Agroecology is an approach to agriculture that combines crop science, ecology, and social scientific knowledge to maximize agricultural production in ways that support both the existing environment and communities supported by agriculture. A basic tenant of agroecology is that crop plants grow within complex ecosystems that, when nurtured, can help increase productivity.

The most important element of crop ecology is the soil. Natural soils support multiple forms of life simultaneously: plants grow above and beneath it, earthworms, insects, and bacteria live within, and soils store nutrients like water, nitrogen, and carbon that plants rely on for growth. Agro-ecological approaches to agriculture increase plant productivity by nurturing forms of soil life that benefit crop plants and by using natural solutions to manage and eliminate forms of soil life that damage crops.

This approach is completely opposite to the industrial farming techniques that are conventional in many places around the world. Conventional farmers use plows to dig deeply into and turn up soils in ways that kill soil life and dry soils out. Industrial methods assume that soil life can be replaced with artificial fertilizers that provide essential nutrients like nitrogen. Secondly, industrial methods rely on hybrid varieties that are costly for small farmers, controlled by a few transnational agribusiness companies, and have not been proven to be safe for either the environment or consumer health. Lastly, industrial methods require capital intensive infrastructural investments to support the growth of crops, such as the massive system of dams, canals, and tunnels that carry water hundreds of miles to farmer’s fields.

The problems with industrial agriculture are many, but one of the most relevant to the drought crisis facing the Southwestern United States is the fact that industrial agriculture has prove incapable of mitigating periods of extended drought. It’s only solution is to search farther and deeper for water, but fails to address the well known fact that industrial methods exacerbate drought conditions.

It is for this reason that many agricultural scientists and farmers are turning to agroecology to find solutions to periods of drastic drought. They are discovering that, especially in places where farmers are unable to access large amounts of capital, agroecology can help conserve soil moisture and bring desertfields back to life.

Dr. Julia Wright of Coventry University has studied Cuba’s agroecological innovations in depth. Her writing explains how Cuba’s agroecological revolution is an excellent model for implementing drought resistant agriculture on a large scale.

During Cuba’s so-called ‘special period” of the mid-1990s, not only was Cuba’s food system jeopardized by the end of fuel subsidies from the Soviet Union but drought posed a significant challenge to small farmers. Farmers in Cuba did not have the benefit of having huge amounts of capital that would be required to build the irrigation systems that bring water to drought affected fields.

In countries with large amounts of available capital, drought crises can be solved by capital intensive projects to collect, divert, and deliver water to drought affected areas. Capital intensive solutions typically come at a high environmental cost: they significantly alter the landscape. Because they require huge surpluses of money and the construction of large infrastructures, capital-intensive solutions to drought also tend to be poorly adaptable to increasingly unstable global climactic conditions.

Cuban farmers implemented locally managed and sustainable solutions to periodic drought crises.  In one report on her work in Cuba, Dr. Wright explains that drought problems were addressed by working directly with farmers to develop local solutions. Farmers were trained to understand drought cycles and water management techniques. They participated in experiments to test cover crops and drought resistant, indigenous varieties of crops. Farmers  helped develop small scale methods of rainwater capture.

This work resulted in land that was increasingly productive, even during periods of extended drought conditions. Cuban farmers learned to plant crops with varying root depths to minimize competition for nutrients between plants. Crops with deep roots were planted alongside shallow rooted cover crops that prevented soils from drying out and better supported beneficial soil life. Water conservation and rainwater collection systems allowed farmers to maximize efficiency by collecting all available water and preventing water loss due to evaporation from storage ponds. This work also led to local markets, farmer organizations, and sharing of knowledge that enables farmers to thrive even during challenging climactic variations.

For more information on Dr. Julia Wright’s work on Cuba, click here.