Agroecology — The science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.

The core principles include:

  • conserving and using resources, such as manure, on the farm rather than bringing them in from other places;
  • generating and conserving energy on the farm;
  • rotating crops and livestock, thereby lessening reliance on fertilizer, pesticide, and fossil fuels;
  • practicing agroforestry where plants, shrubs, and trees are used to increase productivity;
  • diversifying genetic resources by cultivating multiple plant and animal varieties and by saving seeds.

At its foundation, agroecology is about listening to the small farmer.

Agroecosystem — An agricultural system understood as an ecosystem.

Agroforestry — The practice of including trees in crop- or animal-production agroecosystems.


Biomass — The mass of all the organic matter in a given system at a given point in time.


Carbon fixation — The part of the photosynthetic process in which carbon atoms are extracted from atmospheric carbon dioxide and used to make simple organic compounds that eventually become glucose.

Commodification — Turning what is normally a non-commodity into a commodity. Assigning economic value to something that traditionally would not be considered in economic terms, for example, persons valued only according to the work they are able and/or forced to do or nature valued only according to its consumer use-value.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) — A movement linking local consumers and farmers into communities.  Typical CSA’s consist of a group of consumer shareholders that pay a sum in advance in exchange for a regular selection (weekly, biweekly) of in-season crops produced by a farm.

Compost — Mixed decayed and decaying organic matter with available nutrients useful for fertilizer.


Deregulation — The process by which governments remove, reduce or simplify restrictions on business and individuals with the intent of encouraging the efficient operation of markets. Regulations that provided protections to low-income people, farmers, local businesses, the environment or other groups are often lost after deregulation.


Ecological diversity — The degree of heterogeneity of an ecosystem’s or agroecosystem’s species makeup, genetic potential, vertical spatial structure, horizontal spatial structure, trophic structure, ecological functioning, and change over time.

Ecosystem — A functional system of complementary relations between living organisms and their environment within a certain physical area.

Empire — The convergence of economic, political, cultural, geographic and military imperial interests, systems and networks for the purpose of amassing political power and economic wealth. Empire typically forces and facilitates the flow of wealth and power from vulnerable persons, communities and countries to the more powerful. The Bible is full of stories of empires rising, over-extending and falling. Empire today crosses all boundaries, strips and reconstructs identities, subverts cultures, subordinates nation states and can marginalize or co-opt religious communities.

Environmental resistance — The genetically-based ability of an organism to withstand stresses, threats, or limiting factors in the environment.


Family Farm – refers to a ‘family-sized’ farm, and the management of the farm is supplied by family members who lived there. If the farm is small, the bulk of the farm labor will be supplied by the family. Larger-scale family farms hire workers.

Note that in modern-day America, ‘family’ is a placeholder term. The constituents of a family may range from a single individual, an individual with children, partners (married or not) of any gender or transgender, with or without children, and may include extended family. Some family members work on the farm; others might not.

Globally most family farmers are women, and women are critical to carrying forward and passing along practical and skills and cultural traditions. The stereotype in the US had been of a male farmer, father figure, and this image persists. But the reality is that wives are inheriting farms across the nation from their husbands who tend to die before them, and the number of female beginning farmers is increasing steadily.

From the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, we have these criteria for a family farmer:

  • Family-sized farm.
  • Family either lives on or near the farm.
  • Family does the work on the farm.
  • Family generally owns the livestock, buildings, and land.
  • Family makes the management decisions.
  • Family patronizes local businesses when possible.
  • Family concerned about land stewardship and their neighbors’ quality of life–not just the bottom line.

Free market – is a market system (also called free market economy) in which the prices for goods and services are set freely by consent between sellers and consumers, in which the laws and forces of supply and demand are free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly, or other authority. A free market contrasts with a controlled market or regulated market, in which government or private industry intervene in supply and demand through non-market methods such as laws creating barriers to market entry or directly setting prices. An example of this in Big Ag is when large livestock corporations, like Tyson Foods, achieve captive supply (through vertical control of the market) of livestock and influence the market and pricing.

A market can only be free if there are enough sellers and buyers to stave off monopolistic tendencies. Tyson Foods and two other corporations control over 80% of the beef market and make a mockery of the U.S.’s so-called free market in this industry. In addition, freedom in the market would require other rules to be enforced in order to reign in greed and excessive accumulation. At the global scale, differences in market strength require particular trade rules to ensure fairness. A free market economy has not yet been realized by any country.

Although free markets are commonly associated with capitalism in contemporary usage and popular culture, free markets have been advocated by market anarchists, market socialists, and some proponents of cooperatives and advocates of profit sharing.  (adapted from Wikipedia with minor editorializing and help from Debbie Hillman and Brad Wilson)

Food system — The interconnected meta-system of agroecosystems, their economic, social, cultural, and technological support systems, and systems of food distribution and consumption.

Food security — Can be defined as the “state in which all persons obtain a nutritionally adequate, culturally acceptable diet at all times through local non-emergency sources.”

Food sovereignty — The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.


Genetic engineering Transfer, by biotechnological methods, of genetic material from one organism to another.

Genetic erosion — The loss of genetic diversity in domesticated organisms that has resulted from human reliance on a few genetically uniform varieties of food crop plants and animals.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) — An organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there.

Genetic vulnerability — The susceptibility of genetically uniform crops to damage or destruction caused by outbreaks of a disease or pest or unusually poor weather conditions or climatic change.





Liberalization — Liberalization is a relaxation of previous government regulations and protections which often occurs along with privatization. Liberalized and privatized public services may be dominated by just a few big companies, particularly in sectors with high capital costs, or high sunk cost, such as water, gas and electricity.



Neoliberalism / Neoliberal economics — In its dominant international use, neoliberalism refers to a political-economic philosophy that de-emphasizes or rejects government or other intervention in the economy; it would allow the market to operate without restraints or protections. In the U.S. and Canadian contexts neoliberal economics is more aligned with conservative and neoconservative political views than with liberal ones. Neoliberal economics focuses on free-market methods, fewer restrictions on business operations and property rights, rather than human rights. It promotes the market as the primary engine of human economic activity, emphasizing competition and growth and upholding individual self-interest over the common good. Neoliberal economic policies include privatization of services such as education, water and health care; deregulation which often results in reduced rights and protections for workers and the environment; reductions in government spending on social programs, such as education, and erosions in the safety net for the poor; the free flow of investments, products and jobs (but typically not persons) across national borders without restraint; and increased trade.



Privatization — The process of transforming property, businesses or natural resources (e.g., water) from public ownership or trust to private ownership and/or transferring the management of a service or activity from the government to the private sector. Corporate profits, not the good of the community or country, become the overriding concern.







World Trade Organization (WTO) — The successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the WTO deals with the rules of trade between nations at a near-global level; it is responsible for negotiating and implementing new trade agreements and is in charge of policing member countries’ adherence to all the WTO agreements, signed by the bulk of the world’s trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The structure of the WTO allows the interests of the major industrialized countries of the global North to dominate the processes and agreements.





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