Agroecology at New: World Food Days, Part 1

Agroecology doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but there’s no doubting it’s this year’s buzz word at conferences and publications from multiple UN agencies dealing with food, hunger, human rights and the environment.

Lori Stahlbrand, New College Food Systems Coordinator and organizer of the College’s World Food Days events, held  from October 15-17, says this fall is the perfect time to put agroecology on the map in Toronto. These events, which focused on whether agroecology is “the next new thing in food”, aimed to do just that.

This three-day event series was the first in Canada to extend the discussion of agroecology—the study of the ecological processes of farming and its systems—to issues of equity, urban food production and biological sciences.

“Agroecology is recognized as a science, a practice and a movement,” Stahlbrand said at the series’ kick-off session, held at Wilson Hall in the heart of New College on October 15.

Stahlbrand says Equity Studies, one of New College’s academic programs, offers just the right lens on the global trend because agroecology is based on integrating food production with equity—both social equity for food producers, and environmental equity for all the life forms that help agroecological farming efforts thrive.

Those who practice agroecological farming in and near Toronto—two of whom were featured in the opening session—have some new urban-food-production insights to add to the agroecology mix, which has only recently come out of the obscurity of mountainous and other difficult rural terrains, where Indigenous and marginalized farmers kept the old traditions alive.

Likewise, those who dig deep into the science of agroecology—such as U of T Scarborough biologist and Canada Research Chair Dr. Marney Isaac, who lectured during the evening session—bring some powerful new tools to practices that have evolved over thousands of years of Indigenous practice, yet were, until recently, ignored by conventional agricultural scientists and farm-equipment makers.

Damian Adjodha coordinates Fresh City Farms, a five-acre community farm in Toronto’s Black Creek area which employs youth from the nearby Jane-Finch neighbourhood. He believes agroecological farming is based on bio-mimicry—the study and imitation of what works in natural systems.

Before deciding what crops to plant and interplant on the five acres of what had been a bush beside Black Creek Pioneer Village, Adjodha wanted to see for himself what wild plants had grown well and closely together, so he could mimic the mix of heavy and light feeders of fertilizers, water and light. Adjodha says “we are recovering our lost intelligence” based on intense observation of what works in particular places in nature.

Alvaro Venturelli and Damian Adjodha speak at a farm panel on agroecology during New College's World Food Days 2014.

Agroecological farmers Alvaro Venturelli and Damian Adjodha speak at a farm panel on agroecology during New College’s World Food Days 2014.

As in nature, ecological farms usually intercrop several species that work well as a team, rather than impose a monoculture of one species, as is conventional on most farms in North America. The best-known expression of this style of farming, practiced by Aboriginal peoples in southern Ontario prior to the arrival of Europeans, is called “the three sisters” of corn, squash and beans. The corn provided a pole for beans to climb while benefitting from the nitrogen beans drew down from the air. The broad leaves of squash protected the soil from erosion and discouraged porcupines from taking a free lunch.

The second speaker, Alvaro Venturelli, co-owns Plan B Organic Farm. Located near Flamborough, it features 50 acres of vegetable production serving a 1000-strong buyers’ club—the largest direct-buying farm scheme in Canada—with buyers in Hamilton, Mississauga and Toronto.

Venturelli looks to nature to provide his “beneficials”—not just beneficial insects that pollinate his crops, but beneficial functions such as fertilizing and pest control. Mexican scientist Dr. Fulvio Gioanetto lived on the Plan B farm over three seasons, helping it access botanical sprays from the wild plants which flourished on the farm.

Venturelli says Plan B strives for self-sufficiency, and can now produce most of what it needs from its own land, from stinging nettles and horse tails for fertilizers to anti-fungal agents derived from elderberry leaves.

“We try to use the least invasive way, based on knowledge and understanding of our own land, and always based on encouraging life and bio-diversity,” he says. “And it costs us a dollar an acre to spray our fields, compared to $400 for typical chemicals from off-farm corporations.”

“We are the technology,” he says, echoing a slogan popular among agroecological farmers.

For her part, Isaac uses ground radar to discover the secrets of the soil—such as what distances work best when planting one kind of crop beside another, a method of companion planting designed to help plants benefit each other, rather than compete with each other for resources.

One plant can absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere, for example, and spread it around in the sharing underground—a synergy that allows two plants to do better together than they could do alone, as they would in a conventional farm specializing in one crop per field. Isaac says that’s the scientific way to decide “to tree or not to tree”—to decide how tree and other crops can work well together.

Canada Research Chair in Agroecosystems and Development and UTSC Assistant Professor Marney Isaac delivers a public lecture, "Towards Integrative Agroecology in a Changing World", at New College's World Food Days event series.

Canada Research Chair in Agroecosystems and Development and UTSC Assistant Professor Marney Isaac delivers a public lecture, “Towards Integrative Agroecology in a Changing World”, at New College’s World Food Days event series.

She also believes science can address a major controversy among agricultural scientists— the “share or spare” debate. Those who favour powerful and invasive technologies, such as genetically-engineered seeds or toxic sprays, argue more food can be grown on less land, thereby sparing more land for wilderness. Those who favour light-handed science to support food production believe lands worked for human needs can be shared with nature.

Through World Food Days, New College provided a space for scholars, students and friends to contribute to agroecology—a science, practice and movement which is galvanizing a new generation of food producers with some very big questions to ask.

There will be two more postings on this conference by Dr. Wayne Roberts, visiting scholar at New College, and author of two major food-related books: The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists and Entrepreneurs.  

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