Agroecology is the study of ecological processes that operate in agricultural production systems. The prefix agro- refers to agriculture. Bringing ecological principles to bear in agroecosystems can suggest novel management approaches that would not otherwise be considered.
Agroecologists study a variety of agroecosystems, and the field of agroecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming, whether it be organic, integrated, or conventional; intensive or extensive. Although it has much more common thinking and principles with some of the before mentioned farming systems.
Agroecologists do not unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture but instead assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with natural, social and human assets. Agroecology proposes site-specific manner of studying agroecosystems, and as such, it recognizes that there is no universal formula or recipe for the success and maximum well-being of an agroecosystem. Thus, agroecology is not defined by certain management practices, such as the use of natural enemies in place of insecticides, or polyculture in place of monoculture.
Instead, agroecologists may study questions related to the four system properties of agroecosystems: productivity, stability, sustainability and equitability. As opposed to disciplines that are concerned with only one or some of these properties, agroecologists see all four properties as interconnected and integral to the success of an agroecosystem.
Recognizing that these properties are found on varying spatial scales, agroecologists do not limit themselves to the study of agroecosystems at any one scale: gene-organism-population-community-ecosystem-landscape-biome, field-farm-community-region-state-country-continent-global.
Agroecologists study these four properties through an interdisciplinary lens, using natural sciences to understand elements of agroecosystems such as soil properties and plant-insect interactions, as well as using social sciences to understand the effects of farming practices on rural communities, economic constraints to developing new production methods, or cultural factors determining farming practices.
Agroecology is defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as “the study of the relation of agricultural crops and environment”. This definition refers to the "-ecology" part of "agroecology" narrowly as the natural environment.
Following this definition, an agroecologist would study agriculture's various relationships with soil health, water quality, air quality, meso- and micro-fauna, surrounding flora, environmental toxins, and other environmental contexts.
A more common definition of the word can be taken from Dalgaard et al., who refer to agroecology as the study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment within agricultural systems. Consequently, agroecology is inherently multidisciplinary, including factors from agronomy, ecology, sociology, economics and related disciplines. In this case, the “-ecology” portion of "agroecology is defined broadly to include social, cultural, and economic contexts as well. Francis et al. also expand the definition in the same way, but put more emphasis on the notion of food systems.
Agroecology is also defined differently according to geographic location. In the global south, the term often carries overtly political connotations. Such political definitions of the term usually ascribe to it the goals of social and economic justice; special attention, in this case, is often paid to the traditional farming knowledge of indigenous populations. North American and European uses of the term sometimes avoid the inclusion of such overtly political goals. In these cases, agroecology is seen more strictly as a scientific discipline with less specific social goals.