Traditional Agroecological Knowledge: Where Does Cultural Wisdom Lie?

November 6, 2014
By Bertie Weddell
Gambian baboon.  Photo: Tim Ellis via Flickr CC.

Gambian baboon. Photo: Tim Ellis via Flickr CC.

Near the beginning of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley mentions dietary taboos among his Gambian ancestors. Eating monkeys, baboons, bullfrogs, wild pigs, and eggs of wild birds was forbidden. When I first read that passage, a good many years ago, I thought those taboos were wasteful superstitions. Much later, I wondered whether the taboos played a role in conservation, or whether they had other functions, such as promoting group cohesion, that were opaque to me.

As my attitude changed, I wondered: Where does cultural wisdom lie? How do we recognize and evaluate traditional knowledge? Specifically, what insights do traditional practices provide for improving agriculture?

CowCrossingWithTankTraditions often have effects that are not obvious. Changes imposed on natural or cultural systems without understanding of the broader context of those systems can have unintended, and sometimes disastrous, consequences (see my discussion of J. Stephen Lansing’s Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali, below). Or they may simply be irrelevant. Chad Kruger gives a hilarious example of a contextually superficial “silver bullet” approach in his post: When engineering a green solution has gone too far….

How can we avoid undermining sustainable traditional practices, while applying research and technology in ways that improve food security and conserve biodiversity? How can we better understand the strengths and weaknesses of traditional agroecological systems?

Andy McGuire’s post Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it and last week’s CSANR symposium on Saving Nature and Improving Agriculture: Where does Nature’s Wisdom Lie? each posed this question of nature’s wisdom. Ford Denison suggested that we should look to evolutionary adaptation for ideas about how to improve agriculture.

Cultural evolution differs from species evolution in important ways, but there are some parallels. Natural selection does not necessarily produce results that are consistent with our goals for agriculture. Neither does cultural evolution. Similarly, although traditional agriculture has produced some spectacular successes (agricultural systems that have persisted for millennia), it has also resulted in failures. Ancient Mesopotamia, a fertile “cradle of civilization”, is now desert, in part because of excessive siltation from early agriculture.

I certainly don’t want to romanticize traditional agricultural systems. Sometimes they are ecologically unsustainable, and sometimes they are unacceptable for ethical reasons. For example, I would not argue for maintaining an agroecosystem that kept population in check through periodic famines. The tough question is: how do we make sure we are not missing something important when we attempt to replace old ag with new ag?

During the panel discussion at last week’s symposium, Denison spoke of the vast store of information coded in an individual orchid, information resulting from millions of years of natural selection for traits that enable it to survive in its environment. Similarly, cultures embody vast amounts of understanding about how to live in different environments. How can we conserve the cultural web of life that Wade Davis terms the ethnosphere, the “old growth forests of the mind”, and yet modify modes of production and the control of production so that people have enough to eat?

Rice terraces of Bali using traditional irrigation. Photo: I Nengah Januartha via Flickr CC

Rice terraces of Bali using traditional irrigation. Photo: I Nengah Januartha via Flickr CC

Clearly, one thing we can do is use interdisciplinary approaches. I greatly admire Lansing’s Perfect Order, in which he describes hierarchical networks of water temples in Bali, where small groups of farmers regulate the water supply to rice fields. Lansing used computer simulations, historical documents, and field work in ecology, anthropology, and archaeology, as well as systems theory, to arrive at an understanding of how Balinese cosmology led to a finely tuned, flexible irrigation system that optimized yield, avoided water shortages, and controlled pests.

Unfortunately, when modernization caused the traditional water control structures to be supplanted with a less sensitive system regulated by gates, pest outbreaks and water shortages ensued. Farmers removed the gates.

I realize that time and funds for this kind of long-term, multidisciplinary collaboration aren’t always, or even often, available. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for a deep understanding of agricultural societies different from our own. I agree with what David Granatstein wrote in his post “From micro- to macro- : what are we ignoring in agriculture?: “there are great opportunities for improving our agricultural systems in the future, if we first can see the whole ‘elephant’, not just the trunk, or the tail, or the foot.” I suggest that a part of the elephant that is often neglected is traditional agroecological knowledge in its cultural contexts.


Haley, A. (1976). Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Doubleday Books.

Lansing, J. S. (2006). Perfect Order: Recognizing Complexity in Bali. Princeton University Press.

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