Agro-Ecology Media Toolkit

Agro-Ecology Media Toolkit
Agro-Ecology Media Toolkit

The following is a toolkit for journalists working on stories about food security and agro-ecology, the application of ecological science to the study, and design and management of sustainable agricultural ecosystems. The toolkit includes a wealth of useful statistics, information sources, links to further readings, journalism tips, and definitions of terminology. Download a PDF of the toolkit in English, Spanish, Portuguese, or Chinese


Table of Contents

I. Food at a Crossroads - The costs of industrial agriculture, factory farming and junk food are becoming increasingly apparent, prompting a search for sustainable alternatives to (the food) business as usual
II. Look Behind the Hype - What the public doesn’t know is damaging its health and the planet. Does it have to be that way?
III. Seeing Food Through a Journalistic Lens - Reporting the truth about a food system gone awry requires an understanding of ecology and the validity of farming traditions. And it requires good solid journalism
IV. Farming With Nature: Does It Pay? - One of the least reported features of agro-ecology is that it can be profitable


Food at a Crossroads

The world of food is at a crossroads. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that the world will need to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050 to keep pace with expected population increase and rising living standards in rapidly developing countries. This will be no easy task, as arable land is reduced through land degradation and land productivity is impacted by climate change. Options for increasing food production seem to be already limited, with extensive agriculture blamed for deforestation and intensive farming responsible for chemical contamination of soil, water, air and biological organisms – including people. Meanwhile, the globe is bifurcating into a world of obese haves and malnourished have-nots, with the global middle replacing traditional diets with a menu of processed and nutritionally deplete “food-like substances,” to quote food writer Michael Pollan.

Few seem to be arguing for a continuation of either forest-hungry agricultural expansion or more chemical contamination of farmland, though in practice these approaches are still spreading. In fact, the direction of agricultureal science and technology is now under great scrutiny. International scientific assessments have demonstrated the increasing global footprint of agriculture, including its contribution to climate change (IPCC, 2007Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005), while nongovernmental organizations and scientists have long called for radical changes in this field (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1996Food Ethic Council, 2004European Science Social Forum Network, 2005). Perhaps most influentially, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development in 2008 officially called for a reorientation of agricultural science and technology towards more holistic approaches, after a 4-year process that involved over 400 international experts (IAASTD, 2008). This panel has already been compared to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both for the quality of its governance and the importance of its recommendations, which are straightforward:

“Successfully meeting development and sustainability goals and responding to new priorities and changing circumstances would require a fundamental shift in agricultural knowledge, science and technology.”

This shift is the crossroads at which we stand. While the IAASTD calls for greater support of agro-ecological approaches, which it considers a great potential for world agriculture, the role of genetic engineering was the chief element of controversy within the panel.

Proponents of genetic engineering argue that genetic modification can help crops to flourish in the degraded ecosystems produced by decades of industrial farming. Proponents of agro-ecology argue for a kind of agriculture rooted in ecological principles, with practices that help restore degraded environments, not by setting them apart from human use, but rather the opposite: by healing the earth through growing food.

Many in both camps would agree that the current model of industrial agriculture is not sustainable. Industrial food production is destabilizing Earth’s life-support systems. As Ken Wilson of the 

Christensen Fund notes: “Every calorie it provides requires so much oil and gas to produce that our agricultural system generates nearly a third of the globe’s greenhouse gases. And through massive use of fertilizer, we have disruptively tripled the nitrates in Earth’s natural nitrogen cycle. The productivity of nearly half of all soil worldwide is decreasing. Another 15 percent can no longer be used for farming because its biology has been so depleted.”

Biodiversity on the Farm

The opposite of monoculture is polyculture: growing more than one crop on a piece of land. As seen in “A Viable Food Future”, family farmers in the Indian state of Uttaranchal regularly achieve higher and more dependable production from their land than large farms practicing monoculture in similar environments. The total yield per hectare for farms with diverse cropping systems, in this case four different crops, was about 6 percent higher than for those with only one crop. In addition, smallholders who grow traditional crops that have more value to local consumers have more market options than those who only grow one crop for export. Moreover, the monocropping farms had higher production costs because the crops required chemical fertilizer and pesticides. In total, the net in- come of the farms with diverse cropping systems was 135 percent higher than for the farms with only one crop.


INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTUE is the context of our world today, a system that has spread across the globe, connecting orangutan habitat in Borneo to a world of consumers through cheap palm oil; and linking habitat loss from coral reefs and estuaries, to forests and grasslands, with the worldwide boom in artery-clogging deep-fried fast food.

Industrial agriculture is based on maximizing large-scale production and productivity of individual commodities and products through mechanization and motorization, the development of agro-chemicals to fertilize crops and control weeds and pests, and the use of high-yield varieties of crops. (For more information, please see the Union of Concerned Scientists

FACTORY FARMING is the process of raising livestock in confinement at high stocking density, in what are known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where a farm operates as a factory. The main products of this industry are meat, milk and eggs for human consumption. However, there have been issues regarding whether factory farming is sustainable and ethical. 

Confinement at high stocking density is one part of a systematic effort to produce the highest output at the lowest cost by relying on economies of scale, modern machinery, biotechnology and global trade  requires antibiotics and pesticides to mitigate the spread of disease exacerbated by these crowded living conditions. In addition, antibiotics are used to stimulate livestock growth by killing intestinal bacteria. These practices have been shown to breed more resistant pests and diseases, creating a vicious cycle that ultimately put humans and our food supply at risk. 

GENETIC ENGINEERING is the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by the manipulation of its genetic material. The main technology upon which this process is based is transgenesis, following the discovery of the recombinant DNA technique in 1973. The best known applications of genetic engineering in agriculture are transgenic herbicide-tolerant crops such as soybean or pest-resistant Bt maize in the USA. The fundamental strategy in genetic engineering is to modify the plants to allow them to be productive in adverse conditions caused, for instance, by pests, pathogens, drought, saline environments and unfertile soils; or to design plants for new objectives such as plants with altered nutritional contents. 

AGRO-ECOLOGY emerged from the convergence of traditional knowledge, ecology and agronomy (Dalgaard et al., 2003). It is the application of the ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems (Altieri, 1995). Agro-ecology integrates scientific understanding about how particular places work -- their ecology -- with farmers’ knowledge of how to make their local landscapes useful to humans. It focuses on the value of diverse and complex methods of land stewardship and the re-integration of livestock, crops, pollinators, trees, and water in ways that work resiliently with the landscape. 

Agro-ecology is an umbrella concept for different agricultural practices and innovations such as

  • biological control of pests rather than chemical control
  • planting different crops rather than a single crop (monoculture)
  • agroforestry systems
  • habitat management techniques -- for instance, strip management or beetle banks around wheat fields
  • natural systems agriculture aiming at perennial food-producing systems
  • crop rotations
  • soil fertility improvement practices
  • mixed crop and livestock management
  • and intercropping

Some applications involve cutting edge technologies while others are old practices, for instance, traditional systems that provide significant insights to agro-ecology. (Explanations and examples of some of these techniques are found below.) 

Agro-ecology is not synonymous with "the old ways” or indigenous tradition. It values and is informed by these, but it has benefited the modern science of ecology. There is great potential for diverse forms of fusion of the ancient and ecology, the scope of which remains unknown but is tantalizing. Its potential to rejuvenate a wounded planet are a hinted at but often misunderstood story in our world today. Careers are being made out of telling these stories. But they need to be mainstreamed in media understanding and reporting. 

Critics of chemical-intensive farming argue that it produces high yields initially, but undermines the foundation of future food production in the long term. In contrast, agro-ecology is the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems. Its proponents argue that practices that build healthy soil, protect biodiversity, conserve natural resources and limit dependence on petroleum-based products like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are the best bet to cope with the challenges of the future. 

FOOD SOVEREIGNTY, in the context of international development, is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. In contrast to food security policies and programs, food sovereignty puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. Proponents of food sovereignty might argue that a food security agenda that simply provides surplus grain to hungry people is just another form of commodity dumping, facilitating corporate penetration of foreign markets, undermining local food production, and possibly leading to irreversible biotech contamination of indigenous crops with patented varieties. 

Via Campesina launched the idea of Food Sovereignty” at the World Food Summit in 1996. This idea has now grown into a global people’s movement including social sectors such as the urban poor, environmental and consumer groups, small farmers, women associations, fisher-folks, pastoralists and many others. It is also recognized by several institutions and governments. 

The Agro-Ecology Perspective on the Media

ENOUGH DOOM AND GLOOM AREADY. We know there’s something wrong with the food. What we don’t know: It doesn’t have to be that way. People are increasingly aware, though still woefully misinformed, that there is something wrong with how food works in our world. But instead of breeding action and commitment to finding solutions, this awareness risks breeding fatalism and complacency. Exciting advances in agro-ecology worldwide offer hope and avenues for action, but the message is not getting out. 

INDUSTRIAL FOOD ISN'T JUST BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH, IT'S BAD FOR THE ENVIRONMENT. Food writing isn’t just about recipes and health trends anymore. The story of our food spans the globe, from wars over oil fields in the Middle East, to the loss of entire ecosystems, to hospital cardiac units. What people don’t know about the way modern humanity exploits the natural world, and exploits itself, is literally killing us – and damaging the planet. 

WAGING CHEMICAL WARFARE AGAINST NATURE IN ORDER TO GROW FOOD IS NOT A NECESSARY EVIL. Advances in agro-ecology the world over are showing that dependence upon synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is not only destructive to farmers, consumers and ecosystems, it’s unnecessary. 

IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT FARMING; IT'S ABOUT FOOD. Help connect the dots between the field and the dinner table. Sure, farmers can be hard on the environment, but we’re paying them to do it! Everyone, every time we open our mouths to eat, is complicit in this great drama. Remind your audience of the relationship between their daily bread/rice/porridge and rainforest destruction, groundwater depletion and contamination, climate change and cancer; but open their eyes to the world of alternatives, too. 


Look Behind the Hype

What the public doesn’t know is damaging its health and the planet. Does it have to be that way?

As with many things in the modern world, there is far more to food than meets the eye. The world of food is shrouded in a cloak of myth and misunderstanding. The dramatic (re) discoveries that are emerging every day through the integration of traditional knowledge and the modern science of ecology are often hidden or belittled. The wonders of – or worries about – genetic manipulation capture the headlines.

“Between 1981 and 2008 the archives of The New York Times contain, for instance, 2,696 references to ‘genetic engineering’ against 3 for ‘agroecology’, 7 for ‘agroforestry’ and 0 for ‘cultivar mixtures’.”     —Vanloqueren and Baret

An all pervading myth in our world is that of scarcity, according to a new breed of writers and researchers. There are too many of us and we can’t feed ourselves without the help of modern chemistry and agribusiness. Pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers are a necessary evil. Even conservationists buy into this myth, arguing for chemical-intensive agriculture as a necessary antidote to slash-and-burn or other extensive land use.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this: chemicals, genetically modified crops and processed food are necessary evils. They’re the only way to feed a world of 7 billion people. Besides, it’s what the “market” demands. It is true that industrial agriculture produces a great deal of commodity crops: American corn farmers can turn a half a bushel of seed corn into more than 150 bushels per acre, on average. But the fact is that the majority of grain produced from industrial farms does not directly feed people. In “Fair Food,” Oran Hesterman breaks down the ultimate output of this bounty. (Keep in mind, only 1 percent of corn, or maize, grown in the United States is “sweet corn” for human consumption. The rest is known as “feed corn” and is not eaten directly by people.) “Make no mistake: we’ve created a situation where American SUVs are competing with African eaters for grain. We can see who is winning,” writes Michael Pollan, probably America's most influential food writer. "It comes down to this: the world's agricultural lands make up a precious and finite resource; we should be using it to grow food for people, not for cars or cattle.”

But an alternative story is emerging, and in some pretty high places: In 2010, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report concluding that “agro-ecology ... can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.”

Jacques Diouf, then director-general of the FAO, declared in 2011 that “the present paradigm of intensive crop production cannot meet the challenges of the new millennium.” What the world needs, he wrote, is “a major shift from the homogeneous model of crop production to knowledge-intensive, often location-specific, farming systems."

Critics of the industrial food system argue that its problems are not limited to all the hidden costs passed on to people and the environment in terms of health and resource degradation. The problem is that industrial food is inherently unsustainable, writes Fred Kirschenmann. It cannot continue in existence for much longer. Change is inevitable, either organized systematic change, or system breakdown. 

Kirschenmann holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago and was an organic farming pioneer, transforming his family farm in in North Kadota to certified organic back in 1980. The farm is a natural prairie livestock grazing system that combines a nine-crop rotation of cereal grains, forages, and green manure.

He says that there are four key threats to industrial farming which undermines its capacity to continue in the future; In other words, its sustainability. 


The question to challenge policy makers today is this, “What kind of system will we need when crude costs $300 per barrel? Since our current industrial agriculture model is based

upon cheap energy, this is his number one concern. Fertilizers, pesticides, equipment manufacturing and operation, all rely upon cheap fossil fuels. When the cost of fossil fuels goes up, farming costs skyrocket. In Iowa, anhydrous ammonia went from $200 per ton to more than $1,000 per ton almost overnight when energy prices peaked in 2008. Farmers cannot operate profitably under such high input cost conditions, and people living hand-to-mouth can no longer afford to buy food.


We have been drawing down our water supplies at an unsustainable rate. The two main population centers, China and India, are drawing down their water quickly. China, which relies upon irrigation for 80 percent of its grain production draws its aquifers down about ten feet per year and is drawing at depths of 1,000 feet in some places. India depends upon irrigation for 60 percent of its grain production and is drawing down aquifers at twenty feet per year to depths of 2,000 feet some places.

According to Kirschenmann, in the US, where 20 percent of grain production is dependent upon irrigation, the country has depleted the Ogallala aquifer by one-half since 1960. It is being drawn down at a rate 1.3 trillion gallons faster than it can be replaced. 


The latest thinking is that changes in climate probably won’t be gradual, and it will have a potentially severe impact on farmers. Extreme weather events, shifts in weather patterns and pests, make an unpredictable profession all the more difficult. Farms using industrial approaches and dependent on monoculture and degraded soils will be particularly vulnerable.


Kirschenmann is especially concerned about the destruction of biodiversity, especially of previously healthy soils. Australian agronomist Christine Jones argues that 50 – 80% of the

organic carbon that was once in the topsoil has been lost to the atmosphere over the last 150 years or so, “due to our failure to take care of the earth as a living thing”.

The good news is that alternatives are emerging around the world. Farmers in Kenya, for example, have created a “push- pull” system to control parasitic weeds and insects without chemical insecticides. The system “pushes” pests away by planting insect-repellant species among corn crops while “pulling” pests to plots of napier grass, which excretes a sticky gum that attracts and traps insects.The results have been remarkable. “Push-pull” doubled yields of maize and milk and is now used on over 10,000 farms in East Africa.

The global summary of the IAASTD offers agro-ecological examples as an alternative to the chemical warfare of industrial agriculture, including “improved soil and water management to increase water retention and decrease erosion; (...) wider deployment of soil conservation measures; (...) modeling of pest and alien species dynamics to reduce reliance on chemicals to maintain human and ecosystem health while addressing emerging pest threats posed by climate change. Integrated crop, tree, livestock and fish systems can be intensified and managed as multifunctional agricultural systems with less negative consequences to ecosystems.” (Global Summary, Options for Action, p. 27) 

In a report for the 2012 Rio+20 summit, world- recognized agro-ecologist and University of California professor Miguel Altieri offers several examples of agro-ecology practices:

CROP ROTATIONS diversity over time, as farmers alternate crops, eg. maize followed by soybeans, followed by alfalfa. Or rice followed by garlic, but with “break crops” of nitrogen-

fixing plants to increase soil fertility and "break" populations of pests or diseases.

POLYCULTURES diversity over space, with mixed plantings instead of monocultures of a single crop. Insects can be confused by a diverse field. On-site fertility can be improved by planting nitrogen-fixing trees amongst high-value fruit trees or vegetable crops.

AGROFORESTRY SYSTEM These are systems that combine trees with annual crops. In some cases, annual crops like maize or short-lived perennials like pineapple are planted between rows of young trees.

In other systems, nitrogen-fixing trees provide fertility and partial shade for high-value crops like cacao, coffee or tea. Such systems result in higher yields and more diverse products.

cover crops and mulching Exposed soil can be eroded by wind, rain and sun, and/or covered with weeds. Cover crops, like peanuts or other beans, and mulch like leaf litter or straw, can protect the soil and suppress weeds. 

CROP-LIVESTOCK MIXTURES The American farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry said that when animals were removed from American farms and placed into feedlots (or “factory farms”) that one solution was neatly divided into two problems: not enough fertilizer (manure) for the farms and too much fertilizer (read: pollution) in the feedlots. Managing farm animals along with crops can help build fertility and control pests, and diversify the farms output.

Agribusiness and its allies in the media might portray agro-ecology as elitist or hippie sentimentalism, but nature-informed farming is a viable alternative to mainstream agricultural development. Integrating the science of ecology with traditional agricultural knowledge, agro- ecology or eco-agriculture can:

* Reduce climate change and cool the planet

* Provide enough, good, nutritious food for
the world’s population (including cities via urban agriculture)

* Restore biodiversity, soil fertility and water resources to degraded farmlands

* Drastically reduce poverty, improve livelihoods and security

Maintain agrobiodiversity, critical for the resilience of food systems

* Maintain the important cultural and spiritual elements of food and strengthen food sovereignty

Extolling the virtues of agro-ecology is not to minimize the challenges faced with feeding the world,but it is to say that the dominant discourse of scarcity, doom and the genetic engineering as savior doesn’t reflect reality. The challenges are real, but so are the alternatives offered by agro-ecology.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the most comprehensive study ever made of agricultural science and technology, reached a prophetic conclusion in 2008: “Business as usual is no longer an option.” 

Organic Food Research in China

“Some years ago, I proposed that China make efforts to develop its organic farming, or eco-farming sector, but was told that people would starve as a result. Agricultural experts have continued to spread that idea, and many academics and officials have accepted it unquestioningly. As a result, ecologists have shied away from eco-farming, while biotech experts continue to rave that genetically modified crops are the only possible solution to China’s food security issues.” -Jiang Gaoming, chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany

The methods used by the Chinese Academy of Sciences experts included: taking straw normally burnt off by farmers and processing it into fodder for cows, saving 1,500 yuan to 2,000 yuan (US$232 to US$309) per head of cattle; using some of the cow manure to make methane, to be used as an energy source, and the rest as quality organic fertilizer for the fields; and tackling pests with "physical and biological” methods – for example, insect light traps were used all year around, and chickens were kept in the field and fed on the insects. 

Weeds were gathered up and used as organic fodder for geese, fish and locust farming; and appropriate levels of irrigation used to maintain soil moisture.

These methods allowed ecological restoration of unproductive land that had been polluted with fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide and allowed production levels to increase. 


Seeing Food Through a Journalistic Lens

Reporting the truth about a food system gone awry requires an understanding of ecology and the validity of farming traditions. And it requires good solid journalism.

The BBC’s Richard Black in a recent article about a new advance in plant genetics by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) provides a too typical example of the mainstream media’s coverage of genetic engineering. The article extolled the virtue of a new GM rice plant for India that can increase yields by helping plants to better uptake soil phosphorous, a nutrient usually deficient in Asia’s rice bowls. Nowhere in the article did Black quote critics of genetically modified food plants, nor did he mention the emerging problems and failures with Bt cotton or Round-up Ready soy, nor did he discuss alternative research or methods for improving phosphorous uptake.

Norman Uphoff, a Cornell Univeristy professor and proponent of innovative cropping systems known as the System of Rice Intensification, calls

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