When I tell people that I study agroecology – and that, in the future I’ll become an agroecologist, people generally look at me with an expression of mixed confusion and curiosity – what is agroecology? Answering this question has become relatively easy by now. But responding to the follow-up is so much harder. What does an agroecologist work with? This topic was naturally discussed during the first year of the program, but I suspect, not as much as most of us would have wanted, in retrospect.
Most of us would agree, even outside of the agroecology program, that the need for experts on sustainability is huge, especially when we’re talking about food. With almost 2bn people in the world being malnourished (ca 50% overweight and 50% underweight), something is obviously seriously wrong. We live in a world where there’s enough food for everyone, even with moderate population increases, and meanwhile big organizations keep stating that we need to double food production by 2050. At current, we don’t have a food shortage issue, we have a food distribution issue. Add to this that we’re losing soils at an unprecedented rate, mostly due to soil cultivation in annual monocultures, species go extinct at an ever-increasing rate, while we’re dangerously close to depleting water and phosphorous reserves (relatively speaking). And don’t get me started on the nutrient leaching issue, where as much as 50% of the fertilizers we apply to crop don’t even get used. We’ve got a lot of problems that need to be solved, and agroecologists clearly have a role to fill in this endeavor. But where we’ll work and in what positions lack clear-cut answers. Agroecology is still on the fringes trying to get in, and having a dialogue about how we do this, and what we can and should work with should be at the top of the agenda.
But, there are of course roles that we can fill today. We can work as advisors in outreach, helping farmers with agroecosystem problems and even transitioning farmers to organic farming. We can work as sustainability experts in food companies and co-ops, either dealing with high-tech urban farming or low-tech rural farming systems, or as experts at retailers. There are examples of agroecologists working with food home delivery, where you can order a weekly bag of food stuffs with recipes every week. In such cases, an agroecologist may contact farmers to conduct field trials of new crops, evaluate results, and essentially, become a driver for more diverse production systems. Others might work for NGO’s dealing with issues related to gender inequality or malnutrition in other countries. Some may become experts in agroforestry, while others take a deep dive into research to become scientists in the field of agroecology.
That said, there are options for us, right now. But as our field matures, we will probably get even more to do, because we are clearly needed. Or am I being too optimistic / naive? 😉
What do you think? Let me know in the comments or send me an email!