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Agroecology

Using Ecology to Develop Sustainable Agricultural Ecosystems

In the next twenty years, the demand for food is expected to increase by fifty percent.  Moreover, concerns over global warming will change how the world produces energy.  No longer can we convert the tropical rainforests into soybean fields in order to satisfy increased food demand and no longer can we rely solely upon hydrocarbons as an energy source.  In order to satisfy the increased food demand and function under new energy constraints, agriculture will have to adapt to a changing world.  Broadly speaking, we can take two different paths. We can ignore natural ecosystems and attempt to dictate our own artificial systems on the planet or we can emulate natural ecosystems and adapt agriculture to function within the constraints imposed by the natural world.   

Agro-ecology.org is a educational resource for information on sustainable agricultural ecosystems.  In addition, it features current events that are shaping the future of agriculture and the world.  Agricultural and ecological issues are at the forefront of the news and governmental policies, and will shape the future of our planet.  The mission of this website is to present information on agroecology so that people can better understand these issues and help develop sustainable agro-ecosystems worldwide. 

What exactly is agroecology?  Agroecology can be defined broadly as a scientific discipline where ecological theory and principles are used to design and manage agricultural systems.  Agroecology has much in common with many other closely related scientific disciplines, including sustainable agriculture, integrated pest management, the biocontrol of pests, and plant population biology. 

Agroecology involves the integration of many disciplines.  In order to effectively manage an agricultural ecosystem, one must understand the soil, crop varieties, cultural methods, and various pests which include insects, weeds, plant pathogens, and nematodes.  Agroecologists study the life in and around the soil to enhance yields, overcome pests, and increase overall productivity.  Each of these components is very complex in its own right.  For example, the soil is a complex medium whose characteristics are determined by its texture, structure, pH, moisture, soil life (bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates) and many other qualities.  In particular, soil biota are important in the cycling of critical nutrients.  Agrecologists need to understand the broad ecosystem within which an individual farm exists.  By understanding the complex interrelationships between various components of the agroecosystem, practitioners of agroecology can produce systems that are environmentally stable and economically viable.

Agroecosystems, by their very nature, are "artificial" ecosystems created by humans.  However, this does not mean that they are different from natural ecosystems (i.e. those areas not influenced by human societies) to the extent that they can ignore the ecological processes that define agroecosystems.  An example of ignoring ecological principles and attempting to dictate an  artificial systems is the "pesticide treadmill."  Basically, what happens is the predator-prey ecological relationships are ignored and a grower finds himself having to use more and more pesticides.  Most insect pests are naturally controlled by natural enemies that maintain their populations at a relatively low level.  By using chemical pesticides, these natural enemies are destroyed, and often the insect pest population will develop resistance and rebound at higher population levels in the absence of their natural enemies.  The grower in return uses more and more pesticides, attempting to use "brute force" to control the insect pests.  This strategy of increasing pesticide use to control pests is doomed to failure and the only real solution is to preserve natural enemies of the insects by using less pesticides and to monitor the populations of insect pests, using pesticides only as needed.  This example, provides the basis for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) tactics and strategies.  However, IPM take this example one step further by integrating the various pest management disciplines (entomology, plant pathology, weed science, and nematology). 

One important nonprofit organization that is helping to protect natural ecosystems and protect the Amazon Rainforest is the Friend of the Amazon.  To learn how you can help protect this important ecosystem and prevent the destruction of the Amazon, please visit their website at www.friendsoftheamazon.org.


 

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