An agroecosystem is the basic unit of study in agroecology, and is somewhat arbitrarily defined as a spatially and functionally coherent unit of agricultural activity, and includes the living and nonliving components involved in that unit as well as their interactions.
An agroecosystem can be viewed as a subset of a conventional ecosystem. As the name implies, at the core of an agroecosystem lies the human activity of agriculture. However, an agroecosystem is not restricted to the immediate site of agricultural activity (e.g. the farm), but rather includes the region that is impacted by this activity, usually by changes to the complexity of species assemblages and energy flows, as well as to the net nutrient balance. Traditionally an agroecosystem, particularly one managed intensively, is characterized as having a simpler species composition and simpler energy and nutrient flows than "natural" ecosystem. Likewise, agroecosystems are often associated with elevated nutrient input, much of which exits the farm leading to eutrophication of connected ecosystems not directly engaged in agriculture.
Forest gardens are probably the world's oldest and most resilient agroecosystem. Forest gardens originated in prehistoric times along jungle-clad river banks and in the wet foothills of monsoon regions. In the gradual process of a family improving their immediate environment, useful tree and vine species were identified, protected and improved whilst undesirable species were eliminated. Eventually superior foreign species were selected and incorporated into the family's garden.
Some major organizations are hailing farming within agroecosystems as the way forward for mainstream agriculture. Current farming methods have resulted in over-stretched water resources, high levels of erosion and reduced soil fertility. According to a report by the International Water Management Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme, there is not enough water to continue farming using current practices; therefore how critical water, land, and ecosystem resources are used to boost crop yields must be reconsidered. The report suggested assigning value to ecosystems, recognizing environmental and livelihood tradeoffs, and balancing the rights of a variety of users and interests, as well addressing inequities that sometimes result when such measures are adopted, such as the reallocation of water from poor to rich, the clearing of land to make way for more productive farmland, or the preservation of a wetland system that limits fishing rights.
One of the major efforts of disciplines such as agroecology is to promote management styles that blur the distinction between agroecosystems and "natural" ecosystems, both by decreasing the impact of agriculture (increasing the biological and trophic complexity of the agricultural system as well as decreasing the nutrient inputs/outflow) and by increasing awareness that "downstream" effects extend agroecosystems beyond the boundaries of the farm (e.g. the Corn Belt agroecosystem includes the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico). In the first case, polyculture or buffer strips for wildlife habitat can restore some complexity to a cropping system, while organic farming can reduce nutrient inputs. Efforts of the second type are most common at the watershed scale. An example is the National Association of Conservation Districts' Lake Mendota Watershed Project, which seeks to reduce runoff from the agricultural lands feeding into the lake with the aim of reducing algal blooms.
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