Imagining Agroecology

Written by Kitt Healy on Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 2:01 PM

It is the second day of the Agroecological Imagination conference in Madison, WI, and the chilled indoor air is vibrant with conversation. Fifty researchers, students and practitioners of Agroecology, many of whom have traveled from France, are gathered to explore the “what” and “why” of their discipline. It is an unconventional conference; inspiration and idealism have as much currency here as data and proof.  At big round tables, participants are sharing big questions, coffee, and plans for the future. In a quiet moment, so that all gathered can hear, someone asks the biggest question of all, the one we think we should have answered by now, the one some of us would rather avoid:

“So, how exactly do we define Agroecology?”

 Many have wrestled with this question, and no unequivocal answer exists. Those of us who will soon have Agroecology on our diplomas joke that the best response to the question may be: “What do YOU think it means?”  Many scholars have offered answers. Entomologist and Professor of Agroecology Miguel Altieri refers to Agroecology as a scientific research paradigm focused on “solving the sustainability problem” of agriculture, especially for and with resource-poor farmers (2002 and 1989). Horticultural and environmental scientists Francis, Lieblin and Gliessman define agroecology as “the ecology of food systems” which highlights questions of economics and equity, as well as environmental science (2003). In France, Agroecology was historically understood as a farming practice employing certain techniques to integrate agriculture into the local natural ecosystem. In some parts of Latin America it is synonymous with “re-peasantization” efforts seeking to return economic and political power to small farmers using sustainable methods (Rosset and Torres 2012). French scholars Wezel, Bellon and Doretake an integrated view of Agroecology as a science, a movement and a practice, with each element feeding on and informing the others.

Whichever of these definitions prevails, they share an important quality. They require the asker of questions, the seeker of knowledge in the realm of agriculture, to consider any issue within the universe of contexts it inhabits. No question about soil microbiota can be fully explored without reference to the boots that walk the ground above, and the mouths that eat the food produced. No question of equitable distribution can be ignorant of the biological realities of production. Global issues that blend the biophysical and the political, such as climate change and seed sovereignty cannot be relegated to the realm of “softer sciences.” In Agroecology, all sciences (formal and citizen-driven) are beholden to the questions: “who holds the power?” and “who bears the burden?” Inquiry is shaped like a sphere rather than a line. 

At the Agroecological Imagination conference, a few people offered to define Agroecology. Simply put, it is the study of the ecology of agricultural systems and the myriad factors influencing that ecology. The asker of the initial question, however, was still puzzled. He insisted that there must be a more solid definition, a technical definition that people could rally behind. In order to have influence, he suggested, the term Agroecology must have market power. To have market power, it must become a label with a set of defining rules and boundaries. 

In my mind, this is akin to suggesting that Philosophy only matters if it sells self-help books. Of course, ecological farming must be economically viable, but should the term Agroecology become the commercial banner that draws the dollars? The word “organic” has its roots in a movement against toxic chemicals, a spiritualism of one-ness with nature and a practice of agriculture as diverse as the generations of farmers who used it. When the federal government formally recognized organic farming in 1990, it was not as a vision for the future of agriculture, but as a “marketing strategy;” a line in the sand that allows some people to make money off the word, and not others. While this designation successfully brought the organic movement into the mainstream, a “marketing strategy” cannot possibly contain the vast and varied meanings of what is, for many farmers, an ethic, an aesthetic and a way of life. Similarly, a label would limit, rather than enhance the rapidly evolving and fundamentally dialectic project of Agroecology. 

I sometimes wish for a unified definition of Agroecology that I can easily rattle off to my grandma at family gatherings, or casually drop in a job interview. But I also believe that the ambiguity inherent in the word is an act of honesty about the complex world we live in, and a declaration of commitment to an equally complex dialogue about how to shape agriculture for the better. And while I hope never to see “Agroecologically Grown” on a bag of hippie cheetos at the co-op, I do hope the term becomes more common. More people talking about Agroecology, as a movement, a practice and a question, means more minds shining light into the dark corners of a fraught but powerful concept- one that requires us to imagine as well as act. 

Kitt Healy is a Masters student in Agroecology and Horticulture at UW Madison. Her research focuses on the fashion proclivities and mating habits of tomatoes.

Image: Pieter Bruegel de Oude - De val van Icarus, public domain.
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