Why the US Food System Needs Agroecology

  • Food
  • July 11, 2024

Agroecology, a science, practice, and movement that seeks social, political, economic, and ecological sustainability in the global food system, is gaining popularity in the U.S., according to a new commentary led by Dartmouth in Nature FoodAs the co-authors report, the approach requires coordination between scientists, farmers and activists.

“When it comes to sustainable food and agriculture, people in the U.S. are generally more familiar with organic farming, which is the production of food without synthetic inputs, and regenerative agriculture, which focuses primarily on restoring soil health,” said lead author Theresa Ong, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth.

“Agroecology is different because it strives for both ecological and social sustainability of food systems without sacrificing one for the other. We cannot save biodiversity and ecosystem integrity without also preserving farmers’ livelihoods and ensuring that the food systems we create provide food that is culturally relevant to local communities, and not just meet a calorie quota,” says Ong.

Proponents of agroecology say the U.S. food system is dominated by industrial agriculture, characterized by monoculture production, reliance on agrochemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers, and advanced technology and machinery that rely heavily on fossil fuels.

Previous research has shown that the challenges facing global food systems, including food insecurity, public health crises, biodiversity loss, and climate change, are partly caused by the US food system and the political influence of major players within it.

For decades, many in the US and abroad have been calling for transformation of the industrial food system. The United Nations promotes agroecology as the mechanism to achieve that transformation.

Despite its growing international reputation, it took a long time for agroecology to gain recognition outside of academic circles in the US

However, officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture have asked agroecologists to host a U.S. Agroecology Summit in 2023, which would bring together 100 food system stakeholders to discuss advancing this type of research in the country.

Participants discussed the need for fair representation and support for all stakeholders in the food system, including agronomists, food system change agents and scientists. The need for greater access to funding and ethical approaches to research were also discussed.

“'Food sovereignty' – the right to define, produce and obtain healthy food that is culturally appropriate and sustains peasant livelihoods – is a key goal in agroecology and was first defined by La Vía Campesina, an international peasant movement, in 1996,” said Ong, who attended the summit.

The Agroecology Summit builds on the momentum that has been building over the past 15 years, with the founding of the nonprofit US Food Sovereignty Alliance in 2010 and the passage of food sovereignty laws in eight states (Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Georgia, North Carolina, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana). Additionally, agroecology institutes were established at Florida A&M University in 2022 and the University of Vermont in 2023.

According to the co-authors, much work remains to be done to ensure that all voices are represented and have decision-making power in this space, regardless of whether they share many of the same values ​​and goals, such as large and small farmers, family businesses, migrant farmers, Black and Indigenous farmers, and farmworkers.

“Agroecology is about building coalitions to ensure fair representation and coordination between farmers, activists and academics,” Ong said.

Antonio Roman-Alcalá of California State University, East Bay; Estelí Jiménez-Soto of the University of South Florida; Erin Jackson of Colorado State University; Ivette Perfecto of the University of Michigan; and Hannah Duff of Montana State University also contributed commentary.

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