Agroecology and Miguel Altieri
Agroecology and agriculture in general took a giant leap forward in 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Previously, the New and the Old World only shared three species: sweet potato, bottle gourd, and coconut. Now that this New World had been discovered, there was much that could be gained, and it was more than just gold (Bermejo 1994).
Many attempts at growing crops in the new and very different environment proved frivolous, but others found success. In fact, it is known today that many crops reach their optimum yield in an environment that is different from their own. The first crops introduced into the Americas were the European grains, vegetables, and fruits; these were unsuccessful at first. However, some crops did adapt well to the tropical environment right from the beginning, including: bananas, sugar cane, and citrus fruits. Potatoes, tomatoes, gourds, beans, and chilies have all found their way into European cuisine; these crops all originated in the Americas. Rice, a now major player in Mexican food, was also introduced by the Spaniards. African grasses also replaced low yield grass species in Latin America. This giant exchange of species would completely change the world’s diet (Bermejo 1994).
Although explorers set out in a conquest for “God, gold, and Glory,” and did, in fact, satisfy all of those desires, they discovered something that was way more valuable than anything they could have ever imagined. They discovered a whole new world that had unlimited resources, land, plant species, and anything else they could ever use in their lifetime. In their conquest, however, they managed to almost wipe out a whole population, thousands of years of history, and the knowledge of the agriculture in the area. As Barry Lopez puts it:
“We lost in this manner whole communities of people, plants, and animals, because a handful of men wanted gold and silver, title to land, the privileges of aristocracy, slaves, stable of little boys. We lost languages, epistemologies, books, ceremonies, systems of logic and metaphysics- a long, hideous carnage.”
Now all of this may be true, but attempts were also made to save, communicate, and learn from the native people, but much of this was done in vain simply because of the extreme language barrier the explorers faced (Altieri 1987).
Just like before, today we are again faced with the conquest of gold in agroecology. Instead of focusing on diversity so as to maintain a healthy resource base, we are again going for what will make the most money, specifically in relation to cash cropping. In fact, in all of the world’s agriculture, which covers over a fourth of the world’s land area, there are only about 70 species grown. In contrast to 2.5 acres of a tropical rainforest, which will typically allow for over 100 species of trees alone (Altieri 1994). Researchers have become very concerned with the extreme uniformity in modern agriculture....