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“Agroecology” reconciles food production with environmentalism and social justice

An example of mixed-use farming. Marney Isaac and Ryan Isakson have started a U of T Scarborough-led research team on agroecology. Agroecology is focused on sustainable and socially just forms of agriculture. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Mechanization. Irrigation. Crop homogenization. Monetization. Industrialization.

These kinds of advances mean the world produces more food per capita today than at any other point in history. But that productivity comes with costs: depleted ecosystems; indebted, disempowered local farmers; greater vulnerability to climate change.

That’s a lot to have on your plate. And it’s why an approach called “agroecology” has been gaining ground both as a political movement and as an academic discipline.

“Agroecology encompasses a broad range of ecological, biodiverse, resilient, sustainable and socially just forms of agriculture,” says Marney Isaac, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Department of Physical and Environment Sciences and the Centre for Critical Development Studies. Isaac, along with her colleague Ryan Isakson, Assistant Professor, Centre for Critical Development Studies and Department of Geography, organized a multidisciplinary workshop, a public lecture (both on March 28) and a new U of T Scarborough-led research group all centred on agroecology. The workshop was funded by the working group research fund of the office of the Vice Principal, Research.

“We established an interdisciplinary team including five faculty members from three UTSC departments, visiting scholars from Canada and the US, community representatives, and UTSC-based grad students and post-docs,” says Isaac.

She says understanding agroecology requires a mix of expertise. The dominance of industrial monoculture farming has far ranging impacts. Biologically, it makes crops more vulnerable to being wiped out by a single disease or pest. Environmentally, the lack of diversity makes the land less resilient to drought, flood, heat, cold or other extreme weather. Financially, it makes farmers more vulnerable to economic downturns – if prices drop for the one crop you grow, you have nothing to fall back on.

Agroecology also address more complex issues related to modern farming.

“Small-scale farmers produce more than half of the world’s food calories, but they also make up the majority of the world’s chronically malnourished and food insecure populations,” says co-organizer Ryan Isakson. “Farmers who employ diversity management, a key element of agroecology, will always have something to eat, even when prices for their cash crops are low.”

Small-scale farmers are often at the mercy of a handful of global corporations who hold patents on seeds, pesticides and other modern farming needs. Companies like Monsanto and Dow can exert control over what farmers grow, and how much it costs them.

“Farmers who are tied into the dominant model have little to no ability to shop around for prices or technologies,” says Isakson. “Agroecology decreases farmers’ dependence on purchased inputs, which means they incur less debt.”

Isaac says the working group they have created is designed to bridge existing gaps between academics, farmers, activists and policy makers, all of whom have a stake in agroecology.

“The tension between agroecology as an academic discipline, and as a movement and political tool sparked our interest in organizing this workshop,” says Isaac. Both researchers recognize that collaboration among academics and non-academics, not to mention between western “experts” and farmers around the world, requires openness, sensitivity, and a lot of hard work. But, both Isaac and Isakson believe this research group can make a difference to a pressing issue.

“If agroecology is to become the norm, it will require more than the efforts of a handful of scientists and farmer movements,” says Isakson. “Transforming the food system is an inherently political project.  Scientific analyses can provide both the tools and justification for such a dramatic transformation.” 

© University of Toronto Scarborough