Foundations of Agroecology

Module Progress:

In this module, you will explore the foundations of agroecology, and see how they are rooted in ancestral knowledge and traditional practices of land management. You will also read differing views of the contextual foundations of agroecology.

In the following viewpoint, agroecology is defined as knowledge co-created with small farmers, as opposed to a discipline created by academics.

Ancestral knowledge can be defined as:

“…knowledge systems embedded in the cultural traditions of regional, indigenous, or local communities. Ancestral knowledge includes types of knowledge about traditional technologies of subsistence (e.g. tools and techniques for hunting or agriculture), midwifery, ethnobotany and ecological knowledge, celestial navigation, ethnoastronomy, the climate, etc. These kinds of knowledge are crucial for the subsistence and survival and are generally based on accumulations of empirical observation and interaction with the environment.”

The following article outlines how ancestral agroecological systems maintain production, diets and culture sustainably. For many indigenous small farmers, ethnobotanical knowledge, religion, and culture all play a part in land management decisions.

Article 1: Traditional Farmer’s Groups Supporting Sustainable Farming

by Mihin Dollo | Leisa Magazine, 2007

Agroecology’s Politics and Practice

In the last module you read an excerpt from Lauren Silici, who divides agroecology into a science, practice and social movement. However, other scholars disagree with this sort of “reductionist” definition of agroecology (Méndez, Bacon and Cohen; 2013 – See below for optional reading), and argue that the science of agroecology cannot be separated from its politics and practice. Scholars Eduardo Guzmán and Graham Woodgate, present a holistic definition of agroecology, which has its “foundations in agrarian social thought” (Guzmán and Woodgate, 2013).

In the paper that follows, you’ll hear definitions of agroecology as a “Transdisciplinary, Participatory, and Action-Oriented Approach.”

Article 2: Agroecology: Foundations in Agrarian Social Thought and Sociological Theory

by Eduardo Sevilla Guzman and Graham Woodgate | Taylor and Francis, 2013

This article examines the origins and impacts of agricultural modernization to reveal the social foundations of agroecology as both scientific discipline and agrarian social movement. The impacts of capitalism on rural societies have provided a focus for social thought and mobilization since the 1800s and so we consider some of the competing discourses that have accompanied the development of industrial agriculture. We also reflect on the emergence of modern environmental concern and how growing preoccupation with the negative impacts of industrialization has prompted radical proposals for the reformulation of longstanding sociological assumptions and approaches to agricultural and rural development.


In a recent review, Wezel et al. (2009) claim that “agroecology” refers to “either a scientific discipline, agricultural practice or . . . social movement,” arguing that these varied meanings cause confusion and recommending that “those who publish using this term be explicit in their interpretation” (503). Of course, this assumes that the science of agroecology can be separated from its politics and practice: an idea that we wish to challenge. For us, agroecology has its foundations in agrarian social thought and movements that emerged in opposition to early processes of agricultural industrialization and has developed in an ongoing dialectic between capitalist modernization and resistance to it (Sevilla Guzmán and Woodgate 1997). Furthermore, we believe that attempts to define agroecology as an applied science without a social context, without problematizing capitalist relations of production or allying itself with agrarian social movements, will significantly limit its ability to contribute to more sustainable systems of food production, distribution and consumption. For us, agroecology:

“promotes the ecological management of biological systems through collective forms of social action, which redirect the course of coevolution between nature and society in order to address the “crisis of modernity.” This is to be achieved by systemic strategies . . . to change [the] modes of human production and consumption that have produced this crisis. Central to such strategies is the local dimension where we encounter endogenous potential encoded within knowledge systems . . . that demonstrate and promote both ecological and cultural diversity. Such diversity should form the starting point of alternative agricultures and the establishment of dynamic yet sustainable rural societies.” (Sevilla Guzmán and Woodgate 1997, 93–94)

For research purposes, we distinguish three core dimensions: productive/ecological, socioeconomic, and sociocultural/political. All three dimensions build from critiques of globalized, industrial systems of food and fiber production, distribution and consumption (see Kimbrell [2002] for a collection of critical essays), and seek to contribute to ecologically and culturally appropriate food systems and food sovereignty. This complexity demands a transdisciplinary approach, drawing on insights from the natural and social sciences, the politics of agrarian social thought and action, and the culturally rooted knowledge of farmers. Here, however, we confine our attention to some of the most relevant contributions of sociologists (sensulato) and to identifying key social movements that have arisen in opposition to the industrialization and homogenization of agrarian life.

Click here to continue reading (optional).

Excerpt 1: Nyéleni Conference on Agroecology, 2015

Finally, we have the foundations of agroecology as stated by the Nyéléni Conference on Agroecology in 2015:

“Our peoples, constituencies, organizations and communities have already come very far in defining Food Sovereignty as a banner of joint struggle for justice, and as the larger framework for Agroecology. Our ancestral production systems have been developed over millennia, and during the past 30 to 40 years this has come to be called Agroecology. Our Agroecology includes successful practices and production, involves farmer-to-farmer and territorial processes, training schools, and we have developed sophisticated theoretical, technical and political constructions.”


 Optional Reading

Excerpt 2: Agroecology as a Transdisciplinary, Participatory, and Action-Oriented Approach

by Enesto Méndez, Christopher M. Bacon & Roseann Cohen | Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 2013

Toward Transformative Agroecology

A transformative agroecology incorporates a critique of the political economic structures that shape the current agro-food system (see Holt-Giménez and Altieri, this issue, and González de Molina, this issue). It is explicitly committed to a more just and sustainable future by reshaping power relations from farm to table. This view requires that agroecologists move beyond the farm-scale to consider the broader forces—such as market and government institutions—that undermine farmers’ cultural practices, economic self-sufficiency, and the ecological resource base. In part, agroecology as a field of study emerged in response to the social and ecological costs generated by agricultural industrialization and the implementation of Green Revolution technologies (Shiva 1989; Hecht 1995). Narrow approaches that reduce agroecology to an ecologically sensitive agronomic science have disregarded the influence of social concerns as part of the field’s development. An agroecology-as-natural science perspective tends to privilege positivist science and Cartesian reductionism over other ways of knowing (e.g., indigenous or local knowledge), and, thus, risks producing research that is not appropriate to local contexts and which ignores the larger power structures that impact farmer livelihood strategies.

The transformative agroecology we propose has continued to develop a more holistic approach to the science and practice of agroecology in close dialogue with critiques of rural development put forth by academics, practitioners, and social movements. Political ecologists, in particular, have shown how external forces at the international, national, and regional level impact local practices. For instance, Blaikie and Brookefield’s (1987) landmark study on soil degradation demonstrated how social marginalization, rather than maladaptation (i.e., in need of modernization), shaped farmers’ land management practices. This was a crucial shift in perspective that emphasized a multi-scalar analysis to articulate local social and ecological phenomena to regional and global forces (Paulson et al. 2003). In short, political ecologists draw attention to the power relations that govern natural resources, often leaving farmers, due to their class, gender, or ethnic position, with a lack of access to productive resources (Rocheleau et al. 1996; Peet and Watts 2004). If farmers cannot access the resources they need, often dispersed within a surrounding territory and governed by overlapping power structures, they cannot continue to maintain or develop sustainable agroecosystems. A politically engaged agroecology considers the complex challenges, both social and ecological, that smallholders face in the transition toward sustainability (see González de Molina in this issue).

The connection between agroecological practice, equitable distribution of resources, and self-determination has been made explicit by marginalized communities demanding justice through food sovereignty (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, this issue). Ecological sustainability has become central to demands made in defense of rural livelihoods and culturally specific ways of life. These ways of living are increasingly at risk due to the deepening of capitalist relations that turn people into labor and nature into resources (Carruthers 1996; Grueso et al. 2003). Agroecologists are aptly positioned to contribute to these struggles by participating in a creative process of knowledge production with farmers. This requires a broader understanding of knowledge and learning as a community of practice that involves both farmer scientists and university-trained scientists (Kloppenburg 1991; Thomas-Slayter et al. 1996). Agroecology, through its parallel development as a science and social movement, is an apt site to construct relevant agroecologies that address asymmetrical power relations.

Agroecology and Transdisciplinarity

We consider transdisciplinary approaches as those that value and integrate different types of knowledge systems, which can include scientific or academic disciplines, as well as different types of knowledge systems (i.e., experiential, local, indigenous, etc.), as well as adopt a problem-based focus (Aeberhard and Rist 2009; Belsky 2002; Francis et al. 2008; Godemann 2008). An appreciation for farmer-generated knowledge challenges conventional approaches to agricultural research and related policymaking that privileges Western epistemologies of knowledge production (Cuéllar-Padilla and Calle-Collado 2011). Since the 1980s, agroecologists have valued and sought to better understand the experiential agroecological knowledge of farmers as a necessary component to develop a more sustainable agriculture. This was clearly illustrated in Gliessman’s (1978, 1980, 1982, this issue; Gliessman et al. 1981) work in the Mexican tropics in the 1970s and 80s, which focused on understanding the ecological bases of traditional Mexican agriculture, and which drew from the scholarship of Efraím Hernández-Xolocotzi. This empirical information, based on observation and practice, and which also integrates cultural aspects, was viewed as a source of knowledge to conceptualize and apply agroecology. More recently, the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo, Mexico, has institutionalized agroecological teaching and research through the concept of interculturality ( This approach is based on a platform for knowledge exchange and collaboration under conditions of mutual respect between cultures and knowledge systems (i.e., Maya and Western based), crucial for applying both participatory and transdisciplinary approaches. This incorporation of local or farmer-generated knowledge is an important component of this particular type of agroecological thought and practice.

Click here to continue reading (optional)