approaches to growing and raising food, with the aim of building sustainable food systems across the globe.

photo by Bethanne Elion

In his book on the subject, Stephen R. Gliessman, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, defines the field as “the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems.” He argues that returning to traditional or indigenous practices is not the answer; rather, we can use these practices as a stepping stone to adopt a region-specific sustainable change. There is not a universal formula to apply – each agroeconomic change is context or site specific.

According to agroecology.org, traditional agroecosystems “do not depend on purchased imputs; make use of locally available and renewable resources; emphasize nutrient recycling; are beneficial for both on- and off-farm environments; are adapted to local conditions; take full advantage of microenvironments; maximize yield while sustaining productive capacity; maintain spatial and temporal diversity and continuity; use production to meet local needs first; rely on and conserve local genetic diversity; and rely on and conserve indigenous knowledge and culture.”

Organic Agroecology?

But does agroecology always mean organic?  While they maintain a close relationship due to many common practices such as sustainability and soil health, organic and agroecological methods actually run parallel to  one another. According to Hans Herren, a leading scientist and president of the Millennium Institute, a research and service organization dedicated to sustainable development:

“…organic is a simplified form of agroecological farming practices, which does include also social elements, that are not yet part of organic. Also agroecology is the science that underlies agroecological practices, including the social and economic sciences, in addition to the natural sciences. There are no certification needs in agroecological practices, contrary to organic, which follow a strict set of rules that vary from country to country.”

Current Applications

According to Kenneth Mulder (Farm Manager and Assistant Professor) and Benjamin Dube (Research Assistant) of Green Mountain College, “…modern agriculture uses more energy to produce food than is found in the food produced.” Through a grant from the Yavanna Foundation, the team has initiated a unique research project aimed at “assessing the viability of three energy-efficient vegetable production systems, two of them – human-powered and draft-animal-powered – fossil-fuel free.” The project, known as the Long-Term Ecological Assessment of Farming Systems (LEAFS) will manage the three production systems for at least ten years and assess the land utilization, labor productivity, energy requirements, and “the role of soil ecosystems in enabling production with low energy and nutrient inputs in human and animal powered systems.”

Map of LEAFS Project, courtesy Philip Ackerman-Leist, Green Mountain College

Philip Ackerman-Leist, Director of the Farm and Food Project at GMC, told me that “the project uses stop watches, dynamometers, and GPS units to measure the energy used in each system.” As of 2011, all three systems appear to be incredibly energy efficient compared to present industrial agriculture.

Internationally, organizations are addressing the needs of rural communities in Mexico and Central America, like the Community Agroecology Network, which utilizes agroecology methods to cause change in farming practices, food security, and youth leadership. Other organizations are looking at impoverished communities in Africa, such as the African Union, which has embraced the idea of establishing ecological and organic farming as one of the agricultural practices to be promoted across Africa to help achieve food security sustainably. According to a recent analysis by Joan Nimarkoh, a policy consultant for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Africa’s governments are open to “new sustainable development approaches to meet the needs of its rapidly growing economies” with particular emphasis on green or sustainable practices.

The Future of Agroecology

The world will face significant changes and challenges as these practices become more concrete. With the continued interest generated through social media and other channels, agroecology and its sustainable approach to the ever-changing environment will continue to gain speed. Now, it’s up to us to decide how fast it should go.