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.

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),http://berkeleyjournal.org/2014/10/thirty-years-of-landless-workers-demanding-state-power. 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.