What is agroecology?

As we consider a world of 7 billion and counting, the same two questions are coming up over and over again – how will we ever have enough water? And how on earth can we feed that many people?

The issue of food is a controversial one – everyone has an opinion. They’re widely divergent opinions too – from those who believe that Big Ag and genetic modification is the solution to billions of hungry mouths, to those who promote an aggressively local and small-scale farming system as the only way to stave off global hunger.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not in that group of folk who think that GM and monoculture cropping are going to save the world. In fact, a future like that seems very bleak and dystopian to me – the idea of a handful of companies essentially owning our food and thus our bodies is abhorrent to me. Local and small-scale is wonderful, but not always realistic on its own – every city would have its challenges in producing clean and healthy food, other regions lack the fertility of soil and availability of good weather conditions to be able to fully sustain their populations. It’s a good start though, especially when it incorporates the principles of agroecology.

Image from agroecology.org

But what is agroecology? The word hasn’t yet acquired that buzz-word status, like ‘local’ or ‘organic’ (and, thankfully, hasn’t been diluted into a fuzzy meaninglessness like those words). And while agroecology can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Essentially, agroecology is a movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006). UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems describes it as the development of ‘sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.’

From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Click through to embiggen.

Agroecology is therefore the antithesis of Big Ag. That sounds pretty appealing, for sure. But does it work?

Yes. Plus, it kind of has to. The 2013 Trade and Environment Review from the UN Commission on Trade and Development concluded that major changes in agriculture are necessary, recommending a ‘rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.’ Our current systems are not resilient (monoculture cropping is by its nature more vulnerable than polycultures), nor are they sustainable – the extensive requirements for chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides contributes to degradation of soil, of water supplies and climate change. Business as usual will end up business-as-it-used-to-be.

Agroecology has the potential to stop this damage to our agricultural systems and ensure a lesser environmental impact in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

We need to make a change and agroecology has a small but positive track record – at the very least, running more trials, replicating these on a large scale and thus collecting more evidence of its efficacy is worth a shot, as it may well provide us with a solution to an eventual crisis.


The transition from animal to food

“Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

I know, I know…more Michael Pollan. But he sums up so many of our food ills so beautifully!

Last year, I posted about instances of animal cruelty that had occurred at a Sydney abattoir responsible for the production of pork products.  Today, The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a another incidence of cruelty in an abattoir,  this time one responsible for the ‘processing’ of turkeys.  There is a video embedded in the link, but be warned that is is described as being quite graphic and disturbing (I haven’t watched myself – I really can’t bring myself to do so).

Looking beyond the immediate issue of this one abattoir whose employees have behaved in an absolutely reprehensible way, we come to two overarching questions  – how much do we really know about how animals become food, and how much do we actually care?

The increasing number of meat products in the supermarket that are labelled as ‘free range’ and/or ‘organic’ suggests that there is a sizable group of consumers who care about how animals are treated during their lives, in terms of their food, health and accommodation.  But, while we care about how they live, it seems like we’ve forgotten  about how they die.

I don’t want to detract from the fact that more people do seem to be giving more thought to the treatment of farm animals.  That’s a really, really positive sign. But it’s not enough if there is this degree of suffering taking place between paddock and table.  We need to ensure that these incidences don’t keep occurring and that the consumer can (if they choose) be informed of the full cycle of meat production.  In the case described in this report, the investigating vet has indicated that he will be recommending mandatory video monitoring at all abattoirs.  This hardly seems unreasonable – at least those who choose to eat meat can do so in some confidence that what they are consuming was treated with respect, even at the time of slaughter.

On yoghurt trees and running cottons

First things first: if any part of this post starts to not make sense, my apologies in advance.  I’m fighting off a stonking headache which seems to be fighting for an upgrade to migraine status.  I didn’t feel that I could hold off on writing about this much longer though.

See, I saw this article on Monday and it rendered me speechless for a while.  While I imagine that a cotton would be one of the cutest animals around…it’s just never occurred to me to think that it actually is an animal.  Yet, 40% of year 10 students surveyed thought that their cotton socks were an animal product.  People, year 10 students are 15 and 16 years old. 13% of the same age group thought that yoghurt was a plant product.  For 11 and 12 year olds, that percentage was 27%.

Do you see why I was speechless yet?

I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney.  My exposure to farms was basically the occasional petting zoo and the cows that visited the back fence of my grandparents holiday house.  We grew herbs in pots, but beyond that, pretty much everything came from the supermarket.  However, I always knew the basics of where my food and clothing came from.  Beef was cow, chicken had once been a chicken and yoghurt was a dairy product.  And dairy came from cows, not trees.

I have no expectation that city kids will have a full understanding of everything that we eat, especially in a society that is so removed from the actual growing and production of our foodstuffs.  But there is a huge difference between being unsure if an avocado comes from a tree or a vine and not realising that there is no such animal as a cotton.

We are at a stage where people need to be more aware of their food, so that they can make informed and sustainable food choices – for example, reducing consumption of animal products, the intensive farming of which ultimately leads to land degradation and climate change.  If the next generation doesn’t even recognise an animal product…well.  We’re going to have a problem

The big question then is: how do we change this?  There’s automatically a lot of blame thrown around when statistics like this come out – it’s the teacher’s fault, the parent’s fault, the supermarket’s fault.  What I think it really comes down to though, is that there needs to be a shift in the way that we think about food.  So much food is so heavily processed that it’s often hard to know exactly what it’s composed of.  A move to simpler foods, back to more cooking and less takeaway and to a greater appreciation of food and flavours is the only way to get past this problem.  I think that this is slowly happening…but it’s a frighteningly gradual process.


Just imagine these with teeny tiny arms and legs. Cutest animals ever, right?