SYMP 16-5
Agroecology and resilience in socioecological systems

Thursday, August 13, 2015: 10:10 AM
307, Baltimore Convention Center
Jennifer Blesh, School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan
Laurie E. Drinkwater, Horticulture, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Steven A. Wolf, Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Hannah Wittman, Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Global change, potential future scarcities of agricultural inputs (e.g., fossil fuels, water), and renewed growth of agroecological farming systems have reinvigorated debates about the resilience of different food system models. Since the late 1990s, resilience has become an increasingly popular framework for analyzing dynamics of linked social-ecological systems. Ecology’s systems framework and emphasis on theory development provide a robust foundation for developing more resilient agroecosystems. Yet there remains a need to: i) integrate more ecology into agricultural research and practice, and ii) develop new interdisciplinary approaches to evaluating socioecological resilience. Commonly used assessment approaches frequently neglect either ecological or historical and sociopolitical dynamics. This talk presents two examples of research linking theories from ecology and the social sciences to assess farming system resilience. The projects focused on ecological soil nutrient management within highly industrialized agricultural landscapes in the U.S. and Brazil.


Results from the case studies demonstrate that ecological knowledge and agroecological management can improve food system resilience. We found improved nutrient use efficiency with ecological management practices (e.g., cropping system diversification, organic nutrient sources) compared with reliance on synthetic fertilizer. An agroecological approach allowed us to identify relationships between management practices on working farms and agroecosystem performance. In both cases, we integrated ecological findings with theories from political ecology and political economy to assess socioecological resilience at multiple scales, with particular attention to access to rights and resources, and modifications of existing power relations. In Brazil, pressure from a farmer social movement interfaced with national policies that link support for more sustainable rural production with urban food access goals to increase the resilience of a subset of agroecological farmers. In the Cornbelt, we used the ecological gradient of “potential to conserve nitrogen in farm fields” to select farmers for subsequent qualitative analysis of how transitions to agroecological management occur. We found that farmers with the greatest ecological efficiency had transitioned to more resilient practices by increasing farm-level biodiversity and enterprise diversity, developing new competencies in agroecology, and by forming external network linkages with their peers, regional organizations, the sustainable agriculture movement, and federal policies. These examples synthesizing agroecological research on soil nutrient management with political ecology highlight the potential for interdisciplinary research to identify leverage points for food system transformation toward resilience.