One of Becky’s recent posts raised the question of what separates agroecological farming from organic farming.
Although agroecological farming shares some of the same principals as organic farming, agroecology is not associated with a particular type of agriculture. Conventional and organic farms alike can take an agroecological approach to managing farmland.
What Is Agroecology?
Agroecology views agriculture from a ecological perspective. Farmland, after all, is an ecosystem – a complex network in which every living and nonliving component of the system affects every other component, either directly or indirectly.
This ecosystem view of agriculture considers all of the services provided by farmland to humans – soil health, water quality, air quality, pest control, disease control, biodiversity, and so forth – in addition to food production.
Agroecological farming strives to create stable food production systems that are resilient to environmental perturbations such as climate change and disease. The only way to achieve this goal is to go beyond thinking of farms as linear systems in which inputs (acreage, fertilizer, pesticides, etc.) influence output (food yield), and start treating farmland as complex webs of ecological interactions.
Is Organic Food Agroecological?
Not necessarily. Most of the organic food you see in the grocery store is from industrial operations that do not think ecologically. Instead of managing their farmland as ecosystems, large-scale organic farms focus solely on producing as much food as possible.
Sure, big organic farms don’t use synthetic chemicals, but they do little to manage the ecosystem services provided by farmland. They rely heavily on fossil fuels, erode soils, pollute water supplies, destroy native wildlife habitat, and so forth. Intensive agriculture – even intensive organic agriculture – is generally a pretty environmentally destructive practice.
But if you go beyond the grocery store, you can find food from growers that are trying to manage their farmland as ecosystems. There are plenty of small, alternative farms striving to create sustainable food production systems.
Farms that focus on restoring and maintaining soil health are less dependent on chemical inputs, because plants grown in healthy soil can better access their natural defenses to ward off pests and disease.
Farmers that think ecologically also tend to let their animals do a lot of the work for them. By allowing animals to perform their natural behaviors, farmers can use livestock to enhance the farmland ecosystem.
For instance, chickens can be moved from field to field to clean up vegetable patches before a new crop is planted. In addition to clearing out old vegetation, chickens eat insect pests, aerate the soil as they scratch for food, and leave each patch with an ample dose of fertilizer. Pigs that are allowed to express their inherent piggyness – namely, rooting and wallowing – can be used to till a field or turn manure into compost. Rotating different species of farm animals across pastures can reduce disease-risk in livestock while keeping pastures rich in nutrients and diverse in forage.
To find produce, dairy, or meat from this type of ecoagricultural farm, your best bet is to start talking to local farmers – visit your farmers market or join a CSA.
Can Conventional Farms Be Agroecological?
It’s not just small, alternative farms that are thinking ecologically. Conventional, industrial farms can practice agroecology as well. Some use synthetic chemicals only as a last resort, instead relying on biological management strategies – such as beneficial insect predators, crop rotation, and monitoring of fields for pests – to increase yield. Understanding ecolabels is the best way to determine whether conventional produce is grown agroecologically.
Conventional and organic farms alike can also practice agroecology by setting aside a portion of their farmland for conservation. Restoring farmland to natural habitat increases the number of native plant and animal species on farms, and can also repair important ecosystem functions. Restored land can store atmospheric carbon dioxide, control erosion, detoxify soil, purify water, provide habitat for insect predators that keep pests at bay, and much more.
In a way, agroecology represents a different way of farming. It’s not necessarily organic, and it’s not necessarily conventional. Given how much land use is agricultural and how environmentally destructive agriculture can be, agroecology seems like the best solution to ensure the sustainability of food production and crucial ecosystem services.