University of Vermont

cals
College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

Agroecology Expands at UVM

UVM Agroecology group gains global attention, launches new certificate of graduate study

Ernesto Méndez, right, takes note of production practices of organic peanut producers, left, in Bolivia.

UVM’s new Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), which combines the wisdom of ecological and social sciences with the practice of growing food, is launching new research projects in Central America and Vermont, and a new graduate certificate, following a prestigious grant of over $500,000 from the European Thought for Food Initiative.

Faculty Director Ernesto Méndez says the expansion of the ALC (formerly known as the Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group, which originally launched in 2008) is a reflection of the fact that global interest in agroecology has been growing exponentially over the last decade.

“Governments, NGOs, and farmers are looking for sustainable methods to address issues like food security, water quality, soil degradation, and climate change,” says Méndez, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Agroecology seeks to bring together a variety of actors, and bring forward farmer voices, to both study and find tangible solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing our food systems.”

Méndez’ research approach, which prioritizes collaboration and real-world impact, is rooted in “participatory action research” (PAR). “Utilizing this approach is important to me because university research sometimes produces  only academic outcomes (e.g. scientific publications), while society needs for us to also help in applying potential solutions”,” say Méndez, who is also a Fellow at UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. “PAR explicitly seeks out and considers perspectives of farmers and other non-academics, which helps to increase and improve the delivery of on-the-ground solutions.”

Coffee and Livelihoods

Méndez honed his research approach working coffee cooperatives in Central America, where his early studies looked at biodiversity conservation in smallholder coffee farms. Since his arrival as an assistant professor in Plant and Soil Science and the Environmental program in 2006, he and his team have deepened their experiences and relationships with smallholder farmer communities, NGOs and coffee companies such as Keurig Green Mountain (which funded some of the group’s work between 2008 and 2015). As the work in coffee communities progressed, they realized there were important questions about farmer livelihoods that their research was not addressing. Subsequent studies assessed food insecurity in coffee producing households and showed that the price fluctuations in commodity markets posed a livelihood risk for coffee farmers.

International development organizations are familiar with the challenge of supporting farmers who rely on one commodity crop for their livelihoods. One proposed solution has been crop diversification, an intervention promoted by rural development organizations around the globe. However, it is unclear whether diversification is delivering the hoped-for outcomes for smallholder farmers. The ALC’s recent Thought for Food grant will study that very question.

Martha Caswell, ALC Research and Outreach Coordinator, says the group will travel to coffee communities in Mexico and Nicaragua to look at whether diversification is in fact improving livelihoods. “We’re looking at it from several angles: how diversification strategies relate to food security, how well livelihood strategies are being implemented, how biodiversity fits into the equation, and what role gender plays in determining outcomes.”

An International Sensation

After several decades of hanging out in the wings of the agricultural world, Méndez believes agroecology is finally making its way into the mainstream. A UN report released in February cited agroecology as the alternative to the extensive use of pesticides worldwide. Méndez has also seen an uptick in interest from other universities, with invites to speak at Yale, Universidad Autónoma de Mexico, UC Berkeley, and University of Toronto during the spring 2017 semester alone.

The ALC is offering new opportunities for international students to access UVM’s expertise in agroecology, including an Agroecology Shortcourse this summer, which consists of 10-days of intensive agroecological training with Méndez and the ALC team, and renowned agroecology pioneer Stephen R. Gliessman. The ALC is also hoping to launch a Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology that will offer professionals and graduate students a low-residency program that provides a deep dive to understanding and applying agroecology as a science, a social movement and a practice.

In a world grappling with a multitude of ecological and social challenges, Méndez believes taking a grounded, transdisciplinary approach is more necessary than ever. “Food production is critical to human survival. Climate change is already affecting farmers around the world, complicating existing problems of soil loss and water shortages. Agroecology can help generate agricultural and food systems that benefit human and ecological communities—our future depends on us figuring out how to roll them out on a global scale.”