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.


Growing your own – Texas edition

It’s the most glorious day here in Austin. Our garden has been gradually progressing over the last of winter as I’ve hauled out acres of weeds and started mulching with grass clippings, but I feel confident that it’s now warm enough to start actually planting and I’m really, really excited.

We tried to grow some vegetables last summer when we first arrived. I took such good care of the tomatoes, peppers and basil for a handful of atrocious, 100-plus degree days before the plants suddenly started disappearing. One day there was a thriving tomato plant, the next day there was a thriving half of a tomato plant and the day after, there was no evidence that there had ever been a tomato plant at all. It took a while, but I eventually discovered the culprit. Squirrels. I was heartbroken. I love squirrels! I didn’t want to think ill of them! But the evidence pointed fairly and squarely at squirrels, and as a dumb Australian, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

This is what we’ve done:

You can barely see the netting - it's really fine, which means it's not the eyesore we'd anticipated.

You can barely see the netting – it’s really fine, which means it’s not the eyesore we’d anticipated.

We’re still not 100% sure how well it will work, but it feels relatively squirrel-proof. Basically, we went down to Home Depot last weekend and bought a bunch of tall stakes and deer-proof netting. We’ve wrapped three sides in the netting, with the fourth attached to an additional stake, which we can lift out as needed, kind of like a gate. We’ve also covered over the top of the garden, because if you’re going to do a job, you may as well do it properly. Now we just need to create some tent-peg-style things to hold down the netting at the bottom – and once that’s done, we can get everything into the ground.

So, what’s everything? Well, this season we’ve got two different types of heirloom tomatoes, one hot and one mild red pepper, the tiniest wee snow pea (a gift from Ronin Cooking at Foodways), lots of sweet basil and an Italian parsley (already planted, since it’s less appealing to squirrels). We’ve still got crazy thickets of oregano and mint left from last season too – somehow they survived the intense heat of August and September, and then the severe frosts of December and January (I’m pretty sure they could handle the apocalypse at this stage). We should hopefully have everything in the garden and thriving by the end of the weekend.

Please excuse our insanely lush grass - we only mowed two weeks ago! It's crazy!

Please excuse our insanely lush grass – we only mowed two weeks ago! It’s crazy!

I really can’t wait until harvest time. Leaving behind our garden in Sydney was one of the tough parts of moving overseas. Making basil pesto is one of my favourite things, and there’s a certain special pleasure that comes from growing, harvesting, prepping and cooking things from your own garden. Not only does it usually taste a thousand-fold better, I love that sense of connection to the earth, and that sense of achievement when you’ve done something yourself, right from the start.

What are you planning to grow this spring? Those of you in the southern hemisphere, what did you grow over summer?

A little note of positivity

It’s funny how things sometimes come together. Yesterday I saw both the following infographic and this article from NPR.

Source: APHA. Click through for more.

I think there’s a lovely symmetry between the two – an acknowledgement of the worrying state that we’re still in now, but with a hopeful twist: real change is starting to happen. There are so many organisations and individuals that are working to alter the food landscape by reconnecting farmers with consumers, increasing the availability of healthful food in disadvantaged communities and educating the public on food, health and the environment.

The best bit is that some of this work is already starting to show benefits. For example, in Australia, community and research interventions in remote indigenous communities have shown significant reductions in the incidence of hypercholesterolemia and other cardiovascular disease risk factors, and improvements in child health (1, 2).  In the Bronx, the Rx Fruit and Vegetable program is making healthy food affordable and having an impact on the lives of children – which is important to ensuring a healthy and sustainable food future. And of course, as the first article I linked to mentions, simple conversions to the layout and produce in corner stores are starting to make a world of difference in East Los Angeles Latino communities. These three examples represent just a fraction of the changes that are happening in the U.S and Australia alone.

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by statistics like ‘Obesity has tripled among kids and teens in the past 30 years’, or that 8.3 percent of the US population is diabetic (with 90-95 percent being type 2 diabetes). The existence of initiatives like these gives me hope though, because people can and are making a real difference.

1.  Rowley G, Su Q, Cincotta M, Skinner M, Pindan B, White G A, O’Dea K 2001, Improvements in circulation cholesterol, antioxidants, and homocysteine after dietary intervention in an Australian Aboriginal community, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 74:442-8.
2. Jones R, Smith F 2006, Are there health benefits from improving basic nutrition in a remote Aboriginal Community?, Australian Family Physician, 35 (6): 453-4.



2014: Year of Family Farming

Last week, I recapped 2013, noting that in general, it wasn’t a great year for issues around food and the environment. I also mentioned a few hopeful things for the year ahead, but what I decided to leave for a post of its own was the United Nation’s declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming.

The stated aims of the IYFF are:

‘to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.’

This is so significant, especially in the context of increasingly globalised and monoculturised (let’s just pretend that’s a word for a moment) agriculture. Increasingly Big Ag is buying up land in developing countries, damaging local ecosystems, reducing food security and eliminating traditional food cultures. I wrote extensively about this last year in a couple of posts, and if you’re really interested, I’d recommend reading Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved. 

Shifting the focus of food from our industrialised system to the more traditional smallholder model is important for all parts of the world though, not just for developing nations. The reasons are different, but the significance is not. So, how is this relevant to us in the ‘global north’?

1) Nutrition

I know I bang on about this a lot. But I really do think that if we devoted a bit more space to family farms that grew a variety of crops, and perhaps even bred some animals, we’d have a whole lot less HFCS and other processed rubbish, and a whole lot more real, fresh food. Maybe that’s really naive of me, but it couldn’t hurt to try.

2) Connection to food and place

It’s so easy these days to lose sight of the fact that food isn’t just conjured up by the magic supermarket fairy. I once read an article about kids who thought that yoghurt grew on trees ( no, really). This alone seems like as good a reason as any to start engaging communities with the process of growing and producing food. I honestly believe that every single child should have the opportunity to spend some time in a vegetable garden, getting their fingers grubby and watching plants grow. Whether that be in their backyard, at their school, in a community garden doesn’t matter. But it’s something that I think is absolutely essential.

3) Land management 

I’ve linked to this report before and I’ll link to it again. Monoculture cropping is destroying valuable fertile farmland. It’s also destroying much of the Gulf of Mexico, literally suffocating the ecosystem. Greater variety in planting means less need for fertiliser, and less erosion. Even diversifying just a portion of each of the huge monoculture farms in the USA could make a difference.

And so, while the IYFF is most relevant to developing nations, where people often rely on family farming for their most basic nutritional needs, it also needs to be taken seriously in other wealthier countries. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s going to mesh too well with the Big Ag bottom line.

A week of infographics: Day 5

Click to link through and embiggen

I love this infographic too (sensing a theme here?). There’s definitely something to the concerns that the world will struggle to sustain its current population of just over 7 billion people, but it’s nice to know that all 7 billion can be fed, at least theoretically.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this week’s infographics. I’ll aim to be back to a more regular posting schedule next week.


A week of infographics: Day 4

Click to link through

This is by far my favourite infographic this week. I just find it fascinating. Some of it is not that surprising, like the much wider ranger of healthy food in the highly educated, high income quadrant. Some of it is much stranger though – for example, why the emphasis on whole milk in lower-income, lower-education communities, compared to skim milk in higher income, college-educated communities? Given that there is little to no difference in price, is this a difference of education? Or is it maybe cultural, given the emphasis in the lower-income communities is on many foods often associated with Hispanic cuisine -rice, beans, corn meal etc? I honestly have no idea.

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this one.

On Golden Rice

Image from goldenrice.org

Skimming through Grist yesterday, I found this piece by Nathanael Johnson particularly interesting. Golden rice is a controversial issue, wrapped up in another controversial issue. It brings to the fore all of the moral, ethical and environmental questions of the GM debate, coupled with other questions about global health and human rights. It’s a messy issue, which I definitely don’t think can be split into “good vs bad” – such a dichotomy is too simplistic for an idea that is anything but.

As Johnson notes, and like much of what I’ve read about Golden Rice suggests, this did not start out as some great-big-corporate-scary-Monsanto idea. Golden Rice was the brainchild of people genuinely trying to help improve the health and nutrition outcomes of those who desperately need it. This is a really key point – this is what makes Golden Rice different to all those situations where farmers have been sued into financial ruin because the wind blew the next farm’s Monsanto crops onto their own.

Will it help though? I’m not sure. Like Johnson, I honestly do think it’s worth a shot. In general, I’m very, very circumspect about GM for reasons that I’ve discussed previously – namely the risk of cross-contamination, damaging the genetics of non-GM crops, and, even more so, the risks involved in a company “owning” the genetics of our basic foods. In the case of Golden Rice though, I don’t feel that we, in the global North, have the right to stop research into any food product that may improve quality of life and health outcomes in the developing world. Yes, I would have enormous concerns if it were being developed on a purely profit-motive basis. But it’s not, which to my mind makes it a completely different ball game.

Who knows if it will work? Only time and more research will tell for sure. Will biotech companies try to claim it as their very own, grand, lifesaving gift to the world? I think it would be naive to think otherwise. Are there risks involved if it does work? Absolutely, yes! But I also think that there are risks involved in not looking at every possible solution to global malnutrition, and I also think it’s naive to ignore the fact that technology may be one of those solutions.

Food and health…again



I found this on the image site imgur.com recently and it blew me away with its accuracy. I’m living in a country which seems to produce food largely based on fat, salt and sugar. I walk into the supermarket and have to check ingredients on cheese and yoghurt and jam and ice cream to avoid rBGH and high fructose corn syrup. I go to a pharmacy and they’re selling crisps and chocolate and cigarettes and booze. Things that were once simple aren’t anymore.  Once I just needed to worry about cage free eggs. Now I’m trying to toss up the environmental damage of the food miles of cheese from Europe vs. the health implications of local cheese from cows that have been treated with rBGH.

Wendell Berry is right. The connection between food and health (and indeed our environment), while it is so blatantly, blatantly obvious, is so frequently ignored.  We ignore what is in front of our noses in both the literal and metaphorical sense every single day, and our health is getting worse for it.


View of Lake Travis, north-west of Austin. You can see how low the water level is at the moment – it’s usually to the trees

After a pretty extensive break, I am back! We arrived in our new home about a week ago but I’ve been spending most of the time since trying to beat jetlag into submission, look for places to live and figure out driving on the wrong side of the road. And, of course, adjust to the heat – it was the middle of winter at home, but 42 degrees celsius on the night that we arrived!

Figuring out how to live in a new country is always a challenge. In addition to all of the administrative and new-life-establishing hurdles, there’s also a journey of discovery into how people live here – what do they do? How do they think? What are their values? Obviously these are never completely universal, but there is always a sense of commonality that makes a city or a town tick.

Austin is a strange place. That’s certainly not to say that I don’t like it, because I do. But there is this weird combination of hipsters and yuppies, Prius’s and the BIGGEST trucks you’ve ever seen in your life. Outside the centre of Downtown, it’s a real struggle to find meat free food and I’ve become reliant on the Whole Foods salad bar, the bar next door and the local Chipotle. The north side of town is a carnivores dream or a vegetarian’s nightmare, depending on how you look at it. On the other hand, the South area, where we are hoping to live, seems to be full of amazing vegetarian food and the most hipster-y bars imaginable. I kind of love the contrast, but it’s weird to get used to.

The lack of meatless food options is just one of the environmental things that I’ve found quite different to home. Food portions are astoundingly large and the resources required to produce them, plus the associated waste must be phenomenal. People seem to give me odd looks if I say that I’m walking or using the bus to get around. Everyone up this end of town seems to drive everywhere. Texas is in the grip of a drought, but there are no dual flush toilets.

These are obviously just my first impressions and I could be way off the mark – please don’t take offence to anything I’ve said! I guess that so far, I’ve just been surprised by the scale of the difference to Sydney, where dual flush loos are at every home and store, everyone uses public transport where possible and meat-free options are so widely available. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks living here though, and I’ll be sure to clarify if any of my first impressions were wrong. Right now though, I’m mainly just enjoying the chance to experience something new.

A little of everything

I’ll start by apologising (somewhat belatedly, I confess) in advance for the fact that my posting is likely to be very sporadic over the next few weeks.  With just a month now before we move to Austin, things are starting to get pretty hectic around our way – not to mention that we’re both still working full time and it’s the end of semester!  Free time is becoming rarer by the day.

With that out of the way, I thought I’d share a few of the excellent things I’ve come across lately on the interwebs. (I’ll also continue to share some articles via the Facebook page, even while I’m not able to keep up with blogging).

This piece on how we have slowly reduced the nutritional content of our fruits and vegetables over thousands of years was fascinating.  Given the likelihood of this process continuing, the importance of preserving genetic history where possible again seems absolutely crucial.  The associated graphic is a good summary for those lacking time:

Credit: NYT


Whether or not you are comfortable with the future of food including genetically modified crops, the unauthorised spread of unapproved GMO wheat in the US is alarming

and in stark contrast to Hungary’s vehement anti-GMO campaign of burning GMO corn fields.  GMO seeds remain banned in Hungary at this stage.

Phil Plait wins again with his Global Warming Firehose post on Bad Astronomy.  Following some of his links, I loved the 99 One-Liners to rebut climate change deniers and I hated the fact that I am moving to a state which can elect this guy representative of anything at all, ever.  That article nearly broke my brain.

I’m also glad not to live in Victoria, the state that brought us John Madigan who thinks that wind farms might break laws “both written and unwritten” (ummmm?).  The demanding requirements on wind farms fail to take into account that there is essentially no evidence of negative impacts on health and a whole lot which points to people’s wind-turbine-related “illness” being a case of a lot of fear and misinformation manifesting in a range of unrelated physical symptoms.