On Agroecology and its (Potential) Co-optation

I’ve not been able to update the blog lately, but have been working on some writing for further down the line (i.e. later book sections). I kind of got sick of posting the negative “what is wrong with the food system” stuff, and I hope I can speed through those sections and get onto solutions soon.

In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the later sections. I wrote this book section probably 3 months ago, and in the meantime, Eric Holt-Giménez and Miguel Altieri beat me to the punch, writing up this blog that describes some of the same issues I was trying to raise. Namely, they and I are concerned with the potential for agroecology to lose its key politics in being translated to contexts of the industrial “Global North”.

I’m currently working on this issue very directly, through my work with a large, national environmental NGO, while working at the same time with scholars involved in agroecology (like Miguel and Eric), and movements of farmers and farmworkers on the ground in different parts of the USA. I will say, there is certainly lots of tension at this historical moment, lots to do, lots of potential, and lots of danger.

I’m excited to see what happens in the next 2-3 years. In the meantime, here’s the post (which will be put in the Guide later on):

As mentioned, agroecology is a knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive method of production, involving practices that regenerate ecological systems and utilize ecological principles and processes. Agroecology is not simply a set of practices that compose a method of production. It is also a science to improve those methods, and a social movement spearheaded by the traditional groups that have crafted and advanced them, and which (importantly) foregrounds those groups’ rights to produce agroecologically—against a failing industrial system that would displace them.

Agroecological practices apply readily available fertilizers like animal manures and compost to create and maintain healthy living soils, which in turn support healthy crops. Since it is the soil that feeds the plant, soil is treated with respect and conserved. Agroecology uses crop inter-planting and rotations: a diversity of crops in space and time—instead of “mono” (i.e. single) cultures, it uses “poly” (i.e. many) cultures—avoids major pest and disease pressures. When pest control is needed, agroecological farms seek biological solutions (for example, by planting crops that deter a particular pest) rather than chemical ones. Although all farming uses water, agroecological methods seek to reduce water needs and avoid wasteful water use.

The practices of agroecology are important, but it’s important to keep in mind that they are based on principles rather than hard and fast rules about what practice is the “right” one. Agroecology is essentially about creating place-based farming systems, appropriate to particular social and ecological conditions.

At the same time, the science of agroecology is about applying these principles using scientific research to understand these conditions well, and combining this scientific knowledge with the experience-based wisdom of farmers themselves, and other ecologically minded stewards of the land and sea (especially indigenous people).

Leading and early proponents of the science of agroecology acknowledge this debt to indigenous and peasants, and in fact have defined agroecology not simply as a science, or set of practices, but as a science, practice, and social movement. This is because some of the most successful means for spreading agroecology have come not from scientists in the academy or development organizations, but from movements of farmers and producers themselves. They have used “farmer to farmer” models of horizontal training and awareness building to spread agroecological practices when governments and corporate interests have lacked interest.

The social movement that has most advanced agroecology has been that of peasants proclaiming a vision of “food sovereignty”. Denying the benefits of capitalist, industrial agriculture as the foundation for an equitable sustainable food system, these movements (especially those originating in Latin America) have promoted agroecology among its members, developed the science alongside scientist collaborators, and fought for policies to protect and enhance food producer communities’ abilities to practice agroecology.

The result of these efforts has been a partial mainstreaming of agroecology as a concept, wherein even bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are considering it a viable method towards sustainable food systems. However, with this mainstreaming comes the strong risk of co-optation: particularly, the paring back of agroecology simply to a depoliticized agronomic concept of applying ecology to farming.

This is especially dangerous to the movements who have advanced agroecology on the ground, as they risk being subsumed by the same interests who already hold so much power in the food system. Large landowners, food and agrichemical corporations, and state governments all have an interest in bolstering their own legitimacy (and simultaneously undercutting that of their opposition) by adopting non-threatening components of agroecology (i.e. the agronomic techniques aspect).

For this reason, it is of crucial importance to keep agroecology within/alongside the concept of food sovereignty, and to promote its existence as not simply a “science” or set of practices, but also a movement with aims to regain control of the food system by farmers and non-elites.

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