The best way to come to an accurate understanding of agroecology is to start with the words agroecology and agriculture. The compound word agriculture comes from "agros" (field) and "culture." The concept of agriculture was first contemplated as the culture of the field, or more specifically: the culture that developed from the interaction between the field and the peasant farmer whose income, sustenance and life depended on his field. The Spanish word for peasant also comes from the word for field "campo" thus, "camposino" or peasant relates the idea of field and culture.
Modern 'agrobusiness' movement, as witnessed in Canada and the U.S. since 1950s, contemplated food production purely as an economic activity without reference to the cultural / social development of the "agros" (field). Within agrobusiness, the field is contemplated as a commodity just as much as the product from that field. The value of the field is set by the economy. The work of the farmer is understood as a function of time as cost. Agrobusiness turns over that which previously was the realm of the society and culture of the "campo" (the field) to be defined, quantified and appraised by the economy. (For more on Local Economy and Agriculture, see Wendell Berry's excellent essay published in Orion magazine)
Agroecology is a continuation and development of agriculture. Agroecology continues agriculture's cultural development aspect but opens its eyes to a much wider reality. Agroecology not only contemplates the field, a crop and the soil under it, it also considers the forest above that field, the stream below that field, the rain, the air, the climate, the house to the side of the field, the farmer, the family, their fears, faith, and their future. Agroecology attempts to take into account the field and all that makes that field work.
Ecology, as part of the newly coined compound word agroecology, derives from the greek word "oikos" or house. Ecology contemplates the physical world as our household. The Maya cosmovision also contemplates the physical world as our house. The primary meaning of the proto-maya word kab' has as its primary meaning earth or world. Kab' is understood in the Q'eqchi' Maya as house. The word includes more than just the physical structure of a house, it also means household, family and family life.
We can catch another glimpse of the Maya cosmovision of our earth from the highland proto-maya word for house: naj. The primary meaning is house, but its semantic range in modern Q'eqchi' Maya includes 'place of origin' or 'place of belonging.'
Agroecology is concerned with the maintenance of a productive agriculture that sustains yields and optimizes the use of local resources while minimizing the negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern agrobusiness.
The agroecological approach is culturally sensitive to the complexities of local agriculture, and includes properties of ecological sustainability, food security, economic viability, resource conservation and social equity, as well as increased production.
Agroecology develops alternatives that reduce external inputs, lessen the impacts of such inputs when they are used, and establishes a basis for designing systems that help farmers sustain their farms and their farming communities. The ultimate goal of agroecological design is to integrate components so that overall biological efficiency is improved, biodiversity is preserved, and the agroecosystem productivity and its self-sustaining capacity is maintained. Soil is of major importance in agroecosystems. Maintaining soil vitality is the very basis of sustainable land use. Sustainable agriculture applies ecological principles of the regulation of the abundance and distribution of species and their activities in space and time. The goal is to design agroecosystems within a landscape unit, which mimic the structure and function of natural ecosystems.
Use and conserve locally available renewable resources. Enhance recycling of biomass and optimizing nutrient availability and balancing nutrient flow. Minimizing losses due to flows of solar radiation, air and water by way of microclimate management, water harvesting and soil management through increased soil cover.
Conserve soil. Sustain soil nutrient and organic matter stocks. Minimize erosion. Use perennials. Build soil fertility and soil organic matter over the long-term. Securing favorable soil conditions for plant growth, particularly by managing organic matter and enhancing soil biotic activity. Manage ecological relationships. Reestablish ecological relationships that can occur naturally on the farm instead of reducing and simplifying them. Diversify species and genetic variety of the agroecosystem in time and space. Conserve genetic resources. Save seed, maintaining local landraces and heirloom varieties. Use polyculture, intercropping, crop rotation and multiple varieties to diversify seasonal timing of production over the year. Integrate multiple animal species in the system.
Empower people. Ensure that local people control their development process. Use indigenous knowledge. Promote multi-directional transfer of knowledge, as opposed to "top-down" knowledge transfer. Teach experts and farmers to share knowledge, not "impose" it. Engage in people-centric development. Increase farmer participation. Strengthen communities. Encourage local partnerships between people and development groups. Manage Whole Systems: Farms, Communities, Bio-regions. Minimize impacts on neighboring ecosystems. Enhance beneficial biological interactions and synergisms among agrobiodiversity components thus resulting in the promotion of key ecological processes.
Value Health: Human, Cultural, Environmental, Animal, and Plant Health. Value most highly the overall health of agroecosystems rather than the outcome of a particular crop system or season. Minimize Toxics. Eliminate environmental pollution of toxics and surplus nutrients. (Stephen R. Gliessman, 1998)