Four frameworks for Agroecology

The accumulated harm of the past 10,000 years means we face a grief that will be unprecedented in human history. Our best course embraces the joy and refuses to turn away from the grief.

Wes Jackson et al.

The human food system is the main physical driver of life’s devastation. For starters, this is because of food production’s scope. Agriculture occupies 40 percent of the planet’s ice-free land, and continues to gobble up territory; it consumes some 80 percent of the freshwater people take; and it contributes heftily to greenhouse emissions.

Yet this is the tip of the iceberg. The food system is a global disaster because of the number of crises it directly causes or exacerbates. Including: the takeover of entire biomes (like grasslands) and ecosystems (like mangroves); the razing of rainforests; heart-stopping losses of freshwater life; fertilizer and pesticide toxification, and the resulting dead zones and pollinator drops; plastic ocean pollution, to which fishing gear, plastic bags, food packaging, and beverage bottles contribute; the collapse of marine life; precipitous population declines of wildlife; vanishing animal migrations; and the bushmeat crisis.

Every one of these crises is formidable. In their aggregate synergies, they are responsible for much of the downfall of biodiversity and an already-unfolding mass extinction event.

A recent graphic shows starkly how the food system is implicated in the extinction of species (see below). The graphic appeared in a 2016 Nature paper by Sean Maxwell and colleagues, who compiled information about 8,500+ threatened species to identify the “BIG KILLERS.”

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BIG KILLERS: “Overexploitation and agriculture are the most prevalent threats facing the 8,688 threatened or near-threatened species from comprehensively assessed species groups on the IUCN Red List.” (Reproduced with permission from Nature.)

The results give the lie to the notion that climate change is the major cause of the extinction crisis. The leading cause is human food. The study found that Agricultural Activity is the second BIG KILLER. The first BIG KILLER is killing (Overexploitation in science-speak). Killing, however, is massively indebted to agriculture, commercial fishing, and the entire food juggernaut: killing carnivores to protect livestock, killing herbivores to rezone their habitats for grazing or croplands, killing insects and the creatures (like birds) who eat them with pesticides, killing estuaries with runoff, killing marine life for seafood, and killing wild animals (terrestrial and aquatic) for bushmeat.

This is not the end of story. Inspecting the graphic’s remaining BIG KILLERS, we find the food factor concealed in a number of them. Urban Development is the third BIG KILLER due to the repurposing of wildlife habitat for human uses. But Urban Development also amplifies the leading BIG KILLERS, Overexploitation and Agricultural activity. First, because urban growth is partly driven by population growth, which is directly linked to increasing food consumption. Second, because urban growth reflects the globally growing middle class: the income bracket of people who eat out, eat processed and packaged foods, and overeat animal products—all disastrous consumption patterns when practiced en masse. (Eating out amps up food waste as was exposed when COVID-19 closed down eateries.) Moving to the fifth BIG KILLER, Pollution, agricultural contamination wins first prize. Dams, under the sixth killer of System Modification, serve (among other uses) irrigation for agriculture. Climate Change is the seventh BIG KILLER (as of 2016): the second largest contributor to climate change is the food system with some 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions traceable to food production and distribution (Ehrlich and Harte 2015).

Ergo: The food system (production, processing and packaging, global trade, and consumption patterns) is the planet’s enemy #1. The reason human food has become Earth’s wrecking ball is plain: Food is at the conjunction of too many industrial-civilization people, consuming and trading excessively, and using destructive technologies. The impact of the food system exposes the spuriousness of the oft-balkanized “population” and “consumption” factors driving ecological breakdown. Simply put, the bigger the human population, the greater the consumption of food; the greater the consumption of food, the bigger the environmental impact. Everybody has to eat, most people like to eat more than once daily, and when humans escape poverty (as they should) they eat both more calories and more ecologically costly foods. When it comes to food, a large population size—whatever the diet of choice, which likely will always remain omnivorous—adds the “over” to consumption.

The collapse of life’s diversity, abundance, and complexity is inevitable without revamping the food system. The imperative to revamp food, in turn, forces humanity to grapple with all the big questions it’s been avoiding. Indeed, the food system may well be the most powerful way into those questions: What is an optimal global population size? What is the right level of global trade? What are the contours of ecological, ethical, and nutritious food production? Food is an opening into everything singularly important. We can think of it as the “Ariadne’s thread” to reel humanity out of the ecocidal labyrinth it is adrift in.

We must make food in harmony and collaboration with nature: healing for the planet, replenishing soils, with kindness to animals and reverence to plants, wholesome and available to all people. That is the way of Agroecology. I offer four frameworks in support of the Agroecological turn everywhere gathering strength.

  1. Agroecology for honoring all relations inherent in food
  2. Agroecological farms as “ecotones,” meaning hybrid ecological zones where cultivated lands and wild nature meet
  3. Agroecology as both land-sparing and land-sharing
  4. Agroecology as the indispensable complement of large-scale wild nature conservation

1. Food to honor relationships

Human food entails relationship at every turn: with soil, wild nature, wild animals and plants, farm animals and domestic cultivars, farmers, and the human body. The core ethos of Agroecology is to honor all relations inherent in food, by designing food-production ways that are ecological, ethical, clean, nutritious, and equitable.

The essence of everything that is wrong and evil about the current food system is that it dishonors or abuses every single relationship inherent in food.

Monocultural operations are premised on refusing dialogue with the land. They extinguish life, degrade the soil, globally homogenize landscapes, and devour living and fossil waters. Synthetic fertilizers one-up this contempt for relationship. They pollute air, waters, and land, fuel rapid climate change, kill beyond the lands they’re used on, mask industrial agriculture’s destruction of soils, and undermine the relationship between soil biodiversity and cultivated crops.

Monocultures attract what eats or competes with the crops. These beings—invited by a humungous and undifferentiated food source, in the first place—are vilified as “pests” and “weeds.” They are warred upon with chemicals that are universally dangerous to nonhumans, ecologies, farmers, and the human body. Global toxification keeps mounting, propelled by a (literally and figuratively) sickening, profit-driven agrochemical industry. Toxification threatens the web of life, including human health, yet its perils are eclipsed by the stupendously idiotic normalization of poisoning the globe to be rid of “inconvenient” lifeforms. Since the upshot of extermination pollutants appears shy of apocalyptic, tacit mainstream opinion decrees there’s still time to keep using them.

Dishonoring relationship is evident in industrial food’s frontline victims, decimated worldwide: all big wild animals (terrestrial & marine, carnivores & herbivores); birds, whose food base is stolen (by fishing) or eradicated (by spraying); invertebrates, the near-ground of the food chain; and fish and other marine life, mindlessly fished and eaten to the point of ocean death. As with global toxification, no apocalyptic consequences seem yet forthcoming from vacuuming marine life, so plundering the seas continues.

Processing farm animals in factory farms holds the distinction of the most obscene severance of relationship when it comes to food—a whole new low of disgraceful behavior of humans on planet Earth.

Turning to repercussions for human beings, industrial food is sickening people with epidemic levels of “diseases of affluence,” including burgeoning bowel-disorder syndromes. These globalizing diseases can afflict anyone, but more so ravage the poor, minorities, and the uneducated. Thus, the relationship of food with human vital organs and physiology is flagrantly spurned. That humanity has constructed a food system that is harmful to itself signals dissociation if not derangement.

Bad food kills tens of millions of humans every year (from preventable heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases) and makes people hyper-susceptible to infectious diseases—as we have seen with COVID-19, which disproportionately afflicts the already ailing. Unclean, unhealthy, and unethical food is the rot at the foundation of a growing public-health crisis worldwide, wherein medical systems thrash about in the relative superficialities of symptom treatment, techno-fixes, allocation of budgets, and insurance access, while medical practitioners—prescription pads in hand—kowtow to Big Pharma. Yet if humanity simply fixed bad food, we would say goodbye to the majority of modern-day diseases. Perhaps that is more rationality than an agrochemical, fast food, Coca Cola, Doritos, and corn syrup peddling civilization can stomach.

The food system dishonors relations with small-hold farmers: driving them off the land, deskilling crop agriculture, and debasing animal agriculture. It also severs relations between producers and eaters, given food’s “journey of forgetting” as Michael Pollan describes the mystifications of retail food’s peregrinations.

To sum: We have a globally dominant food empire built on the principle of No Relationship to anything or anyone, from grasslands and climate to animal wellbeing and the human gut.

Embracing Agroecology, let’s move with enthusiasm to deindustrialize food and honor the relations that live inside the nourishment of the human. Making food integrally with Earth: nature-patterned, diverse, co-created through manifold human and nonhuman partnerships, friendly to the wild, and without poisons. Making food in collaboration with farm animals, supported to live happy and natural lifespans. Making food with due diligence to preserving domestic crop and animal breed diversity, and their soil-enriching gifts.

Producing food that is healthy and affordable for all, while substantially downsizing the consumption of fish, meat, and dairy, which rely on operations that take too much marine life, too much land, and too much freshwater, and put out too many greenhouse gasses, while sickening people who overeat the animal products (especially the factory-farmed and processed ones) in the bargain. For those attached to the consumption of animal products, environmental analyst Brian Machovina and colleagues suggest a diet of roughly 10 percent animal calories, 90 percent plant-based. Follow this yellow-brick road, and the planet and your body will thank you.

Agroecology demands a generous wage and proper esteem for farmers whose craft is the foundation of all human achievement. With Agroecology’s venues of Farmers Markets, Community Supported Agriculture, Urban Farming, and Food Gardens the primary focus is local and regional, promoting freshness, food sovereignty and food security, and conviviality as the Slow Food movement likes to put it.

Equally important is cultivating a newfound love for harvesting, touching, preparing, and cooking food, instead of buying it readymade: intimacy with food teaches gratitude, delights the senses, fosters slow living, reduces food waste, and serves your children and your neighbors for they will copy you.

2. Farming as ecotone

“Ecotone” is an ecological term for the location where two distinct ecologies intersect, creating a unique and hybrid ecological space. The farm as ecotone aligns with the perspectives known by the evocative monikers Wild Farming and Rewilding Agriculture. Farming becomes an art of shaping cultivated lands in lively conversation with wild nature.

Agroecological ecotones exhibit the vitality of cultivated lands meshing with the wild, allowing for beings and nutrients to shuttle back and forth. Such farms avail of wild nature’s benefits while respecting the integrity of wild nature itself. They are designed to integrate with the species, ecologies, and processes of specific ecoregions. They embody the virtue of hospitality. Where boundaries between cultivated and wild lands need negotiating—in the case of creatures who cause too much trouble for crops or farm animals—this is done with imagination and compassion, not with a killing mindset on automatic.

Farming in cordial interaction with the wild involves the creation of mosaic landscapes that provide habitat for wild creatures, protect soils from erosion, and support water filtration: for example, hedgerows and wooded areas within farms do all three. Such farming may undertake ecological restoration projects within farmlands—for instance, wetlands and riparian restoration projects—to serve as stopovers for migratory birds and as havens for endangered species and pollinators.

In short, Agroecology as ecotone designs cultivated areas to do more than one thing: building soil biodiversity, growing food, sheltering wild and domestic biodiversity, working as corridors for wildlife, protecting pollinators, sequestering carbon, and keeping streams and rivers drinkable and swimmable. Such farms are aesthetic oases, distinctly configured according to place and harboring rich and unexpected human experiences. They are beautiful co-creations of human and nonhuman nature.

Creating farms on the ecological model of ecotone is an act of love for nourishing people and the bigger wild, together.

3. Land-sparing and land-sharing

The perspectives of land-sparing versus land-sharing food-production systems have been at loggerheads, though a recent commentary highlighted the debate’s stagnation (Bennett 2017). Land-sparing defenders endorse large-scale, high-yielding monocultures as sacrifice zones that (in theory) allow other lands to remain wild and conserved. Land-sharing proponents advocate small-holder, diverse, and organic farming on a scale that has often been assumed to demand more land (than the land-sparing approach) in order to make up for supposedly lower yields.

It is not surprising that this debate petered out. First, the land-sparing platform is not land-sparing. Not only does industrial agriculture take up an enormous portion of Earth’s land, it takes up the most fertile, it spills its pollutants well beyond its specific territories, and it is extremely unsparing in water and energy requirements. Second, the dogmatically assumed discrepancy between “conventional” versus “organic” yields has been overthrown, with empirical studies increasingly exposing the myth of industrial higher yields. Diversified and organic farming easily competes in yields, and additionally trumps industrial on every qualitative ground: making food that is not polluting and loaded with toxins, protecting biodiversity, caring for animals, nurturing rich soils, retaining nutrients, preserving the lore and skill of farming, and not wrecking the climate.

But let’s take at face value the divergence between land-sparing and land-sharing: the best human food production system will be both. Agroecological farming can share and spare land, by growing food that is diverse, organic, friendly to wildlands, and a modestly scaled subsystem of Earth.

The aspiration for Agroecology has inescapable implications for optimal human-population size. To see why requires connecting the dots between synthetic fertilizers and the human population explosion. Synthetic fertilizers are the sine qua non of Big Ag. They are exorbitantly polluting at both their production and application ends. Additionally, they have artificially inflated the human population. Vaclav Smil memorably dubbed synthetic fertilizer “the detonator of the population explosion.” At the turn of the century, he estimated that 40 percent of the global population was reliant on fertilizer inputs. That estimate has been revised to nearly half, meaning that the human population that could be supported without synthetic fertilizer is under 4 billion. (Global population is heading to 8 billion by 2024.) Nourishing humanity with nutritious and non-polluting food thus implies a global population under 4 billion. When we add the ecological mandate to revert much agricultural land-use to wildlands in order to preserve Earth’s remaining biodiversity, we near a ballpark optimal human population of 2 billion, the number calculated early on of Gretchen Daily and Paul Ehrlich and later vetted by agronomist David Pimentel. (For an allied perspective on optimal population, see a recent piece by Robert Jensen.)

Yet human population will never in essence be a numerical matter. Rather it is a matter of getting the picture: An ideal human population is one that is nourished by clean and diversified agriculture on a scale that permits large-scale nature protection along the lines of Nature Needs Half. Achieving Agroecological food production in conjunction with substantial wilderness preservation will be further facilitated by a human diet frugal in animal-product consumption, thus enabling the global livestock population (and its steep resource demands) to shrink. Eating fish sparingly, or not at all, will allow all marine biodiversity—mammals, reptiles, seabirds, fish, and others—to resurge.

4. Whole Earth conservation

We cannot cherish protected areas like national parks and wilderness reserves, on one hand, while leaving industrial agriculture and commercial fishing to ravage huge swaths of land, air, water, and seas, on the other. In Wendell Berry’s words, “nature cannot be whole in half the world” (quoted in Jackson 2010: 40). The Nature Needs at least Half, or Half Earth, initiative is necessary for averting the Sixth Extinction and softening the havocs of climate breakdown, and it is visionary in its promise to chart a new relationship of humanity with Earth. Yet we need to achieve Half Earth within a whole Earth vision.

Agroecology is a crucial component of protecting the entire planet. Agroecological farming can be crafted as a seamless fit within the landscape, allowing for much of Earth’s wild nature to remain expansive and unfragmented. Such farming will not only serve the nourishment of a demographically downscaled and more plant-based eating humanity, but also be habitat, wildlife corridor, and refuge for endangered beings. Beyond contributing to saving biodiversity, Agroecological farming will help enormously with climate-change mitigation by conserving soil carbon, especially in perennial cultivated landscapes. Wes Jackson likes to call such farming that combats ecocide “farming like a prairie.”

Agroecology, along with greened and sustainable cities (encircled by farms), is the essential complement of Half Earth conservation.

* * *

The places humanity grows food must be part of the biosphere, not demolished by and subordinated to the technosphere. Let’s “transcend industrial and get creaturely.” We can move briskly toward a future when humanity’s foodsheds will be biodiverse, life affirming, recycling, regenerative, and modestly scaled around the planet. Verdant ecotones where humans and wild nature co-create beautiful landscapes that serve planetary and human health. Infusing human food with virtue at every level embraces joy in this time of grief.

Read ‘Four frameworks for Agroecology’, by Eileen Crist, on the #EarthTongues blog


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