Earlier this month, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 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 U.S., French parliamentarians, and staff of CropLife International, among others, gathered to debate the FAO’s claim of the urgent need to “scale up” agroecology as a means of achieving a more sustainable food system.
The symposium, hosted by the preeminent global institution on food issues, suggests that agroecology may finally be moving out of the margins. And it’s in the process of being mainstreamed.
Yet here in the U.S., it’s a different story. In fact, the word is rarely heard, even among people concerned with both agriculture and ecology. Instead, advocates—and the food industry—use the words organic, sustainable, and regenerative. And while some seem to use agroecology as an umbrella term that encompasses all of these practices, it’s more complex than that.
All the above-mentioned 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 improved soil health, crop rotation, and diversification—is complemented by the latter, which gives agroecology meaning beyond the combination of “ecological” and “agriculture.”
As José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the FAO put it recently: “When we speak of agroecology, we are not speaking of strictly technical matters.”
Placing a much stronger emphasis on the off-the-farm social, political, and cultural changes needed to support ecological farming, agroecology in its maximal form demands a holistic view of agriculture, linking issues like poverty, gender inequality, access to land, and human rights. It’s 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.
Over the past few decades, agroecology had been slowly advancing thanks to small hubs of alternative-minded scientists (mainly in Latin America) and the global farmer social movement La Vía Campesina—which promotes agroecology as a central tool to achieve “food sovereignty.”
But it is now 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 UN Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Environment Program, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.
And yet in this process of mainstreaming, the very definition of agroecology is being contested. Scholars agree that it 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. And because there are no labels or certifying bodies involved (as in the case of organic and fair trade), agroecology’s exact meaning and practice is easy to argue over.
At the symposium, Paulo Peterson—a farmer-educator from Brazil whose family farming nonprofit has been pushing agroecology for 30 years—came squarely down against the idea that conventional agriculture can be easily 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 at the symposium, Peterson worries that FAO’s newfound attention to agroecology could threaten its potential, because FAO officials seem tied to the idea of agroecology as a big tent that includes all “stakeholders.”
“We have to leave behind the idea of “coexistence” [between industrial and agroecological farming],” Peterson said. “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.”
As opposed to “scaling up” (which implies literally scaling up the size of farms, or having large industrial farms adopt agroecological practices), global agroecology movements have called for “scaling out.” Scaling out agroecology would in contrast support farmer-to-farmer exchange that spreads agroecological practices through existing, and expanding, networks of small-scale family producers. It would entail greatly expanding the numbers of small, ecological farmers, based on the wisdom of those who already produce in this way.
What Can the U.S. Learn from Other Global Movements?
What might growing interest in agroecology mean for those committed to more ecological agriculture in the U.S.? After all, the discussion of agroecology at FAO and in many contexts has been directed toward the developing world and its “peasants,” not American farmers and activists.
Europe, more like the U.S. in some ways, offers some hope. At the symposium in Rome, multiple Europeans, including France’s former Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll and member of EU Parliament Maria Heubach, discussed ways that the principles of agroecology can be applied to the developed “West.” 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 crisis 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.”
And yet, that last sentence 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 become increasingly organized to push for broad political change.
Here in the U.S., despite the growth of organic agriculture and the introduction of several new alternative regenerative labels, the social side of the conversation lags behind. Meanwhile, global agroecology movements have had almost the opposite approach, they’ve built 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—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. This includes when movements got themselves an official (and FAO-funded) seat at the table of the “Committee on World Food Security,” allowing them to engage directly with governments on a variety of farm policy issues; or when movements pushed progressive “tenure guidelines” through the committee, which provided their on-the-ground activists a new legal tool to defend agroecological peasant farmers from having their land grabbed.
Even FAO’s da Silva insisted 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 organic and regenerative organic labels are scale-neutral, and give no precedence to any particular social sector.
Though the approach to agroecology will continue to be debated, da Silva’s closing words (and the symposium’s summary report) pointed to the need to “strengthen the central role of family farmers and their organizations in safeguarding, utilizing, and accessing natural resources and uphold the human rights of family farmers, agricultural workers, indigenous peoples, and consumers, in particular women and youth.” The summary report also suggests, “Scaling up agroecology by supporting the sharing of experiences, knowledge and collective action among the family farmers currently engaged with agroecology,” which give credence to the “scaling out” perspective mentioned above.
As many experts see it, increasing the size of existing agroecological farms or incorporating agroecological practices into conventional systems without changing underlying patterns of ownership and power, would simply co-opt agroecology from its originating movements and reinforce existing inequalities in the food system.
Does the U.S. Have a Role in Advancing Agroecology?
The U.S. still maintains a powerful influence over the world’s agriculture—through its image, science, money, and policy. Could we do better in showcasing abroad how our agroecology works domestically—that our farmers include indigenous seed keepers and multi-ethnic ecological cooperatives, and not just the guys from John Deere advertisements?
At the symposium, Ananth Guruswamy, a funder of farmer-driven agroecology in India, told me that if farmers around the world saw U.S. farmers as innovators in agroecology, they would likely follow suit.
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 toward 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 conducts participatory research with coffee producers and attended the FAO symposium.
The U.S. is also home to many of the largest private philanthropies working on food systems. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the enormous Gates Foundation, which gives over $200 million per year and has invested in genetically engineered seeds and works closely with companies like Monsanto and are opposed vociferously by agroecological movements in Africa.
On the other end, there are several progressive individuals and foundations, including the relatively scrappy Agroecology Fund, which gives about $1 million every two years, and the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation, one of the major funders of the symposium.
Funding the social movements of small-scale producers empowers them to provide the political pressure that can generate major government support and investment in agroecological transitions, said Daniel Moss, the Agroecology Fund’s director, in his presentation to the symposium. As Moss sees it, funding farmer movements is possibly the single greatest investment in agroecology that a funder can make. (Farmers themselves are also the single greatest investor group in all of agriculture, according to an FAO report.)
Though policy is clearly important to the transformative vision of agroecology, U.S. food movements have exhibited 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 U.S. farm bill remains stacked in favor of corporate industrial agribusiness interests.
Oregon Representative 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?
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 farms—and continues to fight for democracy since the U.S.-backed coup of democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 and before and after COPINH leader Berta Caceres was murdered in her own home in 2016. U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance members have written letters to policy-makers and participated in delegations to prevent further human rights violations.
On the domestic front, food movements can focus their energies on making the kinds of holistic connections—in policy and practice—that agroecology implies. Movements 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. It can also look toward global “feminist agroecology,” and de-emphasize the needs of our existing food producers (who are overwhelmingly male, white, and land-rich), while focusing more resources and attention on women, low-income farmers, and farmers of color 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 the U.S. food movement 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.