What is agroecology?

What is agroecology?

Agroecology is a holistic approach to understanding sustainable food and agriculture systems. It contextualizes the tangible methodologies of regenerative agriculture within greater social, cultural, and political contexts.

There is no single definition of agroecology that encompasses all the ways it is practiced around the globe by farmers, researchers, and educators. While this ambiguity invites questions about what is and is not “agroecological,” it also allows for the local adaptability and responsive evolution that is central to the practice itself.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) proposes agroecology as a key strategy to meet increasing global food needs amidst climate instability and lays out 10 elements to guide implementation:

The 10 elements of agroecology are interlinked and interdependent, and can be used “as a guide for policymakers, practitioners and stakeholders in planning, managing and evaluating agroecological transitions.”

Why do we need agroecology?

Studying how to grow food sustainably without taking into account the lives of the people participating in a given food system, and the specifics of the area’s geography, is only useful in theory. To benefit communities and the broader sustainable food movement, each unique set of circumstances must be meaningfully considered in concert with the practice of regenerative farming methods like to no-till, agroforestry, composting, and crop rotation.

For example, in drought-prone climates, an agroecological approach might invest more resources into low-waste irrigation systems and increasing soil water holding capacity. In regions where surrounding populations are vulnerable to food scarcity, farmers might collaborate with local organizers to prioritize food distribution directly to those communities.

According to the FAO’s 2019 report on Food Security and Nutrition, “Social movements associated with agroecology have often arisen in response to agrarian crises and operated together with broader efforts to initiate widespread change to agriculture and food systems.” Agroecology provides an integral means for social movements and peasant organizations around the world to assert their right to food sovereignty and agricultural autonomy.

What are the origins of agroecology?

The term agroecology grew out of a pioneering work by Dr. Miguel Altieiri, who described the interconnectedness among environmental, agricultural and social dimensions of food systems in Latin America in the 1980s.

Agroecology as a framework has proliferated among social movements internationally. La Via Campesina (LVC), for example, a global organization that “defends peasant agriculture for food sovereignty as a way to promote social justice and dignity,” centers agroecology as a key form of resistance against exploitative means of food production.

LVC defines the peasant condition as characterized by the consistent drive to build autonomy. This is important to the understanding of agroecology because the approach is based on co-producing with nature in ways that strengthen and build upon the farmer’s resources, therefore reducing their dependance on external systems.

Furthermore, the hyperlocal focus of agroecology means that the farmer’s knowledge, ingenuity, and historical understanding of the land always guides their plan of action. Not only does this lead to the advancement and evolution of the individual farmer’s expertise, but it also strengthens the networked community of farms in the region, where innovations can be shared, and successes emulated peer-to-peer. This methods of knowledge sharing are evident from the earliest records of civilization, but the contemporary academic understanding of decentralized agricultural education, known as Campesino-a-Campesino (farmer-to-farmer) methodology can be traced back to Guatemala in the 1970s, and has been essential to the global food sovereignty movement.

How is permaculture related to agroecology?

Permaculture as a design philosophy is related to but not synonymous with agroecology. It is a set of practices innovated by indigenous cultures around the world and systematized for strategic adoption. Specifically, the movement was distilled into 12 principles by Australian designers Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, who describe the goal of creating living systems that mimic nature to produce food and energy sustainably:

Critiques of permaculture include its emphasis on professionalization, land ownership, and entrepreneurship, all of which tend to exclude marginalized populations and suggest a colonizer’s view of the Global South. Its conservationist practices are the same ones that were interrupted by settlers on Indigenous lands, so we cannot reappropriate them as a design system without advocacy for Indigenous land rights, acknowledgment of the roots of these ways of knowing, and the use of language of care-taking rather than commodification. Activists such as Pandora Thomas, who leads the Urban Permaculture Institute, are pushing this movement forward towards a more equitable and just model of sustainable design by working directly with communities in need and providing accessible education.

Where is agroecology being practiced in the US?

Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim (CMPI) is a nonprofit organization of the Maya Community in Nebraska dedicated to empowering the Maya people through community development programs. Through the Maya Regeneration Project, they are working to establish a profitable regenerative poultry, agroforestry, and value-added farm operation on 400-600 acres of land near Omaha. Donate to support CPMI here!

In central North Dakota, where less than 1 percent of the original tallgrass prairie ecosystem survives in its native state (more than 53 million acres of prairie on the Great Plains have been plowed and converted to corn, soybeans and wheat*),*  Brown's Ranch is working to restore the soil to its historical condition and reaping its bounty in the process. Their diverse cropping strategy, elimination of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides, and cyclical grazing plan, among other regenerative practices, have brought the farm's yields up to 20 percent above its county's average while bolstering the land's vitality for generations to come.

Fuller Farms in Severy, KS, hosts farmer led-education initiatives on regenerative agriculture practice and theory. Their programs gather local farmers, ranchers, agronomists, policymakers, and investors, to explore how ecological stewardship, rather than industrial farming, is the path to healthier soil, more nutrient-dense food, cleaner water, a more stable climate, and more resilient communities.

What do agroecology movements look like globally?

In Cuba, a grassroots movement led by the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) transformed systems of production into agroecological integrated and diversified farms across more than one-third of all peasant families in the country within the first decade of the 21st century.

A peasant agroecology movement in Karnataka, India successfully implemented a method called Zero Budget Natural Farming, which uses practices based totally on resources found on the farm, like mulching, organic amendments, and diversification, to allow farmers to get out of debt. The movement is growing rapidly across South Asia.

In Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Organic Smallholder Farmer's Forum has had a national impact helping redistribute capital from a handful of large cattle farmers to hundreds of small holder peasant farming families who are now able to support themselves through diversified land use.

Organizations to Follow

La Via Campesina: An international movement bringing together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, rural women and youth, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world. Built on a strong sense of unity, solidarity between these groups, it defends peasant agriculture for food sovereignty as a way to promote social justice and dignity and strongly opposes corporate-driven agriculture that destroys social relations and nature.

Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy envisions a world in which all people have access to healthy, ecologically produced, and culturally appropriate food.

Permaculture Women’s Guild: An international hub dedicated to elevating the voices of women in permaculture.

Urban Permaculture Institute: An education and advocacy space that helps make permaculture design relevant and accessible to people living in cities for individual and community resilience.

Zumwalt Acres: A regenerative agriculture community working to develop a replicable model of ecologically sustainable and socially just land stewardship in Illinois.

How does Farm participate in agroecology?

Farm's investment in agroecology begins by partnering with local communities, ranchers, farmers, and other key stakeholders in surrounding areas to assess land needs. Every parcel purchase supports sustainable land restoration through responsible land stewardship. With a focus on rehabilitating natural spaces through processes like regenerative agriculture, renewable energy, and wilding, Farm is actively collaborating with conscientious partners every step of the way. Cultivating productive land parcels for communities far and wide.