Agroecology: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Sustainable Agriculture

Driving across the nation, one is frequently greeted with monotonous farmlands growing only one or two types of crops. This landscape is the product of industrial agriculture: large-scale, external input-reliant production systems favoring human-imposed control over nature. In the past few decades this type of production has taken over much of the agriculture in the United States and is also a common mode of production in many other parts of the world. It has been implicated as the driving factor of a plethora of social and environmental problems, such as eutrophication (overgrowth of plant life in waters due to excessive nutrient runoff), biodiversity loss, worker health deterioration, and soil degradation, just to name a few.

national-agroecology-plan-logoGiven these issues, a growing movement of people – researchers, politicians, concerned citizens, and indigenous groups – are seeking alternative food production methods that are not only sustainable and environmentally-friendly, but also benefit producers and consumers alike. Out of their concern, more and more people have turned towards agroecology as a solution. Latin American countries, in particular Brazil and Cuba, have been the center for active involvement in agroecological movements and research.

Agroecology

Agroecology is the “interdisciplinary science that applies ecological concepts and principles to the design, development and management of sustainable agricultural systems and includes mineral cycles, energy transformations, biological processes and socioeconomic relationships.”  In Brazil, agroecology is implemented as “a system that aims [to] integrate production capacity, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and other natural resources, ecological balance, economic efficiency and social justice.”[1]

Ana Maria Primavesi: Ana Maria Primavesi delivering the keynote speech at the Agroecology Meeting of the Pontal do Paranapanema Pontal.

Ana Maria Primavesi: Ana Maria Primavesi delivering the keynote speech at the Agroecology Meeting of the Pontal do Paranapanema Pontal.

Six principles adapted from natural ecosystems underlie the agroecology discipline. The first is that nature is a series of interacting networks and systems. These networks are maintained by cycles of nutrients and matter and powered by solar energy. Healthy systems are diverse and rely on positive interactions rather than competition. Finally, nature is constantly changing, but always maintains a level of balance.[2] Thus farms that follow agroecology principles in their practices work in tandem with nature as opposed to industrial agriculture, which seeks to undermine natural resources.

Unlike industrial agriculture, one of the key components of the agroecology movement is food sovereignty – that is, the right of the people to control their food production system.[3] Agroecology empowers local farmers by employing traditional agriculture practices used by local communities for generations and acknowledges their expertise in performing sustainable practices. It also removes farmer dependency on external inputs and gives them more power over their production.

A strength of agrogeology is its commitment to using methods that suit the climatic, environmental, and socioeconomic background of each region. It does not seek to force the region to adapt to pre-determined industrial practices. Depending on the geographic region, agroecology is practiced in a wide variety of ways.

Agroecology in Brazil

Hailed as the mother of agroecology in Brazil, Professor Ana Maria Primavesi has a doctoral degree in agronomy with a research focus on soil restoration. Together with her husband Professor Artur von Primavesi, she began growing wheat in depleted Brazilian soils during the 50s. Their success brought attention to the crucial role of soil in producing nutritious crops and subsequently more attention to soil health in Brazilian agroecology. Professor Ana Primavesi has authored over 94 scientific articles and has written several textbooks, the most influential of which is Ecological Soil Management, a guide detailing agriculture practices in the tropics that benefit soils. A glimpse into her works reveals her support for practices such as crop rotation, soil cover retention and windbreak maintenance to reduce soil loss.[4], [5]

Brazil farmer research: AS-PTA workshop in Brazil. Photo from LEISA Magazine.

Brazil farmer research: AS-PTA workshop in Brazil. Photo from LEISA Magazine.

Agroecology in Brazil took a big step in 2012, when President Dilma Rousseff announced the First National Plan for Agroecology and Organic Production (Planapo) which supported a series of programs and initiatives to help farmers transition towards organic farming. Planapo primarily seeks to benefit the communities in rural Brazil, such as family farmers and indigenous groups. Through the plan farmers gain access to technical and financial assistance, and other resources for organic farming. The plan invested several billion Brazilian Reals (hundreds of millions of US dollars) to support over 100 initiatives addressing production, use and conservation of natural resources, knowledge transfer, and the marketing of agroecological products.[6] By the end of 2015, the plan had benefited more than 60,000 families.

In May this year, Brazil launched a second plan. The plan will get up to one million farmers producing via agroecological or organic means by 2019.[7]

In addition to governmental projects, smaller non-governmental organizations are also chipping in to support the agroecology expansion. For example, the Assessoria e Servicos a Projectos em Agricultura Alternativa (AS-PTA) is a Brazilian NGO, headed by agroecologist Edinei Almeida, with the mission of introducing ecological farming to Southern Brazil. One of their projects involves using rock powder mixed with organic biomass to manage soil fertility.

In 2013, RTE’s executive director Joanna Campe met Almeida at the second Rochagem Conference. There, Almeida discussed the use of “independence fertilizer,” which earned its name from the local farmers that he worked with.

Brazil workshop farmer: AS-PTA workshop in Brazil. Photo from LEISA Magazine.

Brazil workshop farmer: AS-PTA workshop in Brazil. Photo from LEISA Magazine.

Edinei talked about one type of fertilizer, a blend of rock dust, animal manure, and compost from biomass, which has become known locally as “independence fertilizer.” Agroecology promotes social justice by improving the lives of people living in communities that rely on small family farms. Since Brazil never experienced a period of agrarian reform after its long colonial history, issues relating to land access and farming always have strong political undertones. Farmers have become dependent on conventional methods of cultivation and an economic model that fails to serve the needs of their communities. “Independence fertilizer” represents an alternative agricultural model that has the potential to address important social, economic, and political questions that many communities struggle with in Brazil and all over the world.

More about their interview can be read at the ‘Growing Movement of Remineralization and Agroecology in Brazil.

Agroecology in Cuba

Another leading nation in agroecology is Cuba. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country lost its primary source of energy, chemical fertilizers and finance. This led to a phenomenal transition in the agriculture sector from a fossil fuel-based production to agroecology-based production.

The country has been largely successful in their transition, with numerous programs and legislation in place to support growers making the transition. An example of this is the National Food Plan which mandated the decentralization of state lands and provision of financial and technical resources to help growers perform environmentally-responsible production. Unlike Brazil however, remineralization is not practiced in Cuba.

Dr. Tom Goreau and Joanna Campe were part of a delegation that traveled from the US to Cuba last November. At the conference, they gave presentations on remineralization as a potential sustainable practice for Cuba’s agriculture. RTE will feature a story on their trip soon. Remineralize the Earth is currently seeking grants to organize farmer-to-farmer workshops in Cuba to integrate remineralization into their agroecology practices.

 

Zu Dienle Tan recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master’s degree in natural resources and environment. She specializes in conservation ecology and is passionate about biodiversity conservation, agroecosystems and sustainable development.

 

References

[1] Rocha, Maria Laura De. “Brazil’s Experiences on Agroecology: Enhancing Family Farming and Promoting Sustainable Rural Development.” Side-event on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition (2016): n. pag.Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Web.
[2] Agroecology: Key Concepts, Principles and Practices. Penang: Third World Network, 2015.
[3] “Food Sovereignty.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 July 2016. Web. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_sovereignty#cite_note-FoodFirst-1>.
[4] “Prof. Dr. Ana Maria Primavesi|Lifetime Achievement Award.” ONE WORLD AWARD. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.one-world-award.com/ana-maria-primavesi.html>.
[5] “Ana Maria Primavesi, Apaixonada Pelo Solo.” Teiaorganica. N.p., 03 July 2015. Web. <http://teiaorganica.com.br/blog/ana-maria-primavesi-apaixonada-pelo-solo/>.
[6] National Plan for Agroecology and Organic Production. Rep. Brasil Agroecologico – Agricultura Familiar E Do Desenvolvimento Agrario, n.d. Web. <http://www.mda.gov.br/sitemda/sites/sitemda/files/user_arquivos_19/Mont_cartilha_planapo_ingles.pdf>.
[7] “Brazil’s Experiences on Agroecology: Enhancing Family Farming and Promoting Sustainable Rural Developments.” Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition. 1 June 2016. Speech.

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