Agroecology to the Rescue: 7 Ways Ecologists are Working Toward Healthier Food Systems

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Author: Marcia DeLonge | Published: August 2, 2017

A lot has been written about agroecology, and a new special issue of the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems takes it to the next level.

The new issue, entitled Agroecology: building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability, expands the conversation by outlining recent progress in ecology relevant for tackling food system challenges ranging from disappearing diversity to water woes to climate catastrophes. Together, the eight included articles demonstrate a range of emerging science-based opportunities that can help farmers and ranchers achieve the triple bottom line: social, environmental, and financial sustainability.  Here are just the highlights of what some farm-focused ecologists have been up to:

  1. Making sense out of complexity: Agroecosystems are complex, and as Vandermeer and Perfecto (2017) explain, “the fundamental rules of natural systems should be used as guidelines for planning and management of agricultural systems.” Fortunately, ecologists have developed some great tools (tools in topics like Turing patterns, chaotic dynamics, and more) that are up to the otherwise daunting task, and agroecologists are busy beginning to put them to work.
  2. Linking biodiversity to farming benefits: Decisions about how land is used at a regional scale can affect farming conditions at a surprisingly smaller scale, influencing even the pollinators and insect pests that are too small to spot unless you’re actually strolling through a field. As Liere et al. (2017) describe, understanding the connections between biodiversity at these different scales is essential to sustaining healthy, multi-functional agricultural systems. Agroecologists have just scratched the surface of investigating these “cascading” effects, and the subject is ripe for more discoveries.
  3. Keeping nutrients where we need them: It’s hard work keeping enough nutrients in some places (such as soils and plants) and reducing them in others (like in lakes and the atmosphere), but getting this right is a key to growing enough food while protecting the environment. Agroecologists tackle these problems with a bird’s eye view, measuring and evaluating everything from study plots to farm fields to watersheds. As Tully & Ryals (2017)note, this approach is critical to finding ways to optimize solutions (such as agroforestry, cover cropping, and organic amendments, just to name a few).

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