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.

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Questioning “every tool in the toolbox”

Do we really need “every tool in the toolbox”? [1]

I most recently encountered the argument that we need “every tool in the toolbox” in a debate that emerged from the screening of the film “Food Evolution” at UC Berkeley. This debate was sparked by a critique sent around on various email lists, outlining how the film presents a biased case in favor of the use of Genetic Engineering (GE) technologies in agriculture while claiming falsely to have put aside bias in favor of “the science”. Important to note is that the authors of the emailed critique – students, professors and other food systems scholars (including yours truly) – were not necessarily arguing against GE per se or in all cases.

As might be predicted, UC Berkeley students involved in science with biotechnological applications – who probably felt personally attacked or implicated in the critique – complained and pushed back against the letter. One of them made the argument that we shouldn’t dismiss the use of GE in creating more sustainable agriculture, because we need “every tool in the toolbox”.

But is this an apt metaphor? Does it make sense to see agriculture as utilizing a toolbox of techniques and technologies, in which GE is just one tool that can be brought out of the box and used (and be put back in), as we wish to use it, and irrespective of the rest of the tools? I mean – a toolbox has a hammer, a screwdriver, and a wrench, each appropriate for distinct tasks. Which one is GE? Does agriculture have an equivalent set of independent, alternatingly useful tools? More fundamentally, should we imagine the management of living landscapes to grow food,

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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.

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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,

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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”,

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The Liberal/Radical split in Post-Election Organizing

This’ll be a hard post to make short, or sweet.

I’ve been struggling since the election’s results to reconcile feelings I have as an “antidogmatist” interested in a strong and broad anti-systemic social movement to remake our political-economic system.

My struggle is mainly between two issues: my longstanding positioning as a “radical”—meaning someone interested in addressing the root of political issues (namely, capitalism) and not merely reforming oppressive systems to make them “less bad”; and my commitment to keeping an open mind with folks who don’t have radical analyses, take radical positions, or participate in radical action—that which I truly believe is necessary to make any substantial transformation in society.

These ideas are coming into conflict because throughout this election and since the election of Trump, U.S. liberals (i.e. non-radicals) around me and in cyberspace have remained stubbornly committed to their existing politics—politics that not only have proven unable to make progressive change, but are also (at least in part) responsible for the horrible situation we find ourselves in, and are now even endangering an effective response to Trump and his ilk.

For those who might identify with the term liberal, and are confused how it might be getting thrown around as a pejorative, please understand that I am using the term in a specific way. I’m not referring to those who believe in the right to maintain and uplift social diversity (e.g. gender, sexual, racial, age, etc). I’m not really referring either to those who abide by the conventional (i.e. British-origin) definition of liberal: those concerned with individual liberties, and a politics based on the notion of individuals converging and hashing out differences in the public/governmental sphere (although that version of liberal definitely overlaps with the one I’m talking about).

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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,

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Decolonizing Political Ecology, De-dogmatizing Decoloniality

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend who is exploring in his PhD studies (and of course his activism) the relationship between Political Ecology (as a scholarly discipline) and Decolonization (as a political project). This piqued my non-dogmatic interest, as each of these trends can be mired by certain dogmas (dogmas which are by no means found in every example of either trend, but appear enough to associate with them).

On the political ecology end, a focus on the “systems” that weigh down upon environmental injustices (namely, capitalism and nation-state-based governance systems) and the interpretation of these through Marxist and anarchist/populist political economic lenses can lead to inadvertent ignorance of other axes of oppression and ecological destruction, which do not always or necessarily stem from states or capitalist economic classes. Political ecology can thus be overly structural; it can end up leaving out alternative forms of analyzing environmental issues (for example, dismissing spiritual dimensions or a gendered analysis of resource access). [1] The influence of Marxism in particular on political ecology can at times be extremely Eurocentric in its categories of analysis.

Decolonization (especially as an emerging academic subfield) has I think the opposite problem: it wishes away real categories of social power and social existence, like economic class, governmental policy, or democracy, based on their historical association with the long march of racist, capitalist, state-led colonization. That is, some fans of decolonization seek emancipation only in terms that have been completely “decolonized” from Eurocentric/Euro-originated concepts. (I myself have been called to task by decolonial academics for proposing “autonomy” as a concept that could apply universally to all human beings—I was accused of reproducing colonial thinking in assuming an individualism that these critics associated with my use of the concept of autonomy.)

The thing is,

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Disruptive Action and the Food Movement

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of disruptive action in affecting political change, and how this might relate to “the food movement”.

What I mean by “disruptive action” is masses of people disrupting the established order. Strikes, blockades, sit-ins, riots, occupations and so on are manifestations of people power that do not follow the guidelines for “acceptable action” set by political/economic elite classes. As such, these manifestations are far more threatening to those classes than other forms of action, and are more effective in bringing about social change (in the substantive sense).

The emblematic examples of disruptive action in recent US history are, of course, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and #Black Lives Matter (#BLM). These movements have been uncontrolled by a central leader or organization, exist primarily out on the streets and in confrontations with powers-that-be (whether police, politicians, or white supremacy broadly), and have truly disrupted the idea that business-as-usual is a viable option.

Both OWS’s and #BLM’s effects have thus far been more so on our society’s ideas and discourses than its policy or institutions. However, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither is social change. Often, changes in discourse prefigure a larger shift in culture and commitments, by contributing—alongside various disruptive courses of action and construction of on-the-ground alternatives—to pushes towards change “at the top”.

This is what the history of the early 20th century into the New Deal shows: the ascendance of organized and disruptive labor power legitimated the working class’s rights to a greater share of social wealth and threatened the existing elite management of society. New Deal policy changes (the kind that are now considered “socialist” in Fox News discourse) were the outcome of this crisis of legitimacy.

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Top 5 Weird (Popular) Japanese Band Names

I’ve shopped around for listicles of weird Japanese band names, and there certainly are some. But this listicle isn’t just about “weird names”: anyone can start an obscure band and name it some strange obscure thing.

Trust me, I’ve done this plenty of times, having named my bands things like Ppavaartaana and Hello? Noisy! (the latter was actually our name translated from the original which was for some reason in Japanese: もしもしうるさい!/ Moshi Moshi? Urusai!).

No, the bands on this list are popular bands, often with HUGE followings. That is why it is all the more ridiculous that these bands actually exist with these names.

Thing is, three of these five bands were named by John Hiromu Kitagawa, aka Mr. Johnny. He is the founder and director of “Johnny and Associates”, a company that promotes male pop idol type bands. Johnny is the leading figure in Japanese boy bands, since forever. He basically invented the Japanese boy band thing, and at 87 years old, he is the longtime king of kingmakers in that scene.

Under Johnny’s direction, many young men have been made famous by exploiting their good looks and the Japanese public’s discerning taste. You know, like the well-known love of square watermelons, expensive toilets that spray your ass in ten different ways, and porn that isn’t allowed to show penetration (along with insane comic porn of monsters raping fairies—so civilized).

Some of Johnny’s famous bands happened to be given ridiculous names. Perhaps it adds to their mystique? I would think maybe English as a second language helps to make these names “more cool”, but apparently Mr.

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Catastrophism revisited

My involvement in what some have termed “catastrophism” started with peak oil. I found out that oil researchers and environmentalists (well, and gold hoarders and conspiracy theorists) were convinced that fossil fuel extraction would “peak” globally around 2005 (right around the time I was reading of this idea). Peak oil meant that fuel sources would become scarcer, and prices for fuels would thus continue ever upwards as we entered a period of “energy descent” for humankind.

I was taken by how certain this idea seemed and how certainly we had better prepare for such a problem: it may not be self-apparent to everyone, but industrial societies globally are deeply dependent on fossil fuel energy—precariously so. As energy prices climbed (so the theory went), so would prices for food, transport, and basically everything else! In 2004, I published a “Peak Oil Tract” to convince my friends of our impending doom and (hopefully) spur action.

But then life continued about the same for the next 10 years. It turns out, peak oil may be real but economic effects and technological developments are also real. Deep-water wells (like the one that failed in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011) and fracking, plus the effects on international pricing of national reserves, have in particular challenged the current impact of the peak oil prognosis.

These factors that mitigate the “simple math” of finite fossil fuels and inevitable energy descent have kept prices from climbing, and in the past year prices have even gone down. The point is, the correlation between oil prices going up and civilization going for a nosedive doesn’t necessarily hold. At least, not on the timeline I was expecting.

This is an example of where maintaining a “catastrophist” position or narrative—that we are approaching catastrophe and that this notion might motivate us to change our collective future—seems wrong,

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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.

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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.


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Beyond Bernie

I am surprised that so many people I know are “feeling the Bern”. I’m especially surprised that I am.

I’ve never supported lesser-evil corporate Democratic Party candidacies, so it took me some time to warm up to the idea of actually voting for someone who is a Democratic Party candidate. But I voted for Bernie in the Move-On endorsement poll, and I’m even planning to change from my Green Party voter registration in order to be eligible to vote for him in the Californian primary. I still won’t donate money to or volunteer for the campaign—there are limits to how much I can allow myself to buy in to federal electoral politics in the US.

So maybe it’s a mild 1st degree “bern”, but I’m definitely feeling it. Sometimes I even get excited about Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Why?

Because I find it hope-inspiring that as this avowed socialist [1]—who doesn’t take dirty money for his campaign and has a pretty consistent record on many progressive and pro-working class issues—campaigns, the more people hear about him and his positions, the more they seem to support him. I see Sanders as soaring upwards on an upwelling of bottom-up energy for major social change, and that energy excites me. And some argue that he could actually win in the general election.

As Nivedita Majumdar says in Jacobin,

Sanders doesn’t offer anything close to a comprehensive solution for the myriad problems facing the poor and oppressed, and some parts of his political agenda are genuinely backward. But when we place his candidacy in the context of the challenges the Left faces, the orientation of his political rivals, and the incredible enthusiasm he has generated in a climate of general defeat,

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Parenting Issues: How to Take Advice

The first thing you learn as a new parent is that there are a million ways to parent “correctly”—or, the same thing but differently: there are a million ways to parent incorrectly. Pediatricians, nurses, your parents, parent friends, and even strangers and non-parents feel compelled to “help” you by sharing their hints and suggestions on how to parent. Often these “hints” will actually be vehemently argued dictates. Of course, these perspectives offered will inevitably conflict with one another.

For example, the question of breastfeeding (an early one to deal with for many new parents): If your partner doesn’t produce enough milk at first, you might panic. You both think breastfeeding is important and planned for it.

“You’re just going to have to use formula,” says one nurse.

“Don’t worry, you’ll start producing soon,” says another.

The lactation consultant explains that you must be completely comfortable and preferably upright in bed. The La Leche League book advises you lay on your side. Your partner’s mom thinks the baby isn’t “latching” well, while you’re worried your partner needs to sleep more (sleep is required to produce a good milk supply), but she can’t.

Don’t be paralyzed by this confusing cacophony of conflicting counsel. Keep doing something, and be open to changing what that something is until you find something that works, or until the problem morphs into a different one. You’ll have breastfeeding issues. Sleep issues. Relationship issues. Poop issues. Vaccination issues. And so on. By the time you figure out what works for you, the problem or your baby will have changed. So what good is advice anyway?

Advice gives you ideas and options. I never would have sleep trained at all if I didn’t have a stepmother who believed in it,

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