A bumble bee gathering polen on a white flower

Focus Area

Urban and Rural Agroecology

Green abstract icon representing focus area Urban and Rural Agroecology

The ecology of food systems

What do we mean by agroecology? A 2003 paper in Journal of Sustainable Agriculture defines it as the “ecology of food systems” that encompasses “ecological, economic, and social dimensions.” Miguel Altieri, a Professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley and a significant contributor to early academic literature on agroecology, called agroecology the “science of sustainable agriculture.” That means that, as a field of scientific research, agroecology is based on practices like intercropping, cover cropping, composting, and others that adhere to the ecological principles of building soil life and preserving biodiversity.

In other words, agroecology is working with nature and not against it — guided by, as Francis et al. in 2003 phrase it, “the uniqueness of place.” But the science of agroecology is just one part of it.

A science, a movement, and a practice

At the Berkeley Food Institute, we see agroecology as a science that’s rooted in a movement for social justice. We also see it as a movement for food sovereignty supported by scientific evidence. Agroecology is “a scientific discipline, agricultural practice, or political or social movement,” wrote Alexander Wezel et al. in 2009. It’s a versatile focus area that builds on the science of sustainable agriculture while incorporating our other focus areas of Fair and Healthy Jobs, Good Food Access, and Racial Equity.

In 2015, delegates from a diverse group of food and farming organizations convened at the Nyéléni Center in Sélingué, Mali to come to a common understanding of this broad and versatile agroecology movement. The resulting “Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology” grounds agroecology in diverse local knowledges, land and food sovereignty, and resistance to a market system that values profit over life.

Agroecology is a way of life and the language of Nature, that we learn as her children. It is not a mere set of technologies or production practices. It cannot be implemented the same way in all territories. Rather it is based on principles that, while they may be similar across the diversity of our territories, can and are practiced in many different ways, with each sector contributing their own colors of their local reality and culture, while always respecting Mother Earth and our common, shared values.

— Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology

Nyéléni, Mali, 2015

An academic legacy with roots on the land

The contemporary use of the term “agroecology” dates to the 1970s, when scientist Efraím Hernández Xolocotzi, plant pathologist Roberto García Espinosa, and ecologist Steve Gliessman developed a masters program on agroecología at Colegio Superior de Agricultura Tropical in Mexico. Their program was based on the high-yield, polycultural practices of Indigenous Mayan farmers, as opposed to the high-input, mechanized agricultural systems normalized by the Green Revolution.

In the 1980s, Gliessman developed an English-language Agroecology Program at UC Santa Cruz. Around this time, Altieri was also laying the foundation for an agroecology lab at UC Berkeley. Currently, BFI’s Co-Associate Faculty Director Tim Bowles, Assistant Professor of Agroecology in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, leads the Berkeley Agroecology Lab, which explores the soil health, carbon sequestration potential, and water dynamics of agroecosystems in California. This work builds on the research of agroecologists, extension specialists, and soil ecologists throughout the UC system and beyond, such as Carol Shennan and Joji Muramoto at UC Santa Cruz and Louise Jackson at UC Davis.

As a part of the University of California system, we at BFI lean on peer-reviewed, scientific evidence that supports agroecological practices as ecologically and economically sustainable. Ultimately, we recognize that from the start, the academic field of agroecology has been based on a science and practice that did not originate in the university but in the old innovations of the local, place-based knowledge of small-scale farmers.