Agroecosystems – An Overview

Most people have never heard of agroecosystems. They are, however, something that is becoming of increasing concern as our scientists and thought leaders struggle to create balance between our planet and the people, animals, plants, and water that cover it.

To begin with, an agroecosystem is defined as subset of a conventional ecosystem that is a spatially and functionally coherent unit of agricultural activity, including said unit’s living and non-living components, and the interactions between components. An agroecosystem is not limited to the immediate center – usually a farm – of agricultural activity, but also includes the entire region impacted by such activity.

Agroecology, the study of, and the application of ecological principles to, these systems is geared toward managing these systems and the products they produce – including food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals – in such a way that is the lines between them and the natural ecosystems get blurred in useful ways, so that the impact of the agriculture on the system is minimized. It is also about increasing awareness of just how far the effects of agroecosystems reach beyond their immediate boundaries. According to one online study, it encompasses a multitude of approaches, and amounts to being a practice and a movement, as well as a science.

Projects, such as the Lake Mendota Watershed Project, seek to reduce agricultural impacts – in this case, the runoff from agricultural sites feeding into the lake that increase algal blooms, making the water unfit. Projects also include things like creating buffer strips, or polyculture wildlife habitats, where animals or organic farming are used to restore ecological complexity to and reduce the chemical treatment of land for purposes of cropping or soil nutrition.

These projects are the result of the science of agroecosystem analysis, which is an analysis that tries to consider with equal weight issues of ecology, economics, politics, and sociology. While it is, of course, impossible to consider all aspects of every agroecosystem, the more that are included, the better the design of the projects that are developed to improve the agroecosystem involved. Agroecosystem analysis actually dates back to when humans shifted from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to settling in one area and cultivating the land.

The basic unit of agroecosystem analysis is the holon. An animal, family, or worker that is part of a farm is a holon of that farm. The farm itself is a holon of the county it is located in, as is the bank that loans money to the farmer, etc.

The analysis of these various holons, and the agroecosystems they make up are geared to making the agroecosystems functional and successful for all of their components.