The Importance of Agroecology in Sustainable Agriculture, an Interview With Dr. Gliessman

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Published: December, 2016

Dr. Steve Gliessman is a Professor Emeritus of Agroecology in the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is on the Board of Directors at Community Agroecology Network, a small nonprofit that works to incorporate agroecology into small-farm communities in Central America, Mexico, and Mozambique. Dr. Gliessman is also the Editor-in-Chief of the international journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.

Additionally, Dr. Gliessman is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems and a farmer at Condor’s Hope Ranch, where his family produces dry-farmed, organically grown wine grapes and olives. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Gliessman about his work in agroecology and organic, sustainable farming.

Food Tank (FT): How did you become interested in agroecology, sustainable agriculture, and organic gardening?

Steve Gliessman (SG): I think my interest in agroecology began when I was a graduate student back in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was doing fieldwork in Costa Rica. It didn’t make sense to me that farmers had to abandon land after farming for a while and move to new land, cut down tropical forest, burn it, and plant new crops. It seemed to me that ecology (the science of how nature works) should be able to provide answers and options for making land productive in a more permanent fashion. I was pretty much unaware at the time of the social and economic factors involved, but the system did not seem to be very fair. After I finished my PhD, I decided to leave academia and moved to Costa Rica, where I became the manager of a small coffee and vegetable farm where we tried to farm using ecology and organic practices.

I then moved from Costa Rica to Mexico, where I took a position as an ecologist at a small school of tropical agriculture in Cárdenas, Tabasco. The college was located in the middle of a gigantic Green Revolution project, and the students being trained at the school were supposed to be able to solve any problems the project might encounter. Large-scale monocultures, high chemical inputs, hybrid seed, etc. were the norm. But surrounding the project were the small farms of traditional Mayan farmers, and once I set foot inside those farms and started talking to the farmers, with my ecological focus, an amazing intercultural conversion took place as I observed how productive, appropriate, and sustainable these traditional farms were—and we called it agroecología. For me, agroecology actually was born as a form of resistance to the Green Revolution and a way of defending small farmer knowledge and tradition. When I moved back to California in 1980 after almost 10 years, I brought agroecology with me to the University of California at Santa Cruz. The Environmental Studies Program and the organic farm on the campus made it an ideal place to start the UCSC Agroecology Program.

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