Defining Agroecology

Without agroecology we won’t be able to both nourish our growing population and preserve the natural environment. Unfortunately, agroecology is not a specific method that will bring us to this outcome. It is a general category of agriculture that maximizes “productivity, energy conservation, climate health, biodiversity (and related ecosystem services), soil and water conservation, and profitability.” (LUPG) It inevitably takes different forms, as each growing environment is distinct and there are many ways to fulfill these requirements within each place, but it always implies holistic sustainability and high food productivity.

Agroecology is a necessary component of ‘sustainable intensification’—producing more food on the same area of land without degrading the environment. While the latter term is liberally used to describe a number of food production models, the ones that focus exclusively on intensification—such as industrial pork production—are hardly worthy of being called ‘sustainable.’ True sustainable intensification adheres to agroecology.

Likewise, sustainable intensification is a necessary component of agroecology, as it maximizes crop yields while maintaining a healthy environment. Agroecology does not preclude the use of chemical fertilizer; if this and other methods boost productivity without damaging the environment, then they can fit within the category. Productivity is such an important aspect of agroecology because more food per acre means fewer total acres of global farmland are needed to feed people, leaving more land as wilderness or other mindful uses.

In this sense, agroecology differs from organic agriculture, which categorically rejects the use of chemical fertilizers even if there is a significant loss in productivity. Organic agriculture, strictly defined as a way of producing food, is less results-oriented and more focused on the process—no synthetic inputs. Agroecology embraces organic production, though if controlled doses of synthetic fertilizer increased output while upholding sustainability in a wide range of areas, it would be permissible. It all depends on the specific farming operation.

On the other hand, USDA organic wheat might violate agroecology in some areas, such as disrupting a nearby ecosystem or overusing water, but would still be considered organic. This is where agroecology goes further than organic in maximizing benefits for people and the planet. Though its definition is admittedly vague and open to interpretation—it is essentially just sustainable farming that produces high food output per acre—there is added value in using this distinct term and the range of agricultural techniques it encompasses. By applying agroecology to food production around the world, we will be on the right path to feeding our population while preserving—and even healing—the natural environment.

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