Is Agroecology Being Co-Opted by Big Ag? | Civil Eats

Is Agroecology Being Co-Opted by Big Ag?

As climate-smart farming initiatives scale up, experts decry ‘junk agroecology’—global initiatives they say are cherry-picking sustainable practices, while denying political realities.

a dark cloud is on the horizon of a farm symbolizing the big ag co-opting of agroecology

Agroecology is at a crossroads. The farming system—which is primarily practiced in the developing world but is gaining some traction in the U.S.—incorporates a suite of ecological growing practices into a wider philosophy rooted in shifting power from global agribusiness companies to peasant farmers.

The approach has received growing global attention in recent years from international organizations, including the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which has repeatedly pointed to agroecology as an effective, cross-cutting strategy to reach its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including climate action, zero hunger, and reduced inequalities.

But with that increased attention has come what some advocates describe as a move toward watering down the political, societal, and civic engagement aspects of the system.

Case in point: This September, the U.N. will host the 2021 Food Systems Summit as part of its agenda to reach the SDGs by 2030. But despite FAO’s past embrace of agroecology, the summit’s planned agricultural programming focuses on a broader approach it calls “nature-positive production.” And a discussion starter for the track lists 10 elements of nature-positive farming systems that are identical to the 10 elements of agroecology developed by the FAO several years ago, but that fact isn’t mentioned.

Joao Campari, the director of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International’s food programs, who is leading the track, explained that the 10 elements “could be universally applied to help boost all nature-positive production systems.”

But some advocates worry about this type of broadening. In fact, they see it as the latest example of how agroecology is increasingly being co-opted by those within the very system it sets out to change. And just this week, a coalition of academics who are members of the Agroecology Research-Action Collective announced a boycott of the summit with a petition calling on their peers around the globe to do the same. They say non-government organization (NGOs), global governments, and corporations are cherry picking agroecological principles to make small changes to inherently destructive systems while perpetuating the power imbalances the paradigm seeks to disrupt.

“They want to take the industrial system as it is and measure incremental improvements and count those as wins without actually having to question the structure of the system itself. They’re going to be greener. They’re going to use less of whatever [resource]. But . . . expansion and overproduction is what it all rests on, and conventional agriculture has been heavily subsidized for 80 years by the state through public funds,” said Eric Holt-Giménez, an agroecologist and the former director of Food First.

Holt-Giménez spent years working in agriculture in Latin American and South Africa and wrote a doctorate dissertation on Campesino a Campesino, a worker movement he helped start, before heading up the nonprofit. “It’s [true] that industry and a lot of mainstream institutions are attempting to strip agroecology of its history and politics, because to strip agroecology of its politics means that they don’t have to account for their politics.”

The Rise of ‘Junk Agroecology’

Agronomists in several countries in the early 20th century began using the term agroecology to describe a way of farming that could conserve natural resources and support healthy ecosystems by focusing on reducing inputs like fertilizer and pesticides, building soil health, and increasing farm biodiversity. But in the 1970s and ‘80s, a movement in Latin America started to transform the approach into a broader paradigm that could push back against the top-down policies of the Green Revolution.

Groups like La Via Campesina believed (and still do) that small, sustainable peasant farms would not be able to succeed within a system built to reward the largest agribusiness companies, because agribusinesses offloaded many of their costs to taxpayers and received significant government support. These groups prioritized Indigenous farmer knowledge, local food sovereignty, and collective action, and agroecology became rooted in those political ideas. Today, in addition to La Via Campesina, the movement includes the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, among others.

As the climate crisis has intensified, agribusiness companies and the global NGOs that work with them have been looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprints, in response to public and government pressure and to avoid future disruptions and disasters. Even the American Farm Bureau Federation, which has a history of lobbying against environmental policies and regulations, is talking about “climate-smart farming” and promoting some large farmers’ use of sustainable and regenerative practices.

“We started to see that at the same time as this space was starting to open for agroecology, it was also starting to become more and more contested and these other actors were coming in with their own definitions of the term. There are major corporations and groups of corporations coming together—sometimes also working with charities and governments—strategically trying to push this non-transformative vision of agroecology,” said Katie Sandwell, a senior project officer at the Transnational Institute. “We wanted to make people aware of that, and unpack some of the dynamics behind that trend.”

The cover of the Junk Agroecology report

Sandwell and her colleagues, along with partners at Friends of the Earth International and Crocevia, recently published a report called “Junk Agroecology.” The report details three international initiatives to advance sustainability in agriculture: the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform, New Vision for Agriculture, and the Food and Land Use Coalition. (Civil Eats reached out to all three organizations for comment; none responded by press time.)

All three groups create partnerships between the world’s biggest agricultural companies, nonprofits, and government agencies, and there is considerable overlap in membership. Cargill, Nestlé, Unilever, and WWF International are members of all three. The World Economic Forum, the most influential player in the sphere of public-private partnerships, was involved with the creation of two of them.

The initiatives all promote the “sustainable intensification of agriculture with agroecological nuances,” the report claims. For example, one of the Food and Land Use Coalition’s projects is PepsiCo’s Sustainable Farming Program, which involves the global food giant helping farms within its supply chain implement practices that achieve goals like “efficient fertilizer and water use.”

“The end goal of these reforms is to ensure that big business can continue profiting, without fundamentally transforming either the unjust socio-economic, political, and ecological relations on which the agrifood system is based, or the exclusionary and short-sighted ideology that legitimizes it,” the report’s authors wrote. “For the purposes of ‘changing everything so that nothing changes,’ transnational agrifood corporations find, in agroecology, a menu of extremely useful solutions that they have decided to selectively integrate into their agro-industrial model.”

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Of course, many advocates for food system change see even small changes within current systems as positive developments and contend that small changes at a large scale can have a significant impact on progress. Rodale Institute CEO Jeff Moyer, for instance, explained the organic farming organization’s decision to work with Cargill in that way, pointing to the opportunity to move “large acreages in one swath” to organic production, for instance, as a win.

But Shiney Varghese, senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable food and farm policies, said that it’s important to distinguish between farmers who may be growing crops conventionally and genuinely want to adopt an agroecological practice to make their operations more sustainable, and corporations specifically using agroecological messaging—and the increasing use of the term “regenerative” in the U.S.—to increase profits while changing very little about how they operate.

“Minimizing inputs is certainly a desirable step for those farmers seeking to reduce their costs or their environmental footprints, but those steps by themselves do not make for an agroecological transition,” Varghese said. She describes the latter as “about transforming the current order to bring about fair, healthy, and sustainable food, farm, and trade systems that help build revitalized rural communities, and healthy people and planet.”

As Sandwell sees it, showcasing small improvements focused on single practices can allow companies to make their systems look more sustainable than they really are, therefore further entrenching the current system and drawing resources away from more transformative solutions.

“They’re still shifting towards a food system that has more centralized power and control by a smaller number of actors,” she said. So, while adding crop rotations or increasing biodiversity might be a good thing, it’s a “change that might have marginal environmental improvement but continues to strengthen all of those other negative dynamics. The benefits don’t add up.”

Agroecology and the Committee on World Food Security

A related debate is currently taking place within the U.N.’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS), which produces policy recommendations related to food security and nutrition for world governments. Currently, CFS is in the final stages of developing a set of policy recommendations called “Agroecological and other Innovative Approaches.”

Kirtana Chandrasekaran and Martín Drago at Friends of the Earth International have been engaged in that process as part of the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism, a group that represents small-scale and Indigenous food producers from all over the world. Initially, Chandrasekaran and Drago were encouraged by the fact that the policy recommendations were being drafted on the heels of FAO’s progress developing the 10 elements of agroecology and acknowledging the political elements of the paradigm. And when an advisory group to CFS provided a report for use in the process, it clearly described agroecology as dependent on political change and social equity.

But two drafts later, both Chandrasekaran and Drago use the terminology of war to describe the process. “One of the big battles has been—and still is—the distinction between agroecology and ‘sustainable intensification techniques,’ which is basically what you could call greening the industrial model,” including practices like the efficient application of fertilizer and no-till farming on large-scale commodity crop farms,” Chandrasekaran said. “Agroecology includes not just a whole systems analysis, but also the social and economic dimensions, which are equally important.”

Drago said that since the start of the process, representatives from the U.S. led by Paul Welcher, an agricultural attaché for U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, have been pushing back on language that acknowledges the political components of agroecology while emphasizing the “other innovative approaches,” which include sustainable intensification. The U.S. representatives proposed edits to the second draft that change references to imbalances of power within agriculture, eliminate sentences that represent agroecology’s equity-centered approach as preferable to other systems, and remove language related to peasant rights and support of local, Indigenous knowledge.

It’s another example of an overall “effort to capture not only a narrative but actually public funds, public investment, and public policies to transform the system in the way they need to increase profits,” Drago said. “We are not going to accept . . . a set of practices that open the door for the corporate capture of agroecology.” Negotiations on the CFS policy recommendations will continue in May, and the official recommendations will be endorsed in June. The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

And as the aforementioned U.N. Food Summit approaches, the issue is also playing out on that stage. To lead the summit, the U.N. secretary general tapped special envoy Agnes Kalibata, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization that emphasizes bringing Western industrial agriculture models that utilize chemical fertilizers and high-tech, often genetically engineered, seeds to African farmers.

In March, the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism said its members would boycott the summit due to corporate influence and the focus on industrial farming methods over agroecology. Then, three U.N. Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food (one current and two former) published an op-ed asserting that the event was organized with too much input from the private sector.

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“Inevitably, that has meant a focus on . . . scalable, investment-friendly, ‘game-changing’ solutions,’” they wrote. “As a result, the ideas that should have been the starting point for a ‘people’s summit’ have effectively been shut out. For over a decade, farmers, fishers, pastoralists, and food workers have been demanding a food system transformation rooted in food sovereignty and agroecology. This vision is based on redesigning, re-diversifying, and re-localizing farming systems. It requires that economic assumptions be questioned, human rights be protected, and power be rebalanced.”

Kalibata responded to these criticisms in The Guardian, saying the focus of the summit is on considering a diverse set of interests. “While private sector engagement is important to create a momentum of change, there is no agribusiness leading any work or singularly responsible for defining summit outcomes,” she wrote. “The entire purpose of the summit is to embrace not only the shared interests of all stakeholders but also—importantly—the areas of divergence on how we go about addressing the harsh reality humanity faces. If we are to build more inclusive food systems, we must be prepared to have inclusive debate. Everyone has a seat at the table.”

A spokesperson for the summit also said that “farmers’ organizations, Indigenous peoples’ groups, and civil society organizations represent more than a third of those involved” in the summit’s five action tracks. And Campari, the leader of the nature-positive track mentioned above added that “the adoption of agroecology, regenerative agriculture, and traditional and Indigenous knowledge in managing food production in land and water, are central parts of the track. As are precision agriculture and the application of advanced technologies, though these are not explicitly discussed nor preferentially positioned in the materials. All nature-positive solutions that are based on principles and practices that simultaneously benefit people and planet are welcome.”

A Set of Solutions?

The debate over agroecology’s politics and applications is far from over, but it’s hard to imagine agricultural companies and organizations signing on to a restructuring of power, since at the moment, they control the vast majority of political capital. And yet, Holt-Giménez believes that agroecological systems can still be supported without completely upending capitalist structures.

In the U.S., he says, progressive policies like supply management to prevent overproduction, parity pricing, internalizing industrial agriculture’s externalities, and applying antitrust laws would make a huge difference. “These things are not revolutionary at all, and they could be done,” he said. “And suddenly, family farmers would have a real fighting chance.”

In the end, that’s what all of these arguments about how agroecology is applied and co-opted come down to: agroecology is not a uniquely political paradigm. As Holt-Giménez sees it, all agriculture is determined by politics, and those with political and economic power have an interest in denying that.

While industrial agriculture is often subsidized by government support, Varghese added, agroecological farmers pay for production costs in full, meaning they are at a disadvantage from the get-go. “With increasing awareness about the climate crisis . . . public support for climate-resilient agriculture will also increase,” she said.

For example, Biden’s USDA is currently considering setting up a carbon bank to pay farmers for soil health practices and expanding funding available through conservation programs. “The corporate sector is keen to maintain its access to the lion’s share of this support. What we need is a level playing field, where agroecological approaches receive at the very least as much public financial support as industrial monocultures.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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