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agroecology book reviews


Review from the IPM Practitioner

Review from Education amd Extension Materials for Sustainable Agriculture, Vol. 7

Review from Biological Agriculture and Horticulture, Vol. 16

Review from Journal of Environmental Quality, Vol. 28

Review from American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, Vol. 15




From Integrated Pest Management Practitioner
February 1998, published by the Bio-Integral Resource Center

        How are we to put "culture" back into agriculture? This is one of the many questions posed and answered in this impressive publication. Agroecology is a simply written and beautifully organized presentation of a very complex subject. Right from the start, the author orients the reader by giving his recommendations for using the textbook, while accommodating various levels of knowledge.
        The first half of the book, divided into section I, "Introduction to Agroecology," and section II, "Plants and Environmental Factors," teaches the basics. Chapter 1, "The Need for Sustainable Food Production Systems," begins with the author's definition of agroecology--how applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of systems of food production can help us produce food more sustainably.
        Gliessman's definition, and his book, emphasize a scientific approach to sustainable agriculture. Although agroecology authors sometimes put relatively little emphasis on laboratory and experiment station research, and considerably more emphasis on farm-based experiments, the approach here is more balanced.
        Basic agronomy is taught in this book from the bottom up. We are provided a detailed understanding of soil, micronutrients, plant physiology, and other factors, and how each affects crops. Basic ecology and meteorology are also covered, from the most elementary concepts to the most multidimensional. The effects of temperature, light, humidity, fire, rainfall, and wind on crop production are developed in their own chapters.
        Case studies from traditional farms, involving indigenous practices well-adapted to their ecosystems, enrich the book and are developed in boxes as supplementary material. In spite of the wide range of topics, this box system clarifies and simplifies rather than overwhelming the mind. Special topics of related interest are also briefly presented in boxes. For example, the causes and consequences of global warming are given a box in Chapter 5 "Temperature," ozone depletion is explained in the chapter on light, and a short history of the origins of agriculture appears in Chapter 14, "Genetic Resources in Agroecosystems."
        In the second half of the book, "System-Level Interactions," the author explores how groups of organisms interact in the cropping environment, stressing the whole-system perspective. Chapters 13 and 14 look at the population ecology of mixtures and the management of genetic resources. Chapter 15 examines species interactions at the community level, with discussions of complexity, cooperation, and mutualisms in sustainable agriculture. Diversity and stability, intercropping, cover-cropping, rotations, minimum tillage, and other aspects of agroecosystem design and management are examined in detail in chapters 16 through 19, always with a firm grounding in the science of ecology.
        This will be an invaluable teaching tool in agricultural colleges for years to come. In could also be an excellent text for teaching environmental science courses for horticulture and ecology students as well as for agriculture majors.

--Laurie Swiadon, Bio-Integral Resource Center, Berkeley, CA.



From Education and Extension Materials for Sustainable Agriculture, Vol. 7
published by the Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

        The advantage of a book written by an experienced teacher is obvious in Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture. Steve Gliessman brings over 25 years of research and education experience to a text that has been tested several times with an upper-division class. The author knows the undergraduate learning environment, a perspective that is amply reflected in the book. . . .
        Although the book caters to a wide audience with different science backgrounds, it does not shy away from credible discussion of the important concepts of photosynthesis, plant nutrition, transpiration, and responses to the environment. In a section on plants and the environment, there are chapters on effects of light, temperature, rainfall, wind, soil, water, fire, and biotic factors. Although a brief chapter on each topic can only skim the surface, this is a useful introduction. . . that will lead the serious student to seek more detail. . . .
        The heart of Agroecology is the comprehensive section on system-level interactions, and in-depth look at how the principles of ecology can be applied to agriculture. This is approached through classical topics in ecology, such as population processes, diversity and species interactions, disturbance and succession, and energetics of systems. Population dynamics are used to illustrate the colonization of new areas, for example the planting of a crop and the dispersal, establishment, growth, and reproduction of weeds that share the crop's environment. . . .
        The book provides a call to action with chapters on how to achieve sustainability by better understanding the coevolution between cultures and their environments. There are lessons to be learned from current sustainable systems, but natural systems and some managed systems of cultivated crops. . . . Finally, the vital connection is made between sustainable production on the farm and sustainable food systems. This is a dimension not often discussed by classical agricultural scientists other than agricultural economists. Gliessman suggests that it is time to look both upstream and downstream, to better understand the landscape and community interactions that give us clues about total systems performance. He argues that narrowly defined economic factors provide a too simplistic analysis for what society today conceives as a complex issue with a number of bottom lines. Beyond the biological, physical, and ecological dimensions of the challenge, the author presents linkages of agroecology and the social contexts of agriculture. Who maintains these systems? Who benefits from them? And who is in charge of stewardship of resources? Not easy questions, but they are the ones that may well determine our common future.
        Steve Gliessman provides us with a remarkable and useful text for undergraduates--a good summary of his experience and the current state of thinking in this complex emerging field. . . . This is an excellent text, and one that should be considered by anyone teaching agroecology.

--Charles Francis, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE



From Biological Agriculture and Horticulture, Vol. 16 (1998)

        Agroecology is best described as an emerging discipline, applying ecological principles and methods to the study and management of agricultural systems. It has been dubbed the "science of sustainable agriculture" in another recent book by that name. But despite its great importance, a comprehensive text which introduces the subject clearly has been lacking until now.
        This book is a welcome addition to the small but growing literature on agroecology....[It] is aesthetically pleasing, with many black-and-white photographs, clear graphs, and helpful figures.
        [The] organizational scheme is deceptively simple: at one level the book might be read as an overview of crop production, autecology, population ecology, and systems ecology for the advanced undergraduate. However, the skillful interweaving of examples from agricultural research and management with exceptionally clear explanations of ecological principles and controversy keep this book stimulating yet highly practical, and relevant to students at any level.... the incorporation of both indigenous and technologically sophisticated practices provides grounds for discussion among more advanced students about options for improving agriculture.
        Although this is a fine book, it is not the last word on agroecology....But to his credit, Gliessman has given us a practical, provocative book which accurately reflects current understanding of agroecosystems, while pointing out the deficiencies which must still be addressed to create sustainable food systems.

--Molly Anderson



From Journal of Environmental Quality, Vol. 28 (1999)

        I have been looking for an introductory textbook on agroecology to add to my library for several years. I specifically wanted something I could read that provided an overview of agroecology as well as a book I could use as a reference when I needed information related to agroecological concepts, terminology, and illustrations. I also value a textbook that contains an extensive reference list in case I am interested in more in-depth study on a particular topic of interest. This book fit the bill admirably and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it and expanding my knowledge base.
        The book is an outgrowth of more than 20 years of the author's experiences in researching and teaching agroecology. Dr. Gliessman has had extensive international experience in tropical and temperate agriculture, small farm and large farm systems, traditional and more modern conventional farm management systems, and organic vs. synthetic chemical approaches. This experience has provided the author a wealth of material that has found its way into this book by way of illustrations, examples, photographs, case studies, and even thought-provoking discussion questions...
        At the end of each chapter is a listing of recommended reading of pertinent papers for the student who is interested in obtaining more in-depth information. Each listing is accompanied by an approximately 15- to 25-word description of what the reference contains. In addition, at the end of the book, there are more than 250 individual references (11 pages) that include reviews, research papers, books, theses and dissertations, reports, etc., all of which seem to have been carefully chosen and are usually recent additions to the literature of agroecology. For a student wanting to have both an introductory textbook and a book that will lead to a much greater and detailed understanding of agroecology, this book is the perfect starting point.
        Following the references at the end of the book are two additional sections...a 7-page glossary...[and] 11 index pages, which were more comprehensive than what is found in many books. For me, a good textbook requires a good index. The combination of the glossary and the comprehensive index was something I greatly appreciated.
        The book is printed in a large format with large print. It has an attractive cover and the price is reasonable. I will certainly use some of the examples and case studies when I next teach my soil biochemistry course. I also believe it would make a great textbook for a course totally devoted to agroecology.

--W.A. Dick, The Ohio State University




From American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, Vol. 15 (2000)

        . . . . Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture by Steve Gliessman very clearly and thoroughly educates the reader in the principles of ecology, while making the case that to approach sustainability, agriculture must be ecologically based.
        Gliessman (with contributing writer Robin Krieger) has written an excellent upper division undergraduate and beginning graduate student text for students of agricultural ecology. But the text is equally valuable to agriculture students whose course of study follows more conventional dogma; graduate students in rural sociology and agricultural economics; and those planning careers dealing with food security, community development, and agricultural policy issues. The book is well organized and, although the roles of animals in natural and agroecosystems are discussed, concentrates on plant agricultural ecology. The liberal use of special topics and case studies provides real-world application of principles being discussed. There is a very good annotated reading list at the end of each chapter and a useful glossary at the end of the book. . . .
        Traditional Meso-American agricultural systems, as well as those from developing and developed countries, are used as examples of sustainable, low-input agroecosystems. Knowledge of these systems and the lessons we can learn from them are invaluable. It would have been helpful to include additional case studies on sustainable approaches to commodity crop ecosystems like corn, soybean, or cotton, albeit presently monocultures, to demonstrate that the application of ecological principles is relevant to large-scale conventional agriculture. The author does, however, mention a long-term approach to addressing the annual monoculture of grains. He includes a special topic on efforts by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, to develop a perennial grain crop that would eliminate many environmental problems caused by continuous mono-cropping of annual grains. Even with development of a perennial grain crop, there will still be demand for annual grains like corn and wheat, and thus sustainable approaches to their production must still be developed.
        Agricultural food and fiber production systems can continue along conventional precepts, or develop with the understanding that they are complex ecosystems with attributes that we can work against or work with. Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture clearly points out the reasons why the former is not sustainable - and takes a great deal of control out of the hands of farmers - and why the latter is the only way to approach sustainability for agricultural ecosystems and the larger ecosystems in which they reside.

-- J.C. Mayne, USDA Southern SARE program, University of Georgia