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.