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.
FT: Can you talk about agroecology and how its principles can be used to guide sustainable development in agriculture?
SG: Agroecology is grounded in ecosystem thinking and approaches, where the agroecosystem is an ecosystem with a “purpose”—a human purpose. An agroecosystem can be a whole-system way of understanding how ecological, economic, and social factors all interact. By monitoring all of these components simultaneously and over time, elements of sustainability can be determined. It is most important to understand how one factor can affect another, and that for sustainability to occur, all must be integrated in a dynamic, evolving, and changing landscape. Environmental and human needs must be met, and the important human qualities of fairness, equity, and access included. Ultimately, the three elements of agroecology must be linked—science, farming practice, and social change processes—from the soil and the seed all the way to the table, for us to move towards sustainability. Sustainable development must use the same principles.
FT: How does your research on the ecological components of sustainability in agriculture relate to the economic and social aspects of long-term food system planning and management?
SG: All components must be linked. I have personally always grounded my food system work in an understanding of ecology and the factors that provide stability and resiliency in natural ecosystems. I consider humans as not only primary parts of food systems, but also as the ones who must use agroecology to integrate social and economic aspects with ecological aspects. Long-term planning based on concepts such as resilience and resistance soon become linked to the broader issues of human well-being, food justice, food democracy, and social change. Agroecology is about much more than increasing yields and accumulating profits. By building on agroecological practices that free farmers from dependence on expensive fossil fuel-based inputs and industrialized seeds, and putting people at the center of planning and management, we can get back on the road to sustainability.
FT: In 2008, you became the Chief Editor of the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. How does the journal increase education and awareness of the changes needed to create a more sustainable food system?
SG: In 2013, we changed the name of the journal to Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (ASFS) with the goal of making it much clearer that the journal’s primary focus is using agroecology to help move food systems towards sustainability. I use an introductory editorial for each issue to highlight some important event or issue in food system sustainability. I also explain to each author who submits a paper not suitable for the journal how his or her research could be better oriented or focused in order to be considered an agroecological investigation. I tell them that we prioritize participatory, on-farm, or community-based research that provides evidence for a shift towards sustainability.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity in agroecology to fix the food system?
SG: With its food system focus, agroecology has the opportunity to motivate change in research agendas, farming practices, and the social organization of the food system. There is a strong movement towards documenting and promoting case studies of agroecology that are providing evidence for the power of change that agroecology can bring to the food system. These examples can motivate the policy change needed to bring about systemic change in the food system.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
SG: We need to get “culture” back into agriculture and use a food system approach in doing this. It is not just agribusiness. Our food systems must become people-centered again.
FT: What policy changes would have the greatest impact in supporting a more sustainable food system? What are your hopes for the 2018 Farm Bill?
SG: Policies that reverse the current concentration and corporate monopolies controlling the food system have to be a top priority. Control of the food system must be returned to farming communities and consumer communities, rather that keeping them so isolated from one another that both are taken advantage of in our global food systems today. My hopes for the 2018 Farm Bill are that it becomes the 2018 Food Bill, and all members of the food system benefit.
FT: How can Food Tank readers leverage their purchasing power at the grocery store to support sustainable agriculture?
SG: The people who eat the food must become more connected to the people who grow their food. Taking advantage of the wide array of alternative food networks that exist today, from farmer’s markets to CSAs, or frequenting markets or restaurants that work directly with local and organic farmers, are some of the ways. Make informed choices when you buy your food. It is much more than a label, which too often hides the truth about who the farmer is. Know your farmer! Become an activist for food system change as a consumer.