3. Ecology and the Agroecosystem Concept

Lesson 3 asks, “What is ecology, and how does it relate to agroecology?”

To start things off, let’s explore the foundations of the question. Ecology comes from the Greek word “oikos” which means “house”, and “logia” meaning “study of”. Ecology is the study of “our house”- the earth; including all the living creatures (the biotic factors) and the non-living components (the abiotic factors) that make our world what it is. The study of ecology is one way to describe and explain living systems and life processes, including interactions and adaptations; the movement of materials and energy through living communities; and the abundance and distribution of organisms and biodiversity in the context of the environment. Ecology is a lens which can be used to study interactions between biotic and abiotic factors at the microscopic all the way to the global level.

Agriculture is defined as “the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, medicinal and other products used to sustain and enhance human life.” The academic study of agriculture has been concerned with the science and practice of farming: largely the methods of management that increase production. Usually, this is achieved by increasing the inputs on the farm, such as fertilizers and pesticides, that are manufactured outside of the ecosystem. These products are usually from unsustainable sources, such as extractive mining efforts, and have detrimental effects on the environment and other animals.

Using the lens of ecology, we can better understand an agricultural system. From the interactions amongst microscopic organisms and nutrients in the soil, to the plants and animals (including humans) who affect the landscape, all the way to global interactions of chemical cycling and globalized food systems. Using ecology, we can understand how ecosystems can affect human culture, how different cultural (including AGRI-cultural) practices have different consequences for the natural world. Ecology gives us a lens and a language with which to understand and talk about the “bigger picture” of agriculture. We can look beyond simple management practices to understand the consequences of different management decisions.

Ecosystems are the systems of interactions between biotic and abiotic factors in a particular place. Through ecology, we can discover how these factors are interacting and affecting one another, and changing or maintaining the ecosystem. Ecology helps us understand how systems sustain themselves over time, and how biodiversity can increase the resilience of an ecosystem.

Agricultural ecosystems, or “agroecosystems”, are ecosystems that have been altered for the purpose of producing food, fiber and fuel to sustain humans. For as long as there have been humans on the planet we have altered ecosystems for our own survival. By learning more about ecology, we can learn how our decisions in agricultural systems affect ecosystem resilience and long-term sustainability.

Learning Objectives:

  1. To understand the principles of ecology, how they help us to understand the concept of the agroecosystem and to analyze the sustainability of farming systems using ecology as a lens
  2. Be able to use and apply basic terms of ecology in natural and agricultural ecosystems
  3. Analyze ecosystem functions and explore different examples of the dynamic processes occurring within ecosystems
  4. Understand how these processes are manipulated in an agroecosystem
  5. Evaluate the importance of resistance and resilience in the sustainability of an ecosystem, and identify resilient components of your agroecosystem
  6. Apply your understanding of your agroecosystem to the context of the global food system