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What's a Healthy Agroecosystem?

by David Waltner-Toews, University of Guelph

(Defining an agroecosystem is difficult because it is an attempt to pull things together, flying in the face of research which has been separating things for several decades. Trying to figure out what makes such a system healthy is even trickier. In this article, the Project Manager for the Agroecosystem Health Project provides us with a framework of the study. We hope to have articles on the "meat and potatoes" of some of the individual studies on the go in the future.)

Many of us have a pretty good idea how to recognize sickness in ourselves or in our animals. This has to do both with what kind of shape we are in, and our expectations. If I thought I could be an Olympic athlete (or a dairy farmer), for instance, I'd probably consider myself in poor health (my wife would know for sure I was off my rocker and needed help). As a university professor, however, I think I'm doing all right.

Similarly, we might also think about healthy families and healthy herds or flocks, and what those might look like. At this point, we would probably introduce some ideas about the kinds of social relationships we consider healthy, levels of productivity and profitability in the herd, and so on.

A group of researchers at the University of Guelph is involved in a research project which asks the question: if we can talk about healthy individuals, healthy herds and families, and even healthy farms and communities, can we put everything together and also talk about the health of agroecosystems? To us, an agroecosystem includes all of the environmental, social, and economic components of an agricultural area.

We have spent the first year and a half of this three year project trying to bring together everything that we think we might know about this question, based on decades of agricultural, economic and community health research. As you can imagine, the group of researchers we have working together, who range from sociologists, health scientists and economists to wildlife, insect and weed specialists, don't always agree. An agroecosystem is not a cow, and everybody seems to have a different idea of what it looks like; we have been struggling with how we can even ask the right questions.

In the second part of this research, we are taking the questions out to some members of the farm community to get new perspectives. (We didn't want to do this until we had our act at least half together.) While there may be decades of field-based agricultural and community research to draw our ideas from, there are probably large bits of information missing because we haven't asked the right questions.

We hope that the first stumbling steps that this research represents take us down the long road of putting together what we have been so excellent at taking apart. We hope that agricultural communities, as well as policy makers at various levels, will benefit from our work, enabling them to assess their own progress toward integrated, sustainable practices and policies.

For more information on this research , contact the Project Manager, Agroecosystem Health Project, Blackwood Hall, University of Guelph, N1G 2W1; Tel# 519-824-4120 ext. 8480.

Copyright 1995 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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