Thursday, March 28, 2013

What's in a name: sustainable agriculture vs. agroecology

Names are important in much the same way that book covers are important; they suggest what lies behind them. But there is an additional way in which names are important, which is their resilience in the face of attempted cooption. Does the chosen name continue to robustly represent what it was originally intended to represent, or does its meaning become diluted by misapplication?

There are quite a few names available for use in referencing the practice of growing food (including herbs and spices), flowers, animal feed, forage, fiber, fuel, lubricants, and chemical feed stocks, all in harmony with nature, most of which take the form of an adjective followed by one of the following nouns: gardening, farming, horticulture, agriculture, viticulture, etc. The set of adjectives in use in this manner includes biodynamic, biodiverse, organic, regenerative, resilient, and sustainable. (To complicate matters further there are also some terms relating to specific practices, like permaculture and polyculture, that are important to any such discussion.)

For many of us, there is a tendency to use adjective-noun combinations from this set almost interchangeably. We understand what we're attempting to invoke better than we understand the nuanced distinctions between them, so it seems to make little difference, except that this results in a profusion of terms for essentially the same thing, and some of these term combinations are more susceptible than others to being used in ways that lack clarity or are even contradictory to what we would mean by them, meaning that there is a danger that others hear us saying something different from what we meant.

“Sustainable agriculture” is, unfortunately, one such term. While it originally meant something like ‘a set of practices which can be continued forever without wearing out the soil or reducing yield’ it has come to mean other things to other people, including something on the order of ‘a set of minor adjustments that allows agribusiness to continue doing essentially what they're doing now for another decade or two without catastrophic collapse’.

Another term which is more difficult to fully comprehend, but less susceptible to misuse is “agroecology” (“agroecological” as an adjective). Properly understood, it implies all of the other adjectives listed above, except some of the more arcane aspects of biodynamics, and adds one important concept, cooperation between human-managed production and the native ecology of the land in use, such that you can't tell where one ends and the other takes over.

Just as there is a confusion of terms with respect to the practice of managing productive land in harmony with nature, so too there are many terms for robots designed to assist in this process, nearly as many terms as there are robots of this class, it would seem. Rather than slog through the list, I'll get straight to the point, which is that, after years of using “cultibot” and “cultibotics”, I've found another pair of expressions that I prefer. “Agroecological robotics” nicely defines the field in a manner that resists dilution, and “agroecobot” works well enough in reference to actual machines. I'll probably continue to also use “cultibot” and “cultibotics”, but understand that I intend them only as shorthand for machines designed to assist in the practice of “agroecology” (which itself implies biodiverse, organic, regenerative, resilient, and sustainable practices), with a view to making that practice scalable to millions of acres.

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