Along with ceramics production, sedentism, and herding, agriculture is a major component of the Neolithic as it is defined in Europe. Therefore, the agricultural system of the first Neolithic societies and the dispersal of exogenous cultivated plants to Europe are the subject of many scientific studies. To work on these issues, archaeobotanists rely on residual plant remains—crop seeds, weeds, and wild plants—from archaeological structures like detritic pits, and, less often, storage contexts. To date, no plant with an economic value has been identified as domesticated in Western Europe except possibly opium poppy. The earliest seeds identified at archaeological sites dated to about 5500–5200 bc in the Mediterranean and Temperate Europe. The cultivated plants identified were cereals (wheat and barley), oleaginous plant (flax), and pulses (peas, lentils, and chickpeas). This crop package originated in the Fertile Crescent, where it was clearly established around 7500 bc (final Pre-Pottery Neolithic B), after a long, polycentric domestication process. From the middle of the 7th millennium bc, via the Balkan Peninsula, the pioneer Neolithic populations, with their specific economies, rapidly dispersed from east to west, following two main pathways. One was the maritime route over the northwestern basin of the Mediterranean (6200–5300 bc), and the other was the terrestrial and fluvial route in central and northwestern continental Europe (5500–4900 bc). On their trajectory, the agropastoral societies adapted the Neolithic founder crops from the Middle East to new environmental conditions encountered in Western Europe. The Neolithic pioneers settled in an area that had experienced a long tradition of hunting and gathering. The Neolithization of Europe followed a colonization model. The Mesolithic groups, although exploiting plant resources such as hazelnut more or less intensively, did not significantly change the landscape. The impact of their settlements and their activities are hardly noticeable through palynology, for example. The control of the mode of reproduction of plants has certainly increased the prevalence of Homo sapiens, involving, among others, a demographic increase and the ability to settle down in areas that were not well adapted to year-round occupation up to that point. The characterization of past agricultural systems, such as crop plants, technical processes, and the impact of anthropogenic activities on the landscape, is essential for understanding the interrelation of human societies and the plant environment. This interrelation has undoubtedly changed deeply with the Neolithic Revolution.
Adaptation of cropping systems to weather uncertainty and climate change is essential for resilient food production and long-term food security. Changes in climate result in substantial temporal modifications of cropping conditions, and rainfall and temperature patterns vary greatly with location. These challenges come at a time when global human population and demand for food are both increasing, and it appears to be difficult to find ways to satisfy growing needs with conventional systems of production. Agriculture in the future will need to feature greater biodiversity of crop species and appropriate design and management of cropping and integrated crop/animal systems. More diverse and longer-cycle crop rotations will need to combine sequences of annual row crops such as maize and soybean with close-drilled cereals, shallow-rooted with deep-rooted crops, summer crops with winter crops, and annuals with perennials in the same fields. Resilience to unpredictable weather will also depend on intercropping, with the creative arrangement of multiple interacting crop species to diversify the field and the landscape. Other multiple-cropping systems and strategies to integrate animals and crops will make more efficient use of natural resources and applied inputs; these include systems such as permaculture, agroforestry, and alley cropping. Future systems will be spatially diverse and adapted to specific fields, soil conditions, and unique agroecozones. Production resilience will be achieved by planting diverse combinations of species together in the same field, and economic resilience through producing a range of products that can be marketed through different channels. The creation of local food webs will be more appropriate in the future, as contrasted with the dominance of global food chains today. Materials considered “waste” from the food system, including human urine and feces, will become valuable resources to be cycled back into the natural environment and into food production. Due to the increasing scarcity of fertile land, the negative contributions of chemicals to environmental pollution, the costs of fossil fuels, and the potential for the economic and political disruption of supply chains, future systems will increasingly need to be local in character while still achieving adaptation to the most favorable conditions for each system and location. It is essential that biologically and economically resilient systems become productive and profitable, as well as environmentally sound and socially equitable, in order to contribute to stability of food production, security of the food supply, and food sovereignty, to the extent that this is possible. The food system cannot continue along the lines of “business as usual,” and its path will need to radically diverge from the recognized trends toward specialization and globalization of the early 21st century. The goal needs to shift from exploitation and short-term profits to conservation of resources, greater equity in distribution of benefits, and resilience in food supply, even with global climate change.
Juha Helenius, Alexander Wezel, and Charles A. Francis
Agroecology can be defined as scientific research on ecological sustainability of food systems. In addressing food production and consumption systems in their entirety, the focus of agroecology is on interactions and processes that are relevant for transitioning and maintaining ecological, economic, political, and social-cultural sustainability. As a field of sustainability science, agroecology explores agriculture and food with explicit linkages to two other widespread interpretations of the concept of agroecology: environmentally sound farming practices and social movements for food security and food sovereignty. In the study of agroecology as science, both farming practices and social movements emerge as integrated components of agroecological research and development. In the context of agroecology, the concept of ecology refers not only to the science of ecology as biological research but also to environmental and social sciences with research on social systems as integrated social and ecological systems. In agroecological theory, all these three are merged so that agroecology can broadly be defined as “human food ecology” or “the ecology of food systems.” Since the last decades of the 20th century many developments have led to an increased emphasis on agroecology in universities, nonprofit organizations, movements, government programs, and the United Nations. All of these have raised a growing attention to ecological, environmental, and social dimensions of farming and food, and to the question of how to make the transition to sustainable farming and food systems. One part of the foundation of agroecology was built during the 1960s when ecologically oriented environmental research on agriculture emerged as the era of optimism about component research began to erode. Largely, this took place as a reaction to unexpected and unwanted ecological and social consequences of the Green Revolution, a post–World War II scaling-up, chemicalization, and mechanization of agriculture. Another part of the foundation was a nongovernmental movement among thoughtful farmers wanting to develop sustainable and more ecological/organic ways of production and the demand by consumers for such food products. Finally, a greater societal acceptance, demand for research and education, and public funding for not only environmental ecology but also for wider sustainability in food and agriculture was ignited by an almost sudden high-level political awakening to the need for sustainable development by the end of 1980s. Agroecology as science evolved from early studies on agricultural ecosystems, from research agendas for environmentally sound farming practices, and from concerns about addressing wider sustainability; all these shared several forms of systems thinking. In universities and research institutions, agroecologists most often work in faculties of food and agriculture. They share resources and projects among scientists having disciplinary backgrounds in genetics (breeding of plants and animals), physiology (crop science, animal husbandry, human nutrition), microbiology or entomology (crop protection), chemistry and physics (soil science, agricultural and food chemistry, agricultural and food technology), economics (of agriculture and food systems), marketing, behavioral sciences (consumer studies), and policy research (agricultural and food policy). While agroecologists clearly have a mandate to address ecology of farmland, its biodiversity, and ecosystem services, one of the greatest added values from agroecology in research communities comes from its wider systems approach. Agroecologists complement reductionist research programs where scientists seek more detailed understanding of detail and mechanisms and put these into context by developing a broader appreciation of the whole. Those in agroecology integrate results from disciplinary research and increase relevance and adoption by introducing transdisciplinarity, co-creation of information and practices, together with other actors in the system. Agroecology is the field in sustainability science that is devoted to food system transformation and resilience. Agroecology uses the concept of “agroecosystem” in broad ecological and social terms and uses these at multiple scales, from fields to farms to farming landscapes and regions. Food systems depend on functioning agroecosystems as one of their subsystems, and all the subsystems of a food system interact through positive and negative feedbacks, in their complex biophysical, sociocultural, and economic dimensions. In embracing wholeness and connectivity, proponents of agroecology focus on the uniqueness of each place and food system, as well as solutions appropriate to their resources and constraints.