Agroecology is a science that applies ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agricultural ecosystems. Inspired by the diversified models of traditional agriculture, agroecologists promote crop diversification (polycultures, crop-livestock combinations, rotations, agroforestry systems, etc.) as an effective agroecological strategy for introducing more biodiversity into agroecosystems, which in turn provides a number of ecological services to farmers, such as natural soil fertility, pest regulation, pollination, and others. The agroecological approach involves the application of blended agricultural and ecological sciences with indigenous knowledge systems. A variety of agroecological and participatory approaches have shown in many rural areas very positive outcomes, even under adverse environmental and socioeconomic conditions. Potentials include raising crop yields and total farm output, increasing stability of production through diversification, enhancing resilience of farms to climate change, improving diets and income, and conservation of the natural resource base and biodiversity. Agroecological principles can also be applied to break the monoculture nature of modern mechanized farms. Strategies include complex crop rotations, cover cropping in vineyards and fruit orchards, strip intercropping, and so on. The ultimate goal is to develop integrated diversified and resilient agroecosystems with minimal dependence on external, off-farm inputs.
Miguel A. Altieri
Theodore J. K. Radovich
Organic farming occupies a unique position among the world’s agricultural systems. While not the only available model for sustainable food production, organic farmers and their supporters have been the most vocal advocates for a fully integrated agriculture that recognizes a link between the health of the land, the food it produces, and those that consume it. Advocacy for the biological basis of agriculture and the deliberate restriction or prohibition of many agricultural inputs arose in response to potential and observed negative environmental impacts of new agricultural technologies introduced in the 20th century. A primary focus of organic farming is to enhance soil ecological function by building soil organic matter that in turn enhances the biota that soil health and the health of the agroecosystem depends on. The rapid growth in demand for organic products in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is based on consumer perception that organically grown food is better for the environment and human health. Although there have been some documented trends in chemical quality differences between organic and non-organic products, the meaningful impact of the magnitude of these differences is unclear. There is stronger evidence to suggest that organic systems pose less risk to the environment, particularly with regard to water quality; however, as intensity of management in organic farming increases, the potential risk to the environment is expected to also increase. In the early 21st century there has been much discussion centered on the apparent bifurcation of organic farming into two approaches: “input substitution” and “system redesign.” The former approach is a more recent phenomenon associated with pragmatic considerations of scaling up the size of operations and long distance shipping to take advantage of distant markets. Critics argue that this approach represents a “conventionalization” of organic agriculture that will erode potential benefits of organic farming to the environment, human health, and social welfare. A current challenge of organic farming systems is to reconcile the different views among organic producers regarding issues arising from the rapid growth of organic farming.
Agriculture is practiced on 38% of the landmass on Earth, and having replaced natural ecosystems, it is the largest terrestrial biome on Earth. Agricultural biomes are typically focused on annual crops that are produced as a succession of genetically uniform monocultures. Compared to the ecosystems they replaced, agroecosystems provide fewer ecosystem functions and contain much less biodiversity. The large-scale conversion from natural lands to agriculture occurred centuries ago in the Old World (Africa, China, Europe, and India), but in many areas during the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, especially tropical areas with rich biodiversity, agriculture is an emerging industry. Here, displacement of natural ecosystems is also a late 20th-century occurrence, and much of it is ongoing. Regardless of where or when agriculture was established, biodiversity declined and ecosystem services were eroded. Agricultural practices are the second largest contributor to biodiversity loss, due to the loss of habitat, competition for resources, and pesticide use. Most (~96%) of the land used to produce crops is farmed using conventional methods, while smaller percentages are under organic production (~2%) or are producing biotech crops (~4%). Regardless of how agriculture is practiced, it exacts a toll on biodiversity and ecosystem services. While organic agriculture embraces many ecological principals in producing food, it fails to recognize the value of biotechnology as a tool to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. Herbicide- and/or insect-resistant crops are the most widely planted biotech crops worldwide. Biotech crops in general, but especially insect-resistant crops, reduce pesticide use and increase biodiversity. The widespread adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops increased the use of this herbicide, and resistance evolved in weeds. On the other hand, glyphosate has less environmental impacts than other herbicides. Because of the limited scale of biotech production, it will not have large impacts on mitigating the effects of agriculture on biodiversity and ecosystem services. To have any hope of reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, agro-ecology principals and biotechnology will need to be incorporated. Monetizing biodiversity and ecosystem services through incorporation into commodity prices will incentivize producers to be part of the biodiversity solution. A multi-level biodiversity certification is proposed that is a composite score of the biodiversity and ecosystem services of an individual farm and the growing region were the food is produced. Such a system would add value to the products from farms and ranches proportionate to the level by which their farm and region provides biodiversity and ecosystem services as the natural ecosystem it replaced.