Agroecology: what would it take for the USA to join the party?

I recently had the opportunity to attend the UN FAO’s 2nd International Symposium on Agroecology, in Rome, Italy. It was fun, and very interesting. I had a lot to say about it, and started writing something really long … a kind of internal analysis of the issues I saw there, especially around the sensitive issues of Agroecology being “co-opted” and transformed through its uptake into institutions like FAO.

However, after beginning that, I realized that I could re-focus the piece towards the US context, and how little there is a strong presence of the US, its farmers and food sovereignty/agroecology movement actors, in these international spaces like the Symposium. And how does this weak presence relate to my perennial problem with US food movements: the apolitical/de-political and un-internationalist nature of its politics.

That led to me writing what I’ve printed below … which has now been edited into a shorter form, for publication at the popular US food politics blog Civil Eats. You can find that published version HERE.

As always, do let me know what you think!

From the globe to home: what is “agroecology” to the U.S. food movement?

By Antonio Roman-Alcalá

The word “agroecology” is rarely heard in the United States, even among people concerned with both agriculture and ecology. Instead, talk is of “sustainable agriculture”, “regenerative agriculture”, or “organic farming”. Is agroecology something new that offers added value, and which the US food movement should pay attention to? Or is it just another term—an esoteric one at that—that competes for our attention?

All these terms share a commitment to food production without negative impacts on the environment. What makes agroecology different, potentially, is the combination of its scientific bona fides and its rootedness in the practices and political organization of small-scale food producers from across the globe. The former – as seen in multiple scientific elaborations of agroecology’s principles, like diversity and diversification – is complemented by the latter, which gives agroecology meaning beyond simply “ecological agriculture”. As José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) put it recently:

“When we speak of agroecology, we are not speaking of strictly technical matters.”

Placing much stronger emphasis on the off-the-farm social, political, and cultural changes needed to support ecological farming, agroecology demands a holistic view of agriculture, linking issues like poverty, gender inequality, access to land, and human rights. Agroecology is as much about preserving food cultures, respecting indigenous land tenure, and dismantling the power of multinational agribusiness corporations as it is about cover cropping and compost.

Perhaps surprisingly, this holistic and inherently political “agroecology” is gaining traction in international science and policy. Since its favorable reception in the “International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development” (IAASTD) in 2009, written by an international team of 400 scientists, agroecology has also received praise from intergovernmental agencies like the UNCTAD, UNEP, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

As the preeminent global intergovernmental institution on food issues, the FAO itself is now promoting agroecology, and earlier this month held the 2nd International Symposium on Agroecology at its headquarters in Rome. The gathering attracted almost 800 participants, with representatives from 72 governments and 350 “non-state actors” including civil society, academia, and the private sector. Farmers from Senegal, academics from the US, French parliamentarians, and staff of CropLife International, among others, gathered to debate FAO’s claim of the urgent need to “scale up” agroecology as a means of achieving a more sustainable food system.

Clearly, agroecology is no longer a marginal idea, and no longer the purview only of longtime advocates like the global farmer social movement La Vía Campesina (which promotes agroecology as a central tool to achieve “food sovereignty”). If not mainstream yet, agroecology is in the process of being mainstreamed. In this process, its very definition is being contested. Scholars agree that agroecology includes aspects of science, farming practice, and social movement. But debate rages about whether or not agroecology can be incorporated into conventional agriculture without losing its transformative meaning.

At the Symposium, Paulo Peterson, a farmer-educator from Brazil whose family farming nonprofit has for thirty years been pushing agroecology, came squarely down against the idea that conventional agriculture can be transformed into agroecology, given vested interests and conflicting views on how to best empower the world’s food producers. Like many other members of civil society I met, Peterson saw FAO’s newfound interest in agroecology as positive but also potentially threatening to agroecology’s transformative potential, because FAO officials seem tied to the idea of agroecology as a big tent that includes all “stakeholders”. Countering this, Peterson argued:

“We have to leave behind the idea of “coexistence” [between industrial and agroecological farming]. We either have the dominant paradigm taking over or the other one takes over. The dominant paradigm must change; there is no possible combination of paradigms here. You can’t scale up agroecology if policies continue to support agribusiness.”

What might the rise in interest in agroecology mean for those committed to more ecological agriculture in the U.S. context? After all, the discussion of agroecology at FAO and in many contexts has been directed towards the “developing world” and its “peasants”, not U.S. farmers and activists. While it is highly unlikely that the FAO’s promotion of agroecology will have much effect on the policies of the Trump administration, it’s still worth considering how this institutional shift on the international level might relate to those working for change in the “belly of the beast” of industrial agriculture.

Europe, more like the U.S. in some ways, offers some hope. At the Symposium multiple Europeans including France’s former Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll and member of EU Parliament Maria Heubach indicated that agroecology applies to the developed “West” as well. In her plenary presentation Heubach said:

“The system we have in Europe, where agriculture is closely linked to capital—is going off the rails. … We are facing both an economic crises and an ecological crisis. We have to focus our policies and find a third way between subsistence agriculture and intensive technology. We can’t pay into industrial systems on the one hand and on the other hand try to get agroecology moving forward.”

Yet this pretty much describes what is happening in Europe: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union still largely supports conventional agriculture, while progressive policies and programs (like France’s 4/1000 soil carbon campaign) dot the landscape, and Europe’s farm movements get increasingly organized to push for broad political change.

While Europe moves towards agroecology, it seems that to make the global movement more successful, the U.S. food movement needs to get its house in order. While there is a growing recognition that the U.S. movement has for too long failed to address pivotal social justice issues in agriculture—to emphasize the political side of agroecology—it remains the case that organic farming and sustainable agriculture circles tend to at best take such issues as “add ons” to the primary goal of making production practices more ecological. Such is the case with the new “Regenerative Organic” label, which seeks to improve upon Organic in part by adding on “fair trade” certifications to existing Organic producers.

Globally, agroecology movements have had almost the opposite approach, building ecological agriculture by pushing for social justice for some of the planet’s poorest people. And these movements by and large have not looked to markets as the most crucial avenues for change. Why? Because they have seen change come about when the most marginalized get organized, make moral claims, and push a transformative political vision—not as a result of commercial enterprises pursuing labeling schemes that work at the “pragmatic” margins of social justice issues.

Social movements of small-scale food producers like Vía Campesina, along with allies like the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) and the Pesticide Action Network, have been organizing civil society groups to engage the global governance institutions like FAO for decades. Marginalized food producers have struggled to be seen, heard, and to have their production methods and political vision—that is, agroecology and food sovereignty—recognized. FAO’s uptake of agroecology is the result, as seen in its newly launched initiative to promote agroecology among governments, researchers and the private sector. Movements have also achieved other similar changes at the global level.

Even FAO’s da Silva has adopted the rhetoric of the movements, insisting in his closing speech at the Symposium that the leadership role of small-scale farmers must be centered in any effort to scale up agroecology: “we are going to strengthen the role of agroecology in FAO’s work, [and in this] strengthen the role of family and small-scale farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, women and youth.” In contrast, the Regenerative Organic label is scale-neutral, and gives no precedence to any particular social sector.

Though it may lag behind much of the world in terms of agroecology, the U.S. still maintains a powerful influence through its farming image, its science, its money, and its policy. By leveraging these influences, U.S. food movements can help amplify the global movement.

At the Symposium, Ananth Guruswamy of India, a funder of farmer-driven agroecology in India, told me that were farmers around the world to see U.S. farmers as innovators in agroecology, rather than in high technology and chemical use, they would more likely to follow suit. Could the US movement do better in showcasing abroad how our agroecology works domestically—that our farmers can look like indigenous seed keepers and multi-ethnic ecological cooperatives, and not just the guys from John Deere advertisements?

U.S. agricultural scientists are often considered leaders in their respective fields, with scholars in other parts of the globe often following their lead. How could they turn their work towards support for agroecology?

“Scholars interested in advancing agroecology must turn to their own institutions, see how we do and don’t work with and for farmers, and orient our own research to the kinds of partnerships and practices that we’d like to see everywhere: participatory, democratic, grassroots-focused,” says Devon Sampson, a UC Santa Cruz-trained agroecologist who attended the Symposium.

The U.S. is also home to many of the largest private philanthropies working on food systems, such as the relatively scrappy Agroecology Fund, which gives about one million dollars every two years, and the ginormous Gates Foundation, which gives about 80 times that amount – not to mention the investments and grants into agriculture channeled through various government agencies. While some funders (like Gates) have proven themselves antithetical to the principles of agroecology, and are opposed vociferously by agroecological movements in Africa, more progressive philanthropists and individual donors have supported agroecology here and abroad. In fact, the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation was one of the major funders for the Symposium. Importantly, as the Agroecology Fund’s director Daniel Moss described in his presentation to the Symposium, funding social movements of small-scale producers empowers them to provide the political pressure that can generate major government support and investment in agroecological transitions. Funding farmer movements is possibly the single greatest investment in agroecology that a funder can make. (And don’t forget that, according to an FAO report, farmers themselves are the single greatest investor group in all of agriculture).

Though policy is clearly important to the transformative vision of agroecology, U.S. food movements have unfortunately been relatively weak politically, exhibiting little influence on national policies compared with movements in Brazil, India, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Mali. With some exceptions—like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the “Section 2501” program that has generated funding opportunities for “socially disadvantaged farmers”­—the US Farm Bill remains stacked in favor of corporate industrial agribusiness interests. Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s alternative “Food and Farm Act” offers hopes for a new direction, but it faces steep odds gaining the necessary support in congress. If the poorest peasants in the world can influence a conservative institution like the FAO to take on their rhetoric and move global policy in their direction, what is stopping U.S. food movements?

I’d argue that most U.S.-based, consumer-side food activism fails on two counts: (1) it barely pays attention to what is going on outside of the country, losing out on wisdom and learning from counterparts abroad; and (2) domestically it focuses far too much on technical issues and ecology, and fails to make the much-needed, compelling moral social justice case for ending the corporate industrial food system. Perhaps by branching out and elevating the moral rather than ecological stakes—that is, by joining the world struggle for agroecology, and not just “sustainable agriculture”—the food movement can make greater change at home and abroad.

The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance is one network that consciously links domestic and international food issues and promotes agroecology, helping to illustrate what this would look like in practice.

On international issues, the Alliance mobilizes its members to advocate in solidarity with agroecology practitioners from around the planet—many who are under dire threat of physical harm. Honduras’ peasant and indigenous organization COPINH has fought against damming of their indigenous landscape and conversion of agroecological farms into export-based Oil Palm—and continues to fight for democracy since the U.S.-backed coup of democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009. COPINH leader Berta Caceres was murdered in her own home in 2016. Alliance members have written letters to policy-makers and participated in delegations to prevent further human rights violations.

On the domestic front, the food movement can focus its energies on making the kinds of holistic connections—in policy and practice—that agroecology implies. The movement could seriously discuss what food justice looks like for indigenous people, whose ancestral lands remain stolen and degraded, and whose rights continue to be trampled for purposes of resource extraction. If our movements were to truly ally with global movements for a “feminist agroecology”, perhaps we could emphasize in policy advocacy not just the needs of existing food producers (who are overwhelmingly male, white, and land-rich), but those of women, “minority”, and money-poor farmers who mostly lack stable access to land. Movements could also learn to better partner with and support movements of farmworkers—whose interests are not the same as farm owners, no matter what label they produce under. And food movements could seek political alliances with low-income workers in general, who often can’t access the products of niche ecological production, but who have been at the forefront of some of the more successful recent social movements for change, from the Fight for $15, to the recent teachers’ strikes in largely rural states.

If there’s one thing that U.S. food movements could learn from the global movement for agroecology, it’s that movements move government policy, not the other way around. Without a wide and active social movement with an ambitious vision for change, we’ll continue with nothing but crumbs from the Farm Bill table. We don’t need to use the term “agroecology” to do this work, but we should certainly use its lessons.

Critique is not dismissal

It happened to me (and I’m guessing something like this has happened to you, too): I was pointing out something wrong with a post on Facebutt that the poster had obviously supported. In this case, John Oliver’s debt relief stunt where he bought up and eliminated $15 million of medical debt. You can watch the 20-minute clip here:

Thing is, I wasn’t and am not ‘against’ John Oliver. I didn’t say anything about him being irrelevant, irredeemable, or speak about his work or person in generalities. I just shared information that complicates (and maybe implicates) his behavior in this instance. Yes, it’s a good thing he drew attention to the horrors of debt from his position of relative influence as a well-known comedian – good on him! – but maybe it’s not a good thing that in doing so he directly took from the work of radical activists, didn’t give them direct credit for it, left behind their structural critique, and profited from it personally (for further explanation see footnote [1]). Others may think differently, but I do think there is something worth questioning here.

For posting this article in response to the original FB post and an accompanying comment, I was attacked (luckily, not by the poster, who is a friend but one of their friends) in what I’m finding is becoming a usual fashion: I was accused of being “rude” with the implication that I was a purist for not accepting things that are good as good. Basically I was treated like an asshole for bringing in this critique.

In dealing with people who I’m close to, I feel justified in being able to critique behaviors without critiquing them as a person. “Hey, could you wash the dishes more promptly?” does not mean: “I think you’re a lazy inconsiderate asshole” (although maybe sometimes it does!). People and actions aren’t the same, and critiquing someone’s particular behavior is not the same as dismissing that person or their overall value.

Perhaps I feel defensive of the act of criticism because I’m now indoctrinated into the ways of the ‘academic’. Academics critique all the time. It doesn’t mean they are against or dismissive of the thing they are critiquing. In fact, almost all of the people I know who study social justice-oriented social movements academically are supportive of those movements (and often do movement work themselves) while they spend intellectually energy poking at these movements and asking tough questions about their functionality and issues.

In this sense, critical means questioning for purposes of improvement, it does not mean dismissing. But to so many social media commentators claiming “Left” concern, to critique is automatically to tear down.

Part of the response to my posting was to accuse me of ‘armchair politics’ – i.e. “what are YOU doing about this issue?” I totally relate to this critique of critics, because too often in critique there is the smacking of self-righteousness, of people seeming to claim a moral high ground compared with others. The fact that so much activism now is simply “virtue signaling” makes for fertile ground to get angry at critics of left(ish) action.

This is probably why they thought I was rude: my comment implied (to them) that I thought my friend the poster was an imbecile for thinking well of John Oliver. But I meant no such thing. As my comments indicated, my only concern was for how the propaganda effect of the piece was not as awesome as it might have been, if Oliver had truly gone out on a limb and pointed out the need to dismantle the entire edifice of debt, rather only than presenting a charity-focused solution that he could enact due to his well-resourced social position.

Someone might likely argue that my desire is unrealistic, that Oliver did what he could within his constraints and this was ‘better than nothing’. But if Oliver can buy this much debt and relieve it, why is it hard to let the Debt Collective – whose idea and work Oliver straight-up copied – have a say in the political message of the segment? (This is similar to an emerging ethic for engaged scholarship, where scientists doing studies with communities don’t simply ‘extract’ knowledge from informants, they partner with them to co-produce knowledge and keep promises of accountability from start to finish.)

My point is not to dwell on the specifics of this John Oliver case, but to point out how there seems to be a lack of imagination on the Left when it comes to contradictory beliefs. Can someone believe something (a movement, a book, a film, a comedy routine) is worthwhile, even if they question certain parts? Can someone contribute great art to society that has major positive social impacts, but be a flawed imperfect human being who has hurt others? Can electoral politics be seen as an inadequate or sham form of democracy, but still be worth participating in (that is, by voting)?

To me the answer to all of these questions is yes. I can think you are a good person but that you have room for improvement. I can critique culture without implying it is irredeemable. I can criticize without it being for purposes of virtue signaling. I can see the contradictory nature of certain people, things, actions, and philosophies, but still find value in them.

And so can you!

[1] Oliver starts off the segment stating “if you have debts you should pay them if you can”, which implies that the mass of debt is legitimate and stems from personal failings. Oliver only counterpoises this seconds later to the idea that some people are in debt for “no fault of their own” (in particular, medical debt), and this is the debt he’s tackling in the segment. This is quite a liberal/half-way critique of debt relations in modern society. At the end, he calls for “oversight” into the most inhumane forms of debt collection, and that’s it for proposed solutions. He never even mentions debt jubilee or debt resistance, though these are clearly deeper and more longterm solutions.

We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

We’re all to blame, but some more than others.

This is my mantra lately. I keep it in mind because I sense a danger in taking on too much guilt around the many fucked up things going on in the world. It’s true we’re all to some degree implicated in many of these things, and so I acknowledge there is also a danger in not feeling responsible for some of the negative aspects of the state of the world. But responsibility is not the same thing as guilt, and guilt is a worse foundation for action of the two feelings.

An example that’s very present from my life is in gentrification. I grew up in San Francisco, and sure enough, due to the “hypergentrification” the City has gone through, I no longer live there due to being displaced from my last apartment.[1] Displacement is something I know experientially—it’s not some abstract thing. Most of my friends from growing up and early adulthood can no longer live in the city.

I spent my youth coming up in arts, punk music, and urban farming scenes. All three of these areas of urban activity—and those involved in them—have been called out as contributing to gentrification. You may recall the basic argument: generally white(r) populations move into down-and-out areas of disinvested cities, making them “nicer” by dedicating their time to (generally non-paying) pursuits like making art, green space, social/cultural spaces. Their hip tastes and whiteness attract new and wealthier residents who now feel “safe” and welcome where they once didn’t. … Soon rents are going up, and the original residents are forced out by elevating prices or by efforts to get them out (e.g. evictions), since there is more profit to be made serving the newer, richer and whiter populations.

I’m not saying this narrative is completely untrue. But as I’ve covered elsewhere, the narrative ends up placing blame on and directs attention to those who are in a “buying” position in the economy. These are not the people who drive gentrification through choices of investment, disinvestment, and policy-making, but those who play an important but subsidiary role. Neil Smith and others have made this point before.

Another sphere where we’re all responsible, but some more than others, is as regards the state of “the environment”. As Utah Phillips (supposedly) said “The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses”. Yes, I myself have killed the earth by eating take-out, by driving occasionally, by taking planes, by throwing things “away” in a landfill (somewhere)—guilty as charged. You probably kill the earth too, on a daily basis. But we are not meaningfully in control of the underlying material processes that lead to this impact: the extraction of minerals from the earth’s crust, the extraction of fossil fuels and their processing and trading, the financing of these processes, the policy-making that fails to constrain these processes or prevent their damaging impact. We too are in buying positions, which are important but not central.

It seems nonsensical to put you, Exxon CEO/U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and me on the same plane in any political analysis of the environmental problem. A political vision that focuses too much on individual behaviors risks forgetting how much these behaviors are structurally determined, and thus could misdirect political energy away from those are more so responsible for structuring such behavior.

A similar argument can be made regarding the continued harmful white supremacy that pervades everyday life. Certainly, as critical race theorists and antiracist activists have pointed out, white supremacy is “re-inscribed” in everyday life by the individual actions of “everyday” people. We can see this in the overt racism and outward hate emboldened and made even more visible in the post-Trimp era, as well as the more subtle forms of white supremacy common among self-identified “liberals”, like microagressions (forms brilliantly parodied in the smash hit movie “Get Out”).

But just as important are the actions performed by individuals who play vital roles in organizations that structure white supremacy into our lives and enforce it: political bodies, corporations and companies, policing and war-making organizations, and so on. This form of racism is less about individuals and their personal attitudes as the function their (daily) activity fulfills.

I’m thinking for example of government officials (whether executive, legislative, or judicial) making policy, and the decisions made by heads and stockholders of profit-making companies. Politicians make white supremacist laws and police enforce them. Companies pollute and exploit communities of color and get away with it. Real estate investors and their friends in planning departments make plans to displace communities of color in favor of the profit-making opportunity of neighborhood “revitalization” (i.e. gentrification). Individuals in these positions are key points where white supremacy is maintained, even if none of them show outward attitudes of racism.

Sure, we all play a role in these complex political, economic, and ideological processes that lead back to white supremacy—and so we all need to play a role in resisting, subverting, or redirecting these processes. Yet, simply stating “we are all responsible” tends to downplay that some people operate in positions of relatively greater capacity to shape the lives of others. Recognizing this greater capacity should inform more targeted and perhaps strategic political intervention. We can and should fight white supremacy in all its forms and embodiments, but we might want to prioritize fighting against people and organizations that are the most implicated.

Doing so also leaves more space for the uncomfortable and long-term process of changing the everyday ideologies and behavior patterns of people away from white supremacy. That is, if we approach everyone as part of the problem, we have a much harder time gathering a meaningful force towards solutions. This would go for environmental and anti-gentrification movements too. Sometimes, this process is difficult, as those who form the cutting edge of gentrification and white supremacy are sometimes masked by their identities and powerful “it’s not me” defenses.

The case of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) in L.A. is instructive here: in response to obvious indications of arts-led gentrification, with art forming a wedge by which to force open the neighborhood to new colonizers, BHAAAD targeted galleries which were investor’s playthings, but were fronted by queer and otherwise self-described ‘marginalized’ people. While not sparing any harsh words of critique for the process, BHAAAD made it clear: if these gallerists involved wished to avoid being implicated in this unjust process, they needed to close their galleries and leave the neighborhood.

Offering history to explain the gallerists’ role in displacement (unacknowledged by the gallerists, or possibly just too uncomfortable to recognize), BHAAAD explains this role in terms of investment, capital, and (collective) political power—not just individual behavior based on individual “values”. Thus they leave the door open for implicated folks (who were not necessarily “the most responsible”) to choose sides and see themselves as political actors with potentially better choices.

We need to hold a space for self-critique and calling out negative patterns we experience in our immediate environment (e.g. school, home, workplace, social life, etc), but we need to focus our political analysis and oppositional efforts on the structures that are primarily responsible for material conditions, and the people who are directing those structures. To the great middle—those participating in but not directing injustice—activism must be critical, firm, but offered with a structural analysis that leaves an opening for those targeted to be self-reflective and align their actions with their stated politics.

[I suppose this piece needs an accompanying one to explain why police, politicians, and investors should not be considered part of this ‘great middle’, and should be treated instead as the enemies they are. Next time.]

[1] I have things pretty good, relatively speaking: I received a buy-out payment for my eviction, and my mom was lucky enough to buy one of the last affordable houses in the 1990s so I now benefit from that class privilege.


Despair + Parenting = Desparenting?

Parents have long worried about the world they raise their children in. How can you feel good about bringing a child into the world when world conditions seem so shitty? Worse, say you’ve already procreated, and expect future conditions to worsen rather than improve: how could you not worry?

Of course this parental existential worry varies: Being relatively privileged within a socially stratified society, you may have little to worry about other than your child turning out to be an asshole or drug addict. But if you were or are a Dalit in India, a Native American in the USA, or any living example of the global precariat, you might have very immediate reasons for concern, such as finding the next meal for your child, or escaping the harsh mistreatment that awaits them.

In the modern era, it might seem unsurprising that parents would worry about the future, as we’re living through some of the worst generalized environmental destruction and social injustice the world has seen, and this destructive injustice does not seem to be improving much. (Don’t believe Steven Pinker’s Eurocentric panglossian spin, please). In addition, many know more about all this horribleness outside our doors and across the planet because information about it is readily available. Many also experience it directly—ask a climate refugee or mine worker.

I’ve been worried about (generalized) environmental destruction throughout my life, aside from anything related to parenting. For the most part, I’ve never fallen prey to hopelessness given the circumstances. I’ve taken seriously the Gramscian suggestion of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, and been able to mobilize this through a belief that it matters how I live my values, not just that I accomplish my particular aims of social change.

My current condition of “desparenting” no doubt is related to this previous concern for environmental issues, but it’s really the recent U.S. presidential madness and resulting political turmoil that has brought this on. The usual feeling of doom has now combined with the increasing sense that they are winning, that we cannot stop them, and that even my own ostensible allies are weak liberals who are resigned to fight for crumbs and validate the systems that are destroying us—I’m just really down about it all, quite often these days.

My son is no doubt a light in this darkness. It’s a trope of parenting: young kids are amazing. They are positive about life in a way that is difficult if not impossible for adults. They are innocent of what is really going on in the world. They see a bird and are impressed. They see an airplane and are not concerned about the climate change implications. They aren’t yet figuring out how to adopt themselves to capitalist life. My son in many ways inspires me, and that’s great.

But he’s only 2 years old. I can’t imagine dealing with what’s to come in any positive way, to make sense of this to him when I can’t even make sense of it myself. To find a sense of agency and capacity in a time when the non-elite individual is atomized, ignored, surveilled, dismissed, disenfranchised and suppressed into impotence. It makes me want to move “back to the land”, an escapist paradigm I encountered and adopted in my teens, then rejected in my twenties. Now in my thirties, I sense a cycle.

In writing this post out, I’ve experienced something that often happens to me: I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say. I have no pithy words of wisdom. There isn’t a clear path forward for me, much less advice to offer others.

All I can say for sure is that at times like these, it’s clear that I need a stronger, more consistent community to exist within and maintain hope alongside. Communities—of practice, of ideas and ideals, of coexistence through space and time—are effective tools for feeling less hopeless in trying times. I’ve always known a lot of folks, but real “community” (an overused and ill-defined term if there was one!), or communion, is something that takes time and effort. For many parents, the first year or two isolates you from whatever social world you inhabited previously. This was definitely the case in my experience.

Good thing I lost my job recently: more time for community, and spending time with my son while he’s still like this!



Commentary on Francis Moore Lappe’s “Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now”

I recent wrote this response to a piece by Food First founder and influential food systems researcher Francis Moore Lappé. You can see Francis’s original piece here, and my response here, on the Great Transition Initiative website where the conversation was started. I’ve also printed my response below.   ENJOY!


My contribution will try to address the important question of how a transition can most effectively be made towards agroecology. Any response to this question is by nature ambitious and should therefore be only provisional rather than certain. I offer these comments in that spirit.

Like others, I understand agroecology in the context of food sovereignty and the manifold politics it indicates which “remake our understanding and practice of democracy.” I believe that the example of La Vía Campesina indicates—by example if not in rhetoric—that we not abandon any scale of organizing our political strategies of democratization, in a retreat to the “local” based on a rejection of the “global” nature of industrial capitalist agriculture.

While I don’t doubt the advances from local and community-based efforts, I fear that the (obviously understandable) dismissal of national and international politics as untenable is only precluding the larger levers of change we need to more rapidly shift to agroecology in a transformative fashion. The localism implied in agroecology and food sovereignty needs to be placed into context: without state involvement (or, at least, the dismantling of its existing policies in favor of industrialism), without addressing international trade and placing effective governance controls over transnational companies and capital, without transnational norms of agroecological transition developed in, from, and for civil society (which provide discursive pressures on states), the local solutions on which so many of us are working will likely to continue to have only limited effects.

Thus, without action at all levels—international trade issues; national food policies like those found in food sovereignty activist-scholar Christina Schiavoni’s 2015 analysis of Venezuela; the contributions of research, extension, and training initiatives; and localization principles grounded in practices of alternative food production and distribution—agroecology cannot spread.1

Clearly, national states are encouraged by capitalist state imperatives for growth to prefer an industrial model for agriculture. States often vote with their actions for export-focused, currency-generating (rather than locally-focused and food-security-enhancing) production. See the cases of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil for examples where strong indigenous movements for agroecology and food sovereignty are having hard times effectively gaining policy implementation traction, though they find discursive support among policymakers.

Some take this to mean that “civil society” (i.e., social movements) should not even engage recalcitrant national states. This is a point of contention among academic observers and the movements alike, with the more autonomous-minded insisting that entry into the state coopts and takes the wind out of pro-agroecology/food sovereignty movements, and the more statist-minded arguing for progressive inclusion in state policymaking.

I hesitate to try to settle this debate here, but offer instead the idea that the strategic choice will vary contextually (states and movements are not all the same everywhere), and the choice is ultimately up to the movements themselves.

A more open attitude to states (and supranational modes of governance) entails accepting and committing to work through the inevitable contradictions that arise in making change through these spaces/modes. Some movements seem to accept this: even the supposedly “autonomous” social movements many radicals admire are wrapped up with states, leaning on them at times for valuable concessions, even with the all the contradictions that emerge in the process.2

With La Vía Campesina as one example among many, we can see that we cannot afford to abandon nation-states, even if they have indeed more often been barriers to than enablers of agroecology. A transitional strategy to food sovereignty requires a transitional approach to state sovereignty itself, wrapped up as it is in capitalist structures and imperatives, and laced through therefore with unavoidable contradictions. Schiavoni’s work points to what this strategy might look like, in terms of the involvement of states: devolutions of sovereign control of resources and decision-making from state to local networks (in Venezuela’s case, food producer and consumer collectives).

As scholars like David Goodman and E. Melanie DuPuis have pointed out, we need to avoid “normative” or “unreflective” localism, which assumes that proximity leads to better social and ecological outcomes.3 Localization is key to a future sustainable and just food system, but it is only a necessary and not a sufficient component to it—and perhaps more importantly, it cannot be relied on for the transitional strategies for food systems governance that are—short of the agroecological, deep democratic, localized food sovereignty future we long for—compromised from pure ideologies, and full of contradictions.


1. Christina Schiavoni, “Competing Sovereignties, Contested Processes: Insights from the Venezuelan Food Sovereignty Experiment,” Globalizations 12, no. 4 (2015): 466-480.
2. For the case of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), see Rebecca Tarlau, “Thirty Years of Landless Workers Demanding State Power,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 58 (October 2014), See also Vía Campesina’s engagement of the UN’s Committee on World Food Security.
3. E. Melanie DuPuis and David Goodman, “Should We Go ‘Home’ to Eat?: Toward a Reflexive Politics of Localism,”Journal of Rural Studies 21, no. 3 (July 2005): 359-371.

On Dogma, Nuance, and Commitment

It’s easy to be against the idea of dogma, when you confront the presence of dislikable dogmas—or dogmas held by people you dislike. Considering a dogma as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”, there are (no doubt) many dogmas to complain about.

Leftists for instance have no problem railing against the racist dogmas perpetuated by the white working classes in the United States. In this instance, it’s quite easy to argue, “(Their/racist) dogma is bad”.

But I am almost equally perturbed by dogmas on the left: the dogma that the U.S. white working class is regressive, for example; or the dogma that “liberals” (whatever that means) must vote for the lesser of two evils in any presidential election where no truly progressive candidate exists (that is, all presidential elections in my lifetime); or the dogma amongst the even further left anarchist/autonomist-types that voting only validates “the system”.

These dogmas I also find problematic because they don’t allow that (respectively), (1) the U.S. white working class has been at times and could be again a part of a broad based leftist political movement, (2) the lesser of two evils strategy has failed repeatedly to advance any leftward policy change, or social change more broadly, and (3) at times election outcomes truly matter to specific constituent groups, and elections can form part of a larger “inside-outside” social movement strategy.

These are only some potential counterarguments to the dogmas I’ve presented; the point is that dogmas of many kinds miss out nuances, which—if given attention—can improve our understanding of the world and our strategies towards making social change.

That is, really, why I started this blog.

However, perhaps one can follow this antidogmatic path too far; an endless call to “nuance” our understandings of the (political) world might end up invalidating any political belief system. This is perhaps part of what this guy Kieran Healy is pointing to, in his critique of “actually existing nuance” in the field of American Sociology. His critique (entitled “Fuck Nuance”) is more about the academic world, but his point that nuance is not “practically successful” applies to the world of action as well.

Certainly, one need not nuance a commitment to racial justice, right? Should a commitment to environmentally regenerative principles of agriculture, supporting arguments against existing and destructive industrial farms, be required to withstand critique as dogmatic? Where is the line, then, between having political commitments, and believing in and perpetuating dogmas?

If you’ve spent a life studying the workings of states and capitalism, and come to the conclusion that they are antithetical to advancing social justice, should you have to accept that sometimes governments do not act according to political theory, or that capitalism isn’t a single thing? A friend argued on facebutt that arguing for nuance in these sorts of contexts is like saying, “Let’s not talk about dominant institutions, because really they are all made up of people”. I see his point: reducing all theory (aka generalizations) to nuance reduces the power of that theory to explain the world, and (maybe) with it, our own power to change that world.

Might antidogmatism be its own form of dogma, that if harped upon too much, makes for an impotent form of politics that always points to the exceptions, the particularities, the differences within the broad patterns of society we see? And in doing so, avoids making strong enough statements about the world that can motivate action and be rallied behind?

I do think this is a danger. Just not a very big one.

Why? Because we can be nuanced within our generalized commitments. We can defend beliefs and commitments from moral and empirical positions, while still subjecting those beliefs to critical scrutiny.

Sure, institutions are “real” insofar as the institution of policing, or the state, or capitalism (or whatever) has real structuring force on people who are touched by it and act within it. Police are pushed strongly by various institutional forces to be racist and anti-poor, no doubt in my mind about that—from both a theoretically informed and lived experience. State actors (in offices and agencies) are pushed to respond to capitalist state imperatives—which they have little to no way of directly shaping themselves. Capitalists must compete, grow, exploit, and so on, or risk business failure.

I can believe these things, yet still hold that in particular situations at particular times (and with particular other forces at play), the agency of the police officer, the state actor, or the capitalist might differ from the norm or the expected. This might be a small difference: the officer might choose not to arrest someone when they could. But it could be a pretty substantial difference, with a substantial (or as yet unknown) effect.

Because our knowledge is always limited, as is the predictive power of social “science” and studies of the past; because the current moment is always a unique conjuncture of events with new and emergent possibilities; and because the world changes in chaotic fashion, driven by the agency of many individuals and groups interacting with the structures that ground the historical moment; we should not hold onto hard dogmas about how to make change.

We can promote general theories based on our available understanding, and work based on this understanding, but we should always be ready to challenge and change our own thoughts about what is possible.