A number of people have asked me how I came to work in agroecology and more recently in food security, so I thought I would try to tell my story briefly here and perhaps explain how I see food at the center of connecting the sustainability of our natural resources and all people. This story might also explain what an ecologist that studies minute soil fungi is doing on the Appalachian Foodshed Project and why I am passionate about the connections of sustainable agriculture to food security work.
I grew up poor. I was the only child to a hardworking single mom, who would cringe if she knew I was admitting this to such a wide audience. We didn’t say “food insecure.” We, especially my mom, were more ‘food worried’ than anything. The first of the month was okay and then I could see the worry on my mom’s face on how to stretch money for food and other things towards the end of the month. In times when it got bad we would use food stamps or go to churches for food donations, but only the stores far from our neighborhood and churches that weren’t our own. While this article may clearly crush my mum’s pride, all of my experiences have made me who I am today. I wasn’t naturally smart but I worked hard in school and my mom convinced me that education was something that no one can take away from you, even when you have nothing. I surprised everyone including myself that I could patch together enough scholarships to attend a good 4 year college in the University of California system. Even though I was working close to full time during college, I felt I was a world away from some of the worries we had before.
While I was accepted in the pre-med biology program in college, I quickly fell in love with ecology and switched majors. I often felt a bit guilty studying ecology when it didn’t seem to have a clearly profitable path, especially when my mom had sacrificed so much, but I loved trying to understand the complexity of interactions of organisms and their environment. To confuse my family a bit more, I applied for a tropical ecology study abroad course in Costa Rica that changed my world in many unintended ways. We didn’t travel in my family and I got a lot questions why I wanted to leave the US and specifically to Central America. But I wanted to naïvely ‘save’ the world and specifically the tropical forest fragments disappearing every minute and I was going to do this through conservation biology and ecology. While the program ran September through December, I left in June to work an experimental agroforestry farm located in Campo Dos y Media, on the Southwestern area of Costa Rica. It was the first time being in a different country and being in the country, or rural area, for me. For three months I lived with a rural coffee farming family, who treated me like part of their family. My Costa Rican ‘parents’, Negro and Olga would make fun of me on how slow I picked coffee, slower than their 5 year daughter, Francinny, and 7 year son Jimmy.
I learned a lot from them in this short time and much more than from any class I took. By any standards they were poor but they were happy. They lived and worked hard for the important things- family, a better life for their children and food on the table, which in their case came primarily from their land. These are the fundamentals that connect people across all lands and cultures and the right to healthy food is at the heart of it. They also taught me about sustainable resource management and how difficult decisions are made to achieve the fundamentals. I learned deforestation and land management is a lot more complex than statistics. I returned to the US and I knew I had to refocus on how to sustainably manage land already dedicated to agriculture, rather on just those fragments of natural areas. It is not realistic to put a fence around or restrict access to a natural habitat. Our only hope in conserving natural habitats and resources is understanding the food challenges people have around those areas and make sure they have a voice in how they manage their own resources. While I didn’t know at the time these thoughts were fundamental to the core of agroecology, community participatory research and food sovereignty, I later read about these ideas from Stephen Gliessman, Miguel Altieri, Chuck Francis, and others that collectively defined “Agroecology” as the application of concepts from ecology for the design and management of sustainable production systems and the greater food system. I knew I wanted to continue to study this and one of my ecology professors encouraged me to think about graduate school, something that seemed far out of reach for someone like me.
From my time in the tropics I also fell madly in love with fungi and specifically arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. While this sounds like an absurdly strange thing and mouthful to say, let me convince you briefly why fungi are exquisitely important and how these tiny belowground fungi are critical in agriculture. Fungi perform some of the most important, but underappreciated ecological roles. They are some of our most important decomposers across all ecosystems and agroecosystems and we would literally be up to our eyeballs in dead things without them. And you can’t forget their anthropological roles in beer, wine, bread, good cheese and penicillin to name a few. Arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, however, consist mostly of small soil hyphae (they don’t make the typical mushroom fruiting bodies) and live in roots with more than 80% of plants in the world across every ecosystem, including agriculture. They have been around for more than 400 million years and we can see their structures in fossils from some of the first land plants. They are ‘mutualistic symbionts’, which means they benefit plants namely through increased nutrient uptake, making plants with AM fungi typically bigger than those without the fungi. The AM fungal hyphae (See Fig. 2) are much smaller diameter than roots and can extend meters to miles beyond the root system, increasing the absorptive surface area for plants.
All this goodness is not for free, however, and the AM fungi do require carbon from host plants, but usually the benefits outweigh the costs of the relationship. In my graduate research, I studied the relationship of adding phosphorus fertilizers with and without AM fungi in various subsistence crops in the tropics. Phosphorus, not nitrogen, is most limiting in many tropical soils and many farmers, if they have money, apply phosphorus fertilizers, much of which can get washed away on heavily sloped areas or ‘immobilized’ with the high amounts of aluminum and iron in tropical soils. I worked with various farmers and I wanted to understand how AM fungi could increase phosphorus uptake and crop growth even under the phosphorus limiting conditions in the tropics. I found AM fungi increased nutrient uptake and growth of the various crops and we could reduce phosphorus fertilization at high rates. This meant more savings for producers and less potential environmental contamination. Essentially we were trying to create the right environment to get the AM fungi to ‘work for us’. Working with AM fungi is humbling and there is still so much in soils we don’t understand. I believe research in soil biology, like AM fungi, can help producers of all scales and systems manage their resources sustainably, while enhancing yields and reducing environmental impacts.
I am very fortunate to work at North Carolina State University and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) for the past 11 years where I began the Agroecology education program and primarily teach and hopefully inspire students to be food system leaders. I still continue to understand AM fungi benefits in various farming systems and crops in North Carolina ( See Fig 3). CEFS is one of the largest facilities in the nation dedicated to sustainable agriculture research, education and outreach and our programs extend to various communities throughout North Carolina and beyond.
It is a privilege to work on the Appalachian Foodshed Project and I have continued to be inspired by the people, organizations and projects I have gotten to know in Western North Carolina working collaboratively in food security. A few years ago I brought students from our CEFS Sustainable Agriculture Internship Program to the Dig In Community Garden in Yancey county, which is dedicated to growing food for those in the community that need it the most. John Hartom, one of the founders, spoke to the students and explained no matter where they came from they had a position of privilege and asked what they were going to do with that privilege in their life. I can appreciate the challenges of being food insecure directly and know that ‘food insecure’ is not a just label for other people that are separate from us. We all have roles in transforming our food system collectively together. While I didn’t come from privilege, I have it now and I am inspired every day to work hard to understand how agroecology can transform the lives of people from farmers to community for the better, something that I hope makes my mum proud.
-Dr. Michelle Schroeder-Moreno
Associate Professor of Agroecology, Department of Crop Science, NCSU and Assistant Director of Educational Programs, CEFS