Agroecology - Science & Politics

If you are looking for an introduction to agroecology and/or a textbook for a course on sustainable agriculture, "Agroecology: Science and Politics" (2017) by Rosset and Altieri is it. This book is written by leading experts, activists, and advocates (which motivates the book), for students this might be read in combination with a parallel book offering a different perspective for comparative purposes. As a stand alone book it is also excellent, concise (for a topic that could be complicated), and readable at 146 pages. Chapters cover the principles, history, current directions, evidence, examples of scaling, and politics. Examples given are concrete, with references for follow up and deeper engagement. A key point that the authors make throughout is that agroecology is political. Very useful introductory book. One of the authors has put the book online here.

A few notes:

"Agroecology combines indigenous knowledge systems about soils, plants and so on with disciplines from modern ecological and agricultural science. By promoting a dialogue of wisdoms and integrating elements of modern science and ethno-science, a series of principles emerge, which when applied in a particular region take different technological forms depending on the socio-economic, cultural and environmental context." (p. 9)

"Most analysts today agree that increasing food production will be a necessary but not a sufficient condition to prevent future hunger around the world. Hunger results from underlying inequities in the dominant capitalist system that deprive poor people of economic opportunity, access to food and land and other resources vital for a secure livelihood (Lappé, Collins and Rosset 1998). Focusing narrowly on increasing food production cannot alleviate hunger because it fails to alter the tightly concentrated distribution of economic power that determines who can buy food or have access to seeds, water and land to produce it." (p. 68)

"While most agroecology research to date has emphasized natural science, these results point to the need to prioritize social science approaches and self-study by rural movements, to draw systematic lessons from their successful experiences. This can produce the information and principles needed to design new collective processes." (p. 114) 

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Who Really Feeds the World

Vandava Shiva was one of the earliest challengers to corporate control of food and the food system. In her most recent book, "Who Really Feeds the World: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology" (2016), Shiva continues the activism. While I am generally in agreement with the positions advocated in the book, it is a frustrating read from an academic perspective. Many stats and claims are mentioned without references (I found well over 50 without references), some sources that are listed are decades old and no longer reflect the current situation, some arguments are value-driven and emotionally-based as opposed to supported by evidence, there is an undertone of a doomsday narrative with a binary with-me or against-the-world positioning, and there is a strong romanticism for the past that most historians would suggest does not reflect reality. While believers in the message may not find these to be critical problems, this book will likely not reach beyond its echo chamber because of these problems.

A few notes from my reading:

  • "We are facing a deep and growing crisis rooted in how we produce, process, and distribute food. The planet's well-being, people's health, and societies' stability are severely threatened by an industrial globalized agriculture driven by greed and profits. An inefficient, wasteful, and nonsustainable model of food production is pushing the planet, its ecosystems, and its diverse species to the brink of destruction." (ix)
  • "The food question becomes an ethical question about our relationship with the Earth and other species; about whether we have the right to push species to extinction or deny large numbers of the human family safe, heathy, and nutritious food." (p. xx)
  • "Productivity and sustainability are much higher in mixed systems of farming and forestry that produce diverse outputs. The productivity of monocultures is low in the context of diverse outputs and needs." (p. 50)
  • "we conducted field experiments in organic farms in which farmers grew twelve crops (baranaaja), nine crops (navdanya), and seven crops (saptarshi). In an acre of farmland, organic baranaaja produced 73.5 percent more protein, 3,200 percent more vitamins, 67 percent more minerals, and 186 percent more iron than conventional monoculture cropping did. Organic navdanya produced 355 percent more protein, 5,174 percent more vitamins, 57 percent more minerals, and 160 percent more iron than conventional monoculture cropping did, per acre of farmland. And finally, organic saptarshi produced 66 percent more protein, 54 percent more minerals, and 153 percent more iron than conventional monoculture cropping. When agricultural output is measured in terms of "health per acre" and "nutrition per acre" instead of "yield per acre," biodiverse, ecological systems clearly have a much higher output." (p. 53)
  • "Small farms produce more food than large industrial farms because small-scale farmers give more care to the soil, plants, and animals, and they intensify biodiversity, not external chemical inputs. As farms increase in size, they replace labor with fossil fuels for farm machinery, the caring work of farmers with toxic chemicals, and the intelligence of nature and farmers with careless technologies." (p. 60)
  • "Corporations say that GMOs are substantially equivalent to non-GMO crops and food [for approval], but the same corporations also simultaneously claim that GMOs are new and different, that they are invention [for patents]. Under this logic, the same GMO is natural when is comes to avoiding responsibility for safety, but it is different from the nature - or unnatural - when it comes to owning it." (p. 69)

Shiva sets forth directions for the way forward, in summary:

  • "We need to move from the fiction of corporate personhood to the reality of real people who grow, process, cook, and eat real food." (p. 127)
  • "from mechanistic, reductionist science to an agroecological science based on relationships and interconnectedness" (p. 127)
  • "from seed as the 'intellectual property' of corporations to seed as living, diverse, and evolving: toward seed as the commons that is the source of food and the source of life" (p. 128)
  • "from chemical intensification to biodiversity intensification and ecological intensifications, and from monocultures to diversity" (p. 128)
  • "to decommodify and liberate land and labor, and focus on the living intelligence of nature, with her diversity and potential for creating abundance" (p. 129)
  • "from food that destroys our health to food that nourishes our bodies and minds" (p. 129)
  • "from the obsession with 'big' to a nurturing of 'small', from global to the local" (p. 130)
  • "from the false idea of competition to the reality of cooperation" (p. 132)
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The Violence of the Green Revolution

Vandana Shiva has long been one of the key actors and advocates promoting locally-driven and owned, agroecologically-oriented and opposing corporate control of the agricultural and food sector. Although it was not her first publication, this message gained a global audience with "The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics" (1989). With the benefit of hindsight, there are two aspects I see missing from the book, one is a lack of engagement with farmer agency (as if they have no role in corporate expansion, I've written on how farmers can refuse, for example) and limited critical reflection on diversity (it is essentially good, my research suggests we need some more nuance on this). That said, this is an excellent resource and, in particular, it is good to recognize the roots of position that is now widely held so we can recognize the thought leaders. Some points I found interesting:

  • After "two decades, the invisible ecological, political and cultural costs of the Green Revolution have become visible. At the political level, the Green Revolution has turned out to be conflict-producing instead of conflict reducing. At the material level, production of high yields of commercial grain have generated new scarcities at the ecosystem level, which in turn have generated new sources of conflict." (p. 15)
  • "The knowledge and power nexus is inherent to the reductionist system because the mechanistic order, as a conceptual framework, was associated with a set of values based on power which were compatible with the needs of commercial capitalism. It generates inequalities and domination by the way knowledge is generated and structured, the way it is legitimized, and by the way in which such knowledge transforms nature and society." (p. 22-23)
  • "The linkage between chemical fertilizers and dwarf varieties that were established through breeding programmes of CIMMYT and IRRI, created a major shift in how seeds were perceived and produced, and who controlled the production and use of seeds." (p. 62-63)
  • "Unlike the traditional high yielding varieties which have co-evolved with local ecosystems, the Green Revolution HYV's have to be replaced frequently. Seeds, a renewable resource, are thus converted into a non-renewable resource, which each variety usable for only one or two years before it gets overtaken by pests. Obsolescence replaces sustainability." (p. 89)
  • "The inequality generating effects of the Green Revolution were built into the strategy of 'building on the best' - the best endowed region and the best endowed farmers. The increase in resource intensity of inputs for Green Revolution agriculture implied the increase in capital intensity of farming which tended to generate new inequalities between those who could use the new technology profitably, and those for whom it turned into an instrument of dispossession." (p. 176-177)
  • "Liberalisation has meant freedom for corporate giants to test, experiment and sell their products without constraint, without controls. This necessarily means destroying for citizens the right to freedom from hazards posed by the new technologies and products." (p. 209)
  • The "US has accused countries of the Third World of engaging in 'unfair trading practice' if they fail to adopt US patent laws which allow monopoly rights in life form. Yet it is the US which has engaged in unfair practices related to the use of Third World genetic resources. It has freely taken the biological adversity of the Third World to spin millions of dollars worth of profits, none of which have been shared with Third World countries, the original owners of the germplasm. A wild tomato variety (Lycopresicon chomrelweskii) taken from Peru in 1962 has contributed $8 million a year to the American tomato processing industry by increasing the content of soluble solids. Yet none of these profits or benefits have been shared with Peru, the original source of the genetic material." (p. 260)

Page numbers are from the 2016 print of the University Press of Kentucky.

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