Key terms and concepts:
agriculture, industrial: The modern, industrial approach to agriculture that focuses on the mechanized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and monoculture crops, particularly hybrid and genetically modified varieties of commodity crops like maize, wheat, rice, and soybeans. The methods of industrial agriculture are technoscientific, economic, and political. The objectives are to increase yields of staple grains, lower the cost of food, and eliminate the need for human labor by using chemical soil amenities and machines like tractors, plows, and harvesters. It relies heavily on fossil fuels at all points of the process. Quantity of food takes precedent over quality.
agriculture, mechanized: the practice of using machinery in an agricultural field. The objective is to minimize human labor, a hallmark of industrial agriculture. Agricultural machinery includes the tractor, harrow, plow, cultivator, stone picker, seed drill, automatic irrigation, sprayer, harvester, huller, and others.
agriculture, traditional: an indigenous form of farming, result of the coevolution of local social and environmental systems and that exhibit a high level of ecological rationale expressed through the intensive use of local knowledge and natural resources, including the management of agrobiodiversity in the form of diversified agricultural systems (See Altieri)
Agroecology: The science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecoystems.
annual: A plant that flowers, produces seeds, and dies in one growing season. Examples: maize, beans, tomatoes, chiles, macal, amaranth.
biodiversity: the variation of life forms within a given ecosystem, biome, or the entire Earth.
ecosystem: A functional system of complementary relations between living organisms and their environment within a certain physical area
El Pilar: An ancient Maya city center and archeological site on the present-day border of Cayo District, Belize and Peten, Guatemala (see map).
Ethnobotany: The study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants.
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 genetic structure has been altered in the lab by incorporating a foreign gene, often termed "gene splicing." This technology is a development of industrial agriculture. The effects of these organisms are not entirely known. Example: the Flavr Savr Tomato has a gene spliced into its DNA to prevent the breakdown of the tomato’s cell walls so that it will stay firm when ripe, enabling the shipping of ripe tomatoes. Other examples include "Round-up Ready" soybeans that have an herbicide resistant gene from bacteria spliced into its DNA, and Bt Corn, with an insect-killing gene added so that the plant can produce its own insecticide.
Green Revolution: The transformation of agriculture that began in 1945, in which science and technology were applied to agriculture to achieve higher yields at a lower labor cost. Hybrid plants were developed that could be processed entirely with machines. Chemicals like ammonium nitrate, left over from WWII, were used to make synthetic fertilizers, and other chemicals were converted for pesticides (see Pollan 2006 paragraph 7). This system was introduced to developing countries like Mexico and India, where the goals of increasing yields and lowering the cost of food were said to have been achieved. These now conventional practices, however, have also resulted in great ecological damage, such as the desertification of farmland from irrigation, cultural damage with the loss of traditional land management approaches and environmental knowledge, and loss of traditional foods and change in eating habits with the globalized diet.
hand cultivation: Tending a garden or agricultural plot with skilled labor rather than an indiscriminant machine. It enables a farmer to engage with the landscape and his or her plants, encouraging the practice of polyculture.
hybrid crops: Plants that have been crossbred to alter the genetic make up of the plant so as to produce specific traits: larger seeds, looser husk, and faster maturity. They are known for their vigor and increased resistance to insects and disease. They can be cultivated in less fertile soils, but are consequently less nutritious. Thus, to gain the same nutritional value one needs to consume more calories. Industrial agriculture focuses on the cultivation of hybrid crops.
manure, green: Plant matter added to the soil, or a cover crop planted on soil and tilled under, that sustains or enhances fertility.
manure, synthetic: see "Manure, chemical"
Maya forest garden: The traditional Maya orchard plot that evolves from the milpa. Like the milpa, it uses a polyculture and permaculture system of cultivation, and is managed with local, organic resources rather than chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Though it mostly focuses on the cultivation of perennial plants, a few annuals and herbs are still grown, providing for a diverse array of household needs. It will eventually cycle back into a hardwood forest.
Maya forest gardener: A traditional Maya farmer who cultivates the cycle of milpa, forest garden, and forest using extensive traditional knowledge and practices that promote the ecology, biodiversity, and growth of the ecosystem. This includes nurturing the plants, providing for animals and insects, as well as serving for household needs.
milpa, traditional: a traditional Mesoamerican and Maya agricultural field that employs a system of land use. This system cycles from closed forest canopy to a field dominated by annual crops to an orchard garden, and from an orchard garden back to the closed canopy. It uses a polyculture and permaculture system of cultivation, and is managed with local, organic resources rather than chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Annuals dominate the milpa in the first years and farmers select from a suite of more than 70 crop species. Traditionally, several kinds of maize, beans, squash, and root crops are cultivated amidst a complex agroecology of herbs. At the outset, forest gardeners will begin to plant perennials so the milpa cycles into the forest garden.
milpa cycle: The traditional Maya agricultural cycle that advantages the ecology and microclimate of the natural environment, encouraging biodiversity. It is more accurate to think of the milpa cycle as a rotation of annuals with successional stages of forest perennials during which all phases receive careful human management. The cycle begins with the clearing and burning of a piece of mature forest. The cleared milpa is planted with annuals that require full sun. From the milpa, the field cycles into a forest garden, with a greater emphasis on perennials. Eventually, the farmer will plant hardwoods that will mature and look much like the forest that was there before it was cleared.
monoculture: The practice of growing one crop on an agricultural field. Monoculture, embedded in the industrial agricultural system, makes it possible for mechanized farming and all its attendant capital investment: hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides based on petrochemicals.
organic: Foods that are grown without the use of petrochemical pesticides and artificial fertilizers, free from contamination by industrial waste, and processed without ionizing radiation or food additives. Livestock are reared without the routine use of antibiotics and growth hormones, foraging on the landscape. Generally, organic produce may not be genetically modified.
petrochemicals: Chemical products made from raw materials of petroleum or other hydrocarbon origin. Example: synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
perennials: Plants that have a life cycle lasting more than two growing seasons, either dying back or growing continuously. Example: trees
permaculture: a form of agriculture in which a plot of land is maintained in cultivation and constantly in production by relying on renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem.
polyculture: a form of agriculture imitating the diversity of natural ecosystems by cultivating multiple plants (crops and trees) together in the same plot. Techniques include crop rotation, multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, and alley cropping. Polyculture requires considerable human skill, and has many benefits: building biodiversity, sustainability, and healthier soil, preventing erosion, and decreasing susceptibility of crops to disease and pests.
resources, local: Resources readily available from the farm or local community that a farmers uses in managing his/her fields. Dead plant matter from the field is left as "green fertilizer." Water for the fields is from local streams or wells. Farm animals produce manure and are fed from the farmer’s fields.
soil amenities: substances added to the soils of agricultural land to increase production, such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. They may be made from chemicals like ammonium nitrate, or be organic substances like ashes, dead plant matter, animal manure, and even companion plants.
Ford, A. (2006). The Maya forest Garden and El Pilar: A Coloring Book, National Institute of Culture and History, Belize.
Gliessman, S. R. (1998). Agroecology: Ecological Processes in Sustainable Agriculture. Chelsea, Sleeping Bear Press.
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