Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer in a shaded coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico. They use diverse shaded coffee as a model system to study ecological complexity and its implications for farm management and biodiversity conservation.

Agroecology to the Rescue: 7 Ways Ecologists are Working Toward Healthier Food Systems

, senior scientist | August 2, 2017, 11:44 am EDT
Bookmark and Share

A lot has been written about agroecology, and a new special issue of the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems takes it to the next level.

The new issue, entitled Agroecology: building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability, expands the conversation by outlining recent progress in ecology relevant for tackling food system challenges ranging from disappearing diversity to water woes to climate catastrophes. Together, the eight included articles demonstrate a range of emerging science-based opportunities that can help farmers and ranchers achieve the triple bottom line: social, environmental, and financial sustainability.  Here are just the highlights of what some farm-focused ecologists have been up to:

  1. Making sense out of complexity: Agroecosystems are complex, and as Vandermeer and Perfecto (2017) explain, “the fundamental rules of natural systems should be used as guidelines for planning and management of agricultural systems.” Fortunately, ecologists have developed some great tools (tools in topics like Turing patterns, chaotic dynamics, and more) that are up to the otherwise daunting task, and agroecologists are busy beginning to put them to work.
  2. Linking biodiversity to farming benefits: Decisions about how land is used at a regional scale can affect farming conditions at a surprisingly smaller scale, influencing even the pollinators and insect pests that are too small to spot unless you’re actually strolling through a field. As Liere et al. (2017) describe, understanding the connections between biodiversity at these different scales is essential to sustaining healthy, multi-functional agricultural systems. Agroecologists have just scratched the surface of investigating these “cascading” effects, and the subject is ripe for more discoveries.
  3. Keeping nutrients where we need them: It’s hard work keeping enough nutrients in some places (such as soils and plants) and reducing them in others (like in lakes and the atmosphere), but getting this right is a key to growing enough food while protecting the environment. Agroecologists tackle these problems with a bird’s eye view, measuring and evaluating everything from study plots to farm fields to watersheds. As Tully & Ryals (2017) note, this approach is critical to finding ways to optimize solutions (such as agroforestry, cover cropping, and organic amendments, just to name a few).
  4. Saving water by planting perennials: Much like nutrients, water often either seems to be overabundant (floods) or far too limited (drought), and climate change research suggests that this problem may only get worse. However, as Basche & Edelson (2017) review, farming practices that ensure “continuous living cover” can build healthier soils that keep more water on farms during dry times, while reducing flooding during heavy rain. Designing farms with water in mind, it seems, could prevent a lot of trouble, benefitting farmers and communities.
  5. Getting more from farming, with less: While adding more “inputs” (seed, water, chemicals) is typically understood to be the path to getting more food from farms, research has shown that this doesn’t always need to be the case. In fact, as Uphoff (2017) demonstrates through a review of the “System of Rice Intensification”, it can actually be possible to get more food by using fewer inputs. As Uphoff explains, “As climate and other conditions constrain agriculture, sustainable food systems will need to evolve.” Thanks to agroecologists, the evolution has already begun.
  6. Tracking down triggers for a food system transition: It’s one thing to find on-farm solutions and another to scale them up. Given that agroecologists have already been uncovering solutions to many of today’s challenges, what’s the next step? As my colleagues and I (Miles et al. 2017) explain, in an ever-changing world where one-sized-fits-all solutions simply won’t work, the research (and the university extension and education that goes with it) must continue to expand. But since research won’t be enough, we also propose several policy ideas (like shifting public research funds, improving conservation programs, etc.) that could help push and pull the food system to a better place.
  7. Exploring how healthier farms can support healthier humans: Much agroecology research to date has been focused on achieving productive farms and environmental sustainability, both of which have clear benefits for human heath (for example, by addressing food security and securing cleaner air and water). But as my colleagues and I (O’Rourke et al. 2017) argue, there’s an urgent need for more explicit research on how healthier farms can improve nutrition and public health. With an expanding agroecological toolbox and an ever-increasing concern about health care costs, perhaps there’s never been a better time!

Kate Tully collects porewater from a lysimeter installed in a farm fields on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to determine how effectively the system is recycling nutrients. Photo: Christopher Blackwood

Agroecologists in action

To close, I wanted to share this excerpt from agroecologist and Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Editor Steve Gliessman:

“Ecology has always been the foundation of agroecology. We hope that this Special Issue will encourage more ecologists to engage in ecological research that can impact food system change. Their expertise in the science of ecology can show how an ecological understanding of the design and management of food systems can help us take major steps toward sustainability.”

Or, in other words, three cheers for agroecology! Onwards.


What’s in the special issue:

Agroecology: building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Volume 41, Issue 7, 2017

Editorial: Agroecology: Building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability Steve Gliessman Pages: 695-696 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1335152

Ecological complexity and agroecosystems: seven themes from theory John Vandermeer & Ivette Perfecto Pages: 697-722 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1322166

Intersection between biodiversity conservation, agroecology, and ecosystem services Heidi Liere, Shalene Jha & Stacy M. Philpott Pages: 723-760 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1330796

Nutrient cycling in agroecosystems: Balancing food and environmental objectives Kate Tully & Rebecca Ryals Pages: 761-798 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1336149

Improving water resilience with more perennially based agriculture |Andrea D. Basche & Oliver F. Edelson Pages: 799-824 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1330795

SRI: An agroecological strategy to meet multiple objectives with reduced reliance on inputs Norman Uphoff Pages: 825-854 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1334738

Triggering a positive research and policy feedback cycle to support a transition to agroecology and sustainable food systems Albie Miles, Marcia S. DeLonge & Liz Carlisle Pages: 855-879 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1331179

Insights from agroecology and a critical next step: Integrating human health Megan E. O’Rourke, Marcia S. DeLonge & Ricardo Salvador Pages: 880-884 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1326073

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Water Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments


Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.