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Agroecology is a field of science that combines agronomy and ecology. Both the IAASTD report and Olivier de Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food have found that agroecology shows the most promise as a way to end hunger among smallholder farmers in the Global South.[1][2] This is significant, as the majority of the world's hungry are smallholder farmers in the Global South.


Stephen R. Gliessman defines agroecology by saying:

"What is called for, then is a new approach to agriculture and agricultural development that builds on the resource-conserving aspects of traditional, local, and small-scale agriculture while at the same time drawing on modern ecological knowledge and methods. This approach is embodied in the science of agroecology, which is defined as "the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems."[3]

Miguel A. Altieri defines agroecology as follows:

"The term agroecology has come to mean many things. Loosely defined, agroecology often incorporates ideas about a more environmentally and socially sensitive approach to agriculture, one that focuses not only on production, but also on the ecological sustainability of the production system. This might be called the "normative" or "prescriptive" use of the term agroecology, because it implies a number of features about society and production that go well beyond the limits of the agricultural field. At its most narrow, agroecology refers to the study of purely ecological phenomena within the crop field, such as predator/prey relations, or crop/weed competition."[4]


Altieri traces the origins of agroecology back long before its more recent "re-emergence:"

"The contemporary use of the term agroecology dates from the 1970s, but the science and the practice of agroecology are as old as the origins of agriculture. As researchers explore indigenous agricultures, which are modified relics of earlier agronomic forms, it is increasingly apparent that many locally developed agricultural systems routinely incorporate mechanisms to accommodate crops to the variability of the natural environment and to protect them from predation and competition. These mechanisms make use of regionally available renewable inputs and ecological and structural features of the agricultural field, fallows, and surrounding vegetation."[5]

Throughout the past several centuries, agroecology has been often dismissed by formal agronomic sciences. According to Altieri, "three historical processes have done much to obscure and denigrate the agronomic knowledge that was developed by local peoples and non-western societies: (1) the destruction of the means of encoding, regulating, and transmitting agricultural practices; (2) the dramatic transformation of many non-western indigenous societies and the production systems on which they were based as a result of demographic collapse, slaving, and colonial and market processes; and (3) the rise of positivist science."[6] He elaborates on the first point, noting that "Historically, agricultural management included rich symbolic and ritual systems that often served to regulate land use practices, and to encode the agrarian knowledge of non-literate peoples." Such ceremonies and practices were often branded as witchcraft or simply displaced as Christian missionaries "altered the symbolic and ritual bases of agriculture in non-western societies." Disease, slavery, and other major changes brought by European conquest also took their toll on indigenous agricultural practices. Altieri continues, saying:

"The rise of positivist method in science and the movement of western thought to atomistic and mechanistic perspectives associated with the 18th century enlightenment dramatically altered the discourse about the natural world.
"This transition in epistemologies shifted the view of nature from that of an organic, living entity to one of a machine. Increasingly, this approach emphasized a language of science, a way of talking about the natural world that essentially dismissed other forms of scientific knowledge as superstitions... This position, coupled with an often derogatory view of the abilities of rural peoples generally, and colonized populations in particular, further obscured the richness of many rural knowledge systems whose content was expressed in discursive and symbolic form."[7]

Thus, Altieri does not see the recent history of agroecology as its emergence, but as its re-emergence. Both Altieri and Gliessman trace the origins of the re-emergence of agroecology to several researchers throughout the 20th century.

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  1. Olivier de Schutter, Agroecology and the Right to Food, Report presented at the 16th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, March 8, 2010.
  2. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, Accessed March 11, 2011.
  3. Stephen R. Gliessman, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, Second Edition, 2007, p. 18.
  4. Miguel A. Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, Second Edition, Westview Press, 1995, p. 4.
  5. Miguel A. Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, Second Edition, Westview Press, 1995, p. 1.
  6. Miguel A. Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, Second Edition, Westview Press, 1995, p. 2.
  7. Miguel A. Altieri, Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, Second Edition, Westview Press, 1995, p. 3-4.

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