Agroecology: Revolutionizing the Way We Grow Food
Agriculture is often at the center of debates, research and protests when it comes to environmental activism. On those stages agriculture is often cast as the "bad guy." And for good reason. The list of offenses is egregious: pollutant run-off into streams, significant deforestation to make room for endless fields of soybeans, fossil fuels emitted into the atmosphere contributing to climate change and pesticides ingested by farmworkers and consumers. I could go on! Even under the label of organic, industrial agriculture comes under fire for the use of heavy machines, intensive irrigation and weed control, which arguably leads to soil erosion especially when monocrops are involved.
But there's a quiet revolution under way by peasants and farmers worldwide that will resonate with many of us—consumers and advocates for a more sustainable food system as well as environmental activists. It's called agroecology and it has the potential to get loud.
Agroecology is a science and practice defined in the daily lives of millions worldwide. It represents both a form of agricultural production and a process for organizing and building community self-determination. Not to be confused with sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture or other environmentally-friendly farming practices, agroecology is a way of life and a pathway to end hunger, protect our natural environment and transform society. It's farming, feeding, restoring, preserving, protecting and democratizing, grounded in the accumulated (and still accumulating knowledge) of those relying on nature's resources to nourish their families and communities. And it begins with an intuitive understanding that ecology is about the interdependent relationships of natural organisms—including humans—to their local environment. Key to an agroecological approach is not just the production of food, but the production of knowledge.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to the voices of the practitioners of agroecology—the peasants, mainly women, who are leading the way in engaging their communities, as Janaina Stronzake from Brazil, says, “Always with participatory and local decisions about what, how and when to produce. Every place in the world must build its own agroecology."
WhyHunger's new publication Agroecology: Putting Food Sovereignty into Action is not a technical guide or a “how to" manual on production practices. Rather it shares the perspectives of members of rural communities around the world that are fomenting a quiet revolution from the soil to the community on behalf of Mother Earth.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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