Defining Agroecology

Agroecology (ag´ rō i kol´ ə jē), n. An ecosystems approach to agriculture.

SmallCroppedWheatLandscapeAgroecology. It’s an unfamiliar term to many people. And even people who are actively engaged in some aspect of agroecology sometimes disagree about what it means. I have to admit, even though the term is pretty important to me, I was fairly oblivious (or at the very least, indifferent) to the ambiguity until very recently. But it seems more and more I find myself trying to define (and defend) my version of agroecology.

So why do I care? To be honest, I feel a bit of a connection to the term agroecology for a couple reasons. I obtained a degree in Agroecology from the first land-grant university in the country to offer one. I had a Bachelor of Science degree in Agroecology at a time when that was an exceptionally rare qualification. So rare, in fact, that after graduation I had to explain what agroecology was even to potential employers and graduate schools in my field.

I now teach courses and advise students in that same Agroecology program. Agroecology at UW is celebrating its 20th year this spring. Dr. Robin Groose, one of the faculty members at the University of Wyoming who was instrumental in the development of the Agroecology curriculum, wrote an article describing the program just as it was about to become available to students. I’ve posted the article in its entirety here. I’d link to the original article, but there is no online version of the Casper Star Tribune from 1993.

It is really interesting to read through Dr. Groose’s article 20 years later. Among the most interesting points is that there was literally no mainstream definition of the word agroecology at the time. And you couldn’t just go to wikipedia to figure out what it meant, either. Because, you know, 1993.

Agroecology. You won’t find the word in Webster’s. But someday you will.” -Robin Groose, September 1993

Almost prophetic, right? Dr. Groose goes on to describe what agroecology meant at the time, and also why this degree program was important.

“The word is a hybrid between “agronomy,” the science of crops and soils, and “ecology,” the branch of biology concerned with interrelationships among organisms and their environments.

“Agroecology strives to pull the components of crop production into a more complete picture and to view the agroecosystem as a whole – and in the context of today’s global economy and environment.

“Agroecology attempts to meet many challenges: Environmentalists demand better conservation of natural resources; consumers demand safer food; taxpayers demand an end to government subsidies; and so on. The critics are sometimes correct, sometimes not. And often the criticism is not constructive, tendered with no suggestion for improvement – or with utterly unrealistic solutions. And indeed, we in agriculture are often our own harshest critics. We know that much of prevailing agricultural practice is economically and environmentally unsustainable. Agroecology seeks solutions.

“Ultimately, our goal is to graduate independent thinkers who can recognize and solve real problems facing agriculture – and successfully refute the bogus challenges.”

Even in 1993, agricultural scientists were concerned about the prevalent unsubstantiated claims and unrealistic “solutions” proposed by critics of modern agriculture. And that was before these critics and their audience had easy access to the world wide web. One major goal of the UW Agroecology curriculum was (and continues to be) giving students the necessary scientific background to “recognize and solve real problems facing agriculture – and successfully refute the bogus challenges.”

And this, I think, is why I get a little defensive when the term agroecology is used in conjunction with “utterly unrealistic solutions” and “bogus challenges.” Most frustrating to me, is when agroecology is used in this context:

“We don’t need [insert technology here], because we have agroecology!

In the agroecology program at the University of Wyoming, we teach that proper use of technology is an indispensable part of achieving sustainability. After all, if technology in crop production was shunned, we’d have succumbed to the Malthusian catastrophe many generations ago. Technological innovations, in many cases, can help us maintain or increase production while minimizing the negative impacts of agriculture. This doesn’t mean that technological solutions should replace important traditional agricultural practices (like crop rotation, manure, appropriate tillage etc.). Technology is most certainly not a substitute for good agronomy. By studying agroecology, we can determine how to best use technology to increase the sustainability of agroecosystems. It also allows us to maximize the benefit of traditional agricultural practices and minimize their negative impact.

So why is agroecology often used to shun technology? It is difficult to imagine other, more established scientific disciplines being used in a similar context. It would be akin to claiming that we don’t need antibiotics because we have microbiology! It seems counter intuitive that any scientific discipline, especially agroecology, could result in such a broad conclusion. Studying nearly any other biological discipline leads to more innovation and technology adoption, not less. I’ve pondered for quite a while what exactly makes agroecology different. I think I found the answer, of all places, on Wikipedia.

“[Agroecology] is often used imprecisely and may refer to “a science, a movement, [or] a practice.”” – Wikipedia Accessed 20-May-2014

This sounds eerily similar to another term that is so imprecise that it leads to many misunderstandings and fruitless discussions about modern agriculture. The 3-fold usage idea (science, movement, practice) originates from several publications by Alexander Wezel and co-authors. For example, a paper in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability by Wezel & Soldat from 2009 states:

“At present, agroecology can be interpreted as a scientific discipline, as a movement or as a practice.

“Environmental movements in the 1960s often emerged in opposition to industrialized agriculture, when public policies did not consider the environmental impact of agriculture, in particular pesticides, or the social aspects of rural development. Initially, the term agroecology was not used explicitly to describe a movement. It was only in the 1990s when the word started to be used in this sense, especially in the USA and in Latin America, to express a new way of considering agriculture and its relationship to society, and its place within it.

“At the same time there emerged a third usage, that is, for designing a set of agricultural practices. In general, agroecological practices are seen as new, re-invented or adapted practices or techniques within more environmentally friendly agriculture, organic or alternative agriculture, or within traditional agriculture in developing countries.”

Wezel & Soldat tell us that the science of agroecology dates back to the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The first usage of the term was by a Russian agronomist by the name of Bensin, who suggested “agroecology” could be used to describe using ecological methods to study commercial crop plants. And this is similar to how many who teach the science of agroecology still use the term today. It is very close to Dr. Groose’s description of a simple hybridization of “agronomy” and “ecology.” But in the 1990’s, says Wezel & Soldat, the term also became associated with a movement that was largely “opposed to modern agriculture.” So even though the science of agroecology doesn’t support the notion that we should shun judicious use of technologies like biotechnology, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides, the agroecology movement has no problem making such claims.

As a researcher and teacher who is actively engaged in the science of agroecology, this is a concerning disconnect. Simply due to the construction of the word, there is an implied scientific legitimacy. It is ironic that the name of such a useful scientific discipline has been co-opted by a movement to advocate positions that, in many cases, are not supported by the very science the term was originally used to describe. I think it is time that we reclaim this term for it’s original purpose, as one that describes the science of agriculture, viewed through an ecological lens. Unfortunately, I don’t really have any ideas on how to accomplish this. I welcome your thoughts.


  1. So you are saying that there isn’t an official “agroecology” organization, and there’s no list of permitted/restricted tools, practices, and methods?

    This means that when activists say things about agroecology I can totally agree with them?


    1. Hi Mary,
      You bring up a very good point that I should have probably covered in this post. As I mentioned in the post, it is very frustrating when Agroecology is used to support non-scientific claims or practices. But it is also frustrating to me when the science of agroecology is dismissed immediately by my “tribe” simply because they associate the term with the political movement. (I’m not suggesting you, personally, have done this; your comment simply reminded me of this point.) This is a case where I feel like I’m squarely in the middle of two warring factions.

      It is difficult to dismiss the passion of the agroecology movement. And I think that most people who consider themselves part of that movement are genuinely interested in learning the science of agroecology. We see this all the time in our undergraduate program. We get students coming into the program because they identify with the movement; they think they’re going to save the world with compost and recycled urine, and they think the Agroecology degree will give them the knowledge to do that. But as they learn the science and practical considerations, and they are challenged to actually do the math, they become very pragmatic problem solvers.

      We also see conversions in the other direction. We get farm & ranch kids coming into the program only because we don’t offer a traditional agronomy degree; if they want to learn about crops, they must go into Agroecology. They initially hate the name because they associate it with sandal-wearing, pot-smoking hippies. But it usually isn’t long before they realize knowing the ecology of the pest/host/environment will actually help them spend less money on their farm. And that knowing the germination pattern of weeds will help them develop a more effective crop rotation.

      TL;DR – there are certainly some in the movement that are simply opposed to modern agricultural practices and nothing will change their mind, but I think this is a small minority. If those of us involved in agricultural science immediately dismiss the agroecology movement, I think we lose many potential allies.

  2. Very interesting analysis! I think this picks apart the different uses quite well, and I think I can see how we fool ourselves with language in this area. Your analogy about antibiotics and microbiology is apt, and it sounds so odd because we don’t use microbiology to refer to a movement, but to just a science. It kind of sounds to me like the movement shipped off and pulled its moorings from the science. It has taken on many other meanings as a movement, including some political ones that have nothing to do with the science of agriculture. Ideas like – small farms with hand-labor instead of machines are “agroecological” while larger farms are not.

    Furthermore, the use of the term to mean a practice also seems odd to me. It’s like when people talk about “holistic solutions” to a problem – when every possible way to intervene in that problem is inherently reductionistic. What differentiates an “agroecological” practice from a non-agroecological practice? It would seem to me that the outcome is the determining factor – and that outcome being a more favorable environmental outcome. So calling a more environmentally-friendly approach “agroecological” would be just giving it a newer name, then? Help me out here.

    As for reclaiming the word for science, there could be two approaches. One would be to describe how the tools rejected by the “agroecology movement” fit in with the “agroecology science” and are compatible. Second, the invention of a second, more appropriate (and not derisive) term for the political and social movement could help delineate between them. A couple thoughts.

    1. “the invention of a second, more appropriate (and not derisive) term for the political and social movement could help delineate between them.”

      I think Permaculture fits this term pretty well. A few things clicked for me as I read Andrew’s post: Permaculture is often most closely aligned with agro-ecology- but is clearly not and never was a science itself- it was founded as a movement, which is why its concerns and advocacy quickly spread beyond merely agriculture to everything else from energy to housing to communities to Deep Ecology. But I think there is a big cross-over between the two movements which probably blur into each other.
      Permaculture is described by Holmgren “also a world wide network and movement of individuals and groups working in both rich and poor countries on all continents. Largely unsupported by government or business, these people are contributing to a sustainable future by reorganising their life and work around permaculture design principles.”

      The issues around the movement- anti-tech, anti-GMO, labour-intensive, anti-industrial ag and claiming easy win-win alternative solutions are identical I think with what Andrew says about agorecology.

  3. Dear Mr. Kniss,

    Thanks for this useful blog. We are struggling with agroecology ourselves and have a diversity of views on agroecology (and agriculture generally). I think your distinction between the scientific and social aspects of agroecology is real. For a lot of supporters, this conflation is part of the appeal. In part, it’s part of an aspiration to empower and champion the ingenuity of small farmers everywhere. The dream is that they can – through innovation and a more sensitive agronomic approach – actually compete or even surpass convention, large-scale agriculture.

    Would be interested in your reactions. Here are two blogs on the subject:

  4. Nice read. Sadly many issues are reduced to black & white rather than critically analyzed on their collective pros & cons. I am certainly in favor of the use of biotechnology and I understand the need for research & development in regard to agricultural aspects. Pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation etc are simply necessary in a world such as ours where not everyone gets enough to eat & a rapidly changing landscape is challenging our ability to provide a totally secure food supply.

    I am also a proponent of maintaining the environment in a manner that supports continued human well being. There is probably no “best answer” in the gray area where these polarizing issues meet but it sounds like agroecology, as you describe it, is a great way to get us in the ballpark. I seems like organized “common sense” to me.

    It is unfortunate (& disheartening)that those making the most noise co-opt terms(“organic” & “sustainability” come to mind & frame them to their own liking, often to suit a need of winning the debate, when in fact it’s not a win/lose situation Trial & error, with reasonably applied foresight, has been a hallmark of agriculture since it’s beginning. Unforseen setbacks are unavoidable (lead, dust bowl, asbestos, etc) Using all the tools in the toolbox seems the most potent attack to me, and honest acroecology sounds like a plan. Good luck to you & us all in this endeavor. Thanx Andrew.

  5. Thanks Andrew. That was an enlightening post. If you remember my post on the Biofortified forum some months back, I’ve had a long-standing beef with the “ecological agriculture” movement in Scandinavia (which is in fact the same as organic but their misuse of the word “ecological” gives it a science-y flavor). Unfortunately there seem to be some attempts at hijacking the concept agroecology as well, even at my host university. I hope science will prevail.

  6. I frequently run into activist types who oppose GMOs and pesticide use. Sometimes they proudly credential-drop that they are agroecologists. I always had a suspicion this wasn’t a real academic discipline. It’s nice to hear that it is and that real agroecologists disapprove of the movement types who are abusing the name.

  7. C’mon Andrew, reclaim your title from an ultra-heavyweight agroecologist like Vandana Shiva? That’s rich. If you dared try to reclaim so much as a cupcake from Shiva’s plate you would lose your hand. Nope, you won’t succeed in reclaiming anything. That is an “utterly impractical solution” You need to “recognize the real problem facing you”, and that is you’ve let Shiva whoop ya fair and square. That bus has left the depot. Any talk of reclaiming the title is a “bogus challenge”. Forfeit your claim and rename yourself IPM like everyone else. There, real problem recognized and solved.

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