Agriculture + Ecology: No Matter What You Call It, the Science of “Agroecology” Adds Up

December 9, 2014
Marcia DeLonge
Research Director and Sr. Scientist, Food and Environment

As a child of America’s Dairyland and conservationist Aldo Leopold’s home (yes, that would be Wisconsin), I always loved how agriculture and ecology dominated the scenery. Driving through the state, though, I usually only spotted those two vistas out opposite windows. On the one side, agriculture: vast landscapes of corn fields, pastures, or orchards, dotted with farm equipment, cows, or hay bales. On the other, something more reminiscent of ecology: patchworks of prairies, lakes, and forests, teeming with birds, bugs, and other critters.

Credit: JE Doll

Photo: JE Doll

Agriculture and ecology: two separate environments, therefore two separate fields of study, right? Or, maybe not…. Integrating these two fields (what we call “agroecology”) simply calls for using science to understand and benefit from the interactions of our soils, crops, and livestock with our air, water, climate, and wildlife. From my perspective, this approach just makes sense.

Ecology–a science at the cutting edge

I don’t know about you, but when I first learned about ecology and ecologists, my mind immediately leapt to wilderness, compasses, and magnifying glasses. But when I actually started to study the subject, it didn’t take long to discover that my initial romantic beliefs about ecology didn’t quite cut it, and I was beyond excited to learn that there was so much more to this field underneath the surface.

Ecologists are innovative, high-tech, and some of the best ‘big-picture’ thinkers that I know. While they can still be found exploring the deepest, tallest, and most remote sites on our planet, they also use satellite imagery to detect changes to everything from glaciers to pine-beetle infested forests; lasers to estimate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; isotopes to understand nutrient and water cycles; and so much more.

So, when you think about ecology, hold onto that image of E.O. Wilson patiently analyzing tiny leaf-bearing ants on a rainforest floor, but also—think NASA.

Is there even room for agriculture in ecology?

Although some may think it odd to include agriculture in ecology, I would actually consider it an unfortunate mistake not to integrate the two. Ecology, after all, is defined as the science that “addresses the interaction between organisms and their environment as an integrated system”.

Clearly, ranches and farms contain organisms (e.g., soil microbes, worms, honeybees, weeds, grasses, crops, animals, humans) as well as their environments (e.g., landscapes, soil, air, water, weather, and climate). Isn’t it then logical to research and understand the relationships among all these moving pieces?  I think so—especially at a time when many of these pieces seem to be moving faster than before (think of disappearing honey bees, devastating drought, disastrous floods).

Agriculture–a success story, with room for improvement

Our modern agricultural system is a success story whose advances are nothing short of spectacular, so why cloud things up by adding ecology into the mix? Technological advances in plant breeding, agronomy, fertilizers and pesticides in the 20th century were all brilliant and crucial steps for moving away from a time when severe food shortages were not so uncommon. On the flip side, this success has dealt us a new set of problems, some of which are nearly opposite from food shortages: food surpluses, food waste, and an obesity epidemic. Even worse, many of the novel practices and technologies have come with other costs that are only slowly becoming more tangible, such as widespread soil erosion and degradation, damaged water resources, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, losses in biodiversity and, recently, herbicide-resistant weeds.

With the global population climbing towards 8 billion, we urgently need to find ways of growing that food that restore, rather than exhaust, our limited resources and that create sustainable, resilient ecosystems. The science of agroecology demonstrates that this is a feasible goal, but achieving it will surely require an “all hands on deck” approach. Let’s not forget the ecologists.

Agriculture and ecology go together like two peas in a pod

There are actually many terms that refer to the study of ecological processes within agricultural practice: agricultural ecology, ecoagriculture, sustainable agriculture, and regenerative farming, to name just a few. While these concepts may have subtle differences, they all share a core and critical intent: understanding, managing and benefiting from the interactions between soils, crops, livestock, water resources, air quality, weather, climate, wildlife, and biodiversity.

We concentrate on agroecology, but any science that investigates how ecological principles can be applied to address current and future farming challenges is sorely needed. Although funding is short, the list of options is long (cover cropping, multi-cropping, crop rotations, reduced tillage, agroforestry, composting, and so on and so forth) and, perhaps more importantly, the potential for a sustainable future is largely untapped.