The world today is on a dangerous path. One that leads nowhere pleasant for all of our globe’s denizens, be they terrestrial or aquatic, oxygen breathing or carbon-respiring. The ways in which we produce our food and fiber has created many unintended environmental and social degradations.
We are coming to see the consequences of our agricultural model in increasingly stark terms.
Humankind has fundamentally changed the biosphere so sufficiently that we are in fact living on a different planet than the one that preceding generations occupied, according to renowned environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. The global temperature has risen 1.53 degrees fahrenheit (0.85℃) in the last 132 years as a result of rising levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The prevailing model of agriculture is responsible for around one third of those emissions. If not addressed, “emissions from agriculture, forestry, and fisheries could increase an additional 30 percent by 2050,” U.N Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns.
We needn’t wait forty years to see the deleterious effects of globally industrialized agriculture because the effects are already evident throughout the world.
To whit: Deforestation for the sake of agriculture is perpetuated and justified through the creation of grazing lands in the Amazon and palm oil plantations in the South Pacific. Pesticides sprayed to protect against crop-destroying bugs inadvertently kill millions of bees. The agricultural sector consumes about 70% of the planet’s accessible freshwater, a rapidly-depleting resource. Fertilizer runoff contaminates downstream drinking water with dangerously high levels of nitrogen and creates huge algal blooms that create massive ‘dead zones’ in streams, lakes, and coastal waters.
Short-sighted practices such as these account for huge losses in biodiversity, release thousands of tons of carbon otherwise locked up in soil, catalyze climate change, and rob the planet of huge swaths of its proverbial lungs—forests and woodland areas.
It is also a system that is ripe for disruption on a catastrophic scale.
Consider what is perhaps the most telling example: Monocultures. The predominant farming method perpetuated by industrial agriculture is the cultivation of a single crop throughout a field or farm. On closer inspection we see that this practice has many glaring faults; chief among them are the dangers of pestilence or disease destroying large percentages, or even the entirety, of a crop. This is because the natural world is an exceedingly diverse place, much more so than most of us understand or appreciate. The basic conventional agriculture model decidedly reduces that diversity in an attempt to leave only the flora and fauna species that it deems immediately valuable. In a typical corn field where previously there would have been many grasses, shrubs, vines, rodents, insects, and birds, there is instead a single crop: corn. Anything other than corn is treated as an enemy combatant and destroyed by spraying herbicide in row aisles and destroying anything lurking beneath the soil’s surface with heavy tillage and fumigation. There are many cautionary tales about monoculture throughout history, and perhaps none more significant than the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 19th century.
Clearly this is dangerous territory, especially when you stop to consider that just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake and two-thirds of that comes from just three crops: wheat, maize, and rice. While growing only one crop allows the farmer to focus all their energy and inputs on the needs of the one plant and maximize their profits, it strays from a vital link in the chain of life. What this model misses is that biodiversity is an ally, not an enemy; that relationships in nature are most often symbiotic and cooperative, not crippling and parasitical. Polyculture, which is the practice of growing many species in a mixed setting, protects against complete devastation if one crop succumbs to pests, disease, or unpredictable weather. It is rather like diversifying one’s financial portfolio, insuring oneself against market fluctuations.
Polyculture emulates the natural order of ecosystems and in so doing it promotes soil fertility and strengthens plants immunities to disease. Its diversity creates habitat for beneficial animals who rid plants of pests and enables the exchange of nutrients between species. It gives the farmer the ability to grow plants that are adaptable to changing climate and weather patterns. Most significantly, it closes the potential niches where harmful microorganisms might take hold, thereby eliminating dependence on expensive petrochemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
Unfortunately, the negative aspects of our current agricultural system are not limited to the ecological. There are many more—seemingly endless—issues at hand with the industrial model of agriculture, and chances are you’re familiar with them: gender inequality, land rights (or lack thereof), malnutrition and poor health, cultural degradation, loss of knowledge and traditions, deterioration of communities, stifled innovation, and much more.
Of paramount significance is the issue of global hunger. The challenges of inequality and distribution have led to a mind-bogglingly paradoxical scenario wherein the planet grows enough food for a staggering 10 billion people and yet nearly 800 million go hungry. This is largely a product of industrial agriculture’s sole focus on yields and profits, while ignoring environmental degradation and distribution models.
So where does this leave us?
We as a planet currently find ourselves at collective crossroads. Cruising down the highway that is “progress”, there are two ways ahead. One is the status quo, a path defined by control. The steering wheel is given over to the elite and powerful who impose top-down models driven by corporate greed that incentivize profit over all else. It doesn’t take an active imagination to see the consequences of this choice since it is this paradigm that has gotten us into the mess in which we currently find ourselves.
The other is a road to self determination. It offers all players—producers, educators, and students alike—the ability to choose their path, which in turn affords freedom and autonomy to all in equal measure. This is not to say that we will all revert to pre-modern ways and grow our own food, but rather that we will all take responsibility for our stake in the future and offer our gratitude, our support, and our deference to those that are the true guards of human civilization, those that make it possible for us to focus our energies on the things that bring us the most pleasure in life.
A move such as this may be counter-intuitive; that to do so would be a step backwards. However, that is not an entirely fair assessment. We at A Growing Culture believe in a dialogue of wisdoms where the future of agriculture should take the form of a hybrid that blends the advances of modern science with the traditional agricultural knowledge that is present within every community of producers. The smallholder farmers of the world have a tremendous amount of expertise from generations of innovation and adaptation. This knowledge is an important part of their cultural heritage, and is the means by which those same communities have thrived throughout history.
The future that is best for us and for the planet lies in the hands of the many: of the fisherfolk pulling in only what they need from their territorial waters, of the smallholder farmer growing on one acre enough food to feed their family and their neighbors, of the humble peasant who is by turns inventor, scientist, producer, and, above all, community member.
Founded in 2010, A Growing Culture has sought to bring to light the many roles that the world’s farmers play both in their home communities and the world at large. Having learned the realities of globally industrialized agriculture through education, travel, and on-the-ground experience, the founding members sought methods and practices that could create change at all levels of the food system. In this search there were many mentors, leaders, and teachers, past and present. Ultimately an idea came to the fore: a website designed as a digital meeting place for people of any and all levels of involvement or interest in agriculture to come together to confer, teach, and learn.
We’ve made it our mission to advance a culture of farmer autonomy and agroecological innovation. This idea drew on varied sources of inspiration, many of which we will highlight in this blog in the coming months. At the heart of our philosophy was one overarching model that informs all of our work; an approach to agriculture and the global food system that is couched in the notion of learning from the environment, from traditional knowledge, from preceding generations, and in the idea of creating an agriculture that is designed with the specific ecology of the place in mind. That model is Agroecology.
There are many definitions and interpretations of what agroecology is and, to a large extent, it is a subjective question that holds different answers for different people. It can be viewed as an academic science seeking to understand the functioning of trophic systems in an agroecosystem, a practice that works in tandem with nature to produce food sustainably, and a social movement fighting to democratize the food system. Simply put, agroecology is a whole-system approach to agricultural production that melds the gravity of cultural and social impacts within a productive model of environmental sustainability.
As much as anything, agroecology is about providing a platform for the success and equality of the people that produce food and fiber. It is a holistic approach not just to the way that crops are grown, but also a means to advance the causes of food sovereignty, social and environmental justice, and gender equality. Agroecology is a philosophical, whole-system approach encompassing many methods and principles rather than an empirical methodology. It rejects the traditional profit-driven industrial models that have come to dominate most of the world’s commercial agriculture.
The lynchpin of agroecology is the way that it addresses Indigenous cultures and knowledge. The essential argument is that producers are better off drawing on the expertise of their immediate communities and working together to innovate new solutions to their problems using the means immediately available to them. The alternative mandated by the industrial model instead forces farmers to accept one-size-fits-all solutions to individual problems and creates dependence on expensive chemicals, seed, and equipment.
Since time immemorial the farmers and fisherfolk of the planet have been divining solutions to their particular needs from the natural world and their own creativity. It is in this manner that agroecology seeks to place the producers and smallholders of the world back at the helm of agriculture. Those who know their own land and the myriad unique interactions that occur on it and in it should be the ones viewed as experts. Scientists and researchers that seek to bolster farmers’ productivity should serve as the supporting cast, rather than the other way around. Agroecology is as much about self-determination and freedom as it is about feeding people; a hungry soul is just as bad as a empty stomach.
Agroecology has a great capacity to solve problems and, in the opinions of many, to resolve a great deal of the environmental issues that we collectively face. These innovative solutions take many forms. The beauty of the agroecology model is that, while it is open-ended and strives to achieve many disparate goals, it also serves to ameliorate the damages of climate change, pollution, and petroleum product dependence that has delivered us to this crossroads.
This blog will serve as a record for that endeavor; an exploration of the parts that make up the whole of agroecology. We sincerely hope that you will join us on these explorations, that you will come to learn with us about the methods, philosophies, and people that weave the fabric of agroecology.
Dan was raised in the Piedmont of North Carolina, the son of an avid gardener and cook. Food and a commitment to the environment have shaped much of his thinking over the years. Having worked in the fields of several farms and the the kitchens of many restaurants and food companies, he remains connected to these roots while exploring new avenues of affecting change.