Megacities: Environmental Friend or Foe?

Originally posted on Mark Bessoudo:


Note: This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Sustainable Building & Design magazine.

As of last year, more than half the world’s population was living in cities. By the end of this decade, it’s estimated that three out of five people will live not only in cities, but in megacities.

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The Anthropocene debate: Why is such a useful concept starting to fall apart?

Originally posted on ENTITLE blog:

by Aaron Vansintjan*

Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).

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Political ecology gone wrong

Originally posted on ENTITLE blog:

 By Giorgos Kallis*

Against pro-nuclear ‘ecomodernism’, we should reaffirm the fundamental incompatibility between ecologism and modernization.

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GM Foods: A Moment of Honesty

Originally posted on fieldquestions:

Note: the FieldQuestions blog has been dormant for several months due to some academic writing projects and fieldwork. But with a new debate raging on GMO labeling, it’s time to get back to it.

As the latest controversy over GMO’s unfolds – this time it’s about a House Bill that would ban labeling laws – it’s time for a moment of honesty about science and safety. Of course safety is hardly the only bone of contention in GMO debates, but safety is the issue that’s most hotly contested and that’s most central to the labeling bill.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, the sponsor of the bill, writes that activists are misleading consumers with false claims about unsafe food.  Actually, “more than 100 research projects over 25 years” have “affirmed and reaffirmed the safety” of GM foods.

I must point out to my GMO-doubting friends that Pompeo’s statement about the research is accurate…

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A Sustainability Scientist’s Perspective on the ‘Refugee Crisis’

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

Today, I was motivated to focus on a more social manifestation of our lack of sustainability: the refugee crisis. In my research I tend to focus on the environmental expressions of sustainability problems. But sustainability is also about social sustainability. My perspectives on the refugee crisis are therefore based on some of the framings I have developed while studying the local and global connections in environmental problems.

**Note: This blog post has been written in anger and disgust, and therefore may not be as articulate as I would like.**

I’m distressed by state of humanity in Western Europe.

  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in appalling camps around Calais, waiting to enter Britain.
  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in over-crowded refugee centres with little sanitation and facilities.
  • PEOPLE are suffering danger and exploitation, and arduous journeys to arrive in these camps.
  • PEOPLE are drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies.


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The New Science of Sustainable Food Systems: Overcoming Barriers to Food Systems Reform


From one of our own AgroEcoPeople, Amber Heckelman!

Originally posted on mestizarise:

“The challenge is for science-policy initiatives to resist the narrowing of the analytical lens, and to overcome the fragmentation of food governance spaces. The approach of such initiatives should be systemic, and it should include an analysis of power relations and the political economy of food systems. In order to contribute to food systems reform, a critical mass of evidence must be gathered and transposed into policy recommendations. The voices of academic experts and social innovators will be all the more powerful for their ability to talk the same language, and to anchor themselves to common reference points and analytical toolkits. Furthermore, this emerging science of sustainable food systems must be informed by the knowledge of practitioners, and appropriated by those to whom it seeks to be useful.” Click here for the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems’ (IPES Food) executive summary and here for the full report.

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Text of the Second Agrifood Systems Scholars’ Open Letter to FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva

(see original posting and pdf version available here from IATP)

24 June 2015

Dear Director General da Silva,

As scientists and scholars working in sustainable agriculture and food systems, we are writing to support and bring to your attention the recent Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology[1], dated 27 February 2015. The Declaration affirms that agroecology can produce food in ecologically sustainable and socially just ways, and can “generate local knowledge, promote social justice, nurture identity and culture, and strengthen the economic viability of rural areas.”

The Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration resulted from a historic meeting in Nyéléni, Mali of “delegates representing diverse organizations and international movements of small-scale food producers and consumers including peasants, indigenous peoples and communities (including hunters and gatherers), family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people.” Together, they represented those who produce as much as 70 percent of the world’s food, as recognized in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s 2014 State of Food and Agriculture report.

In September 2014, many of us wrote to you in the Scientists’ Support Letter for the International Symposium on Agroecology. We would like to reiterate that agroecology as a science, practice and social movement fosters an uncommonly promising synthesis of knowledge across many domains. In agroecology, traditional and experiential knowledge comes together with scientific knowledge, both social and natural, to animate a transdisciplinary, action-oriented approach to agriculture. This synergy fosters the sustainable production of healthy, diverse foods and provides a stable livelihood to farmers, while decreasing the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity, soils, waterways and climate. Applying principles of ecology to the design and management of such systems, it considers the food system as a socioecological system – encompassing economic, cultural and political dimensions while facilitating both sustainability and justice.

We find it disappointing, then, that agroecology is only mentioned once in the FAO Medium Term Plan[2], while “climate-smart” agriculture and various articulations of so-called sustainable intensification are mentioned throughout. Quoting from our previous letter, “no approach can be scientifically assessed as ‘sustainable’ according to most established definitions of sustainability” without incorporating “distributive and procedural justice.” Climate-smart agriculture and sustainable intensification lack the elements of procedural and distributive justice found in agroecology and food sovereignty, and so their ability to effectively address climate change and sustainability are scientifically questionable. We instead strongly encourage the FAO to seek to build on the Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration, in particular, to build on its incorporation of sovereignty, rights and justice as key elements of a rational approach to a sustainable and food-secure system that promotes human dignity. At least, a greater focus on agroecology within FAO’s strategic planning would seem to be appropriate given the three regional agroecology meetings in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia to be held this year under the FAO’s auspices. The pertinence of agroecology in FAO’s work is particularly clear today with the first Regional Agroecology Meeting to be held shortly in Brasilia.


Given our support for a comprehensive socio-ecological approach to agroecology, we call on the FAO to give strong regard to the recent Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration, particularly its Common Pillars and Principles of Agroecology. In the previous letter, we encouraged the FAO member states and the international community to build on the proceedings of the FAO International Symposium on Agroecology to launch a U.N.-wide initiative on agroecology. We reiterate that call here, and propose that the Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration offers a unique opportunity to serve as one of the foundations of such an initiative. As a document drafted by a wide array of civil society constituencies, it represents the uniting potential of agroecology. It is a logical basis for continued conversations around building agroecology as a potential pillar of work within the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and to provide guidance for the relevant FAO workstreams that will develop at national, regional and global levels in the future, following FAO’s commitment to integrate the knowledge exchanged during the 2014 International Agroecology Symposium into its internal work. Further, it can contribute substantially to inform the discussions and negotiations about agriculture within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Adding to our previous call, we believe that the FAO 2015 regional symposia on agroecology are important opportunities for progressing the agroecological agenda, but realizing those opportunities will require positive actions. We therefore call on the FAO central administration, the regional and relevant national offices, as well as member states to make sure that:

  • The terms of reference of all the regional symposia (objectives, methodology, scope, expected outcomes, detailed program) are, or continue to be, developed with active participation and reflect the priorities of autonomous diverse organizations and international movements of small-scale food producers and consumers, as represented through the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC);
  • The regional symposia duly take into account and build on the Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration, and that their outcomes are consistent with it. This notably implies avoiding the reduction and cooptation of agroecology as a narrow set of technologies to fine-tune and further consolidate the industrial food system through concepts such as “climate-smart agriculture” or “sustainable intensification.”

Moreover, we call upon the FAO and member states to also plan the organization of two additional regional symposia on agroecology in Europe and North America before the organization of the 2016 FAO Regional Conferences.

The Regional Meetings will be exciting fora for advancing the agenda of agroecology in collaboration with scientists and farmers. We stand ready, as scholars, to aid the FAO and the world’s small-scale food producers and consumers, peasants, indigenous peoples and communities, hunters and gatherers, family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people, providing whatever knowledge and analysis we can to advance a comprehensive agenda on agroecology in the context of world food security, with particular attention to the four pillars of the food system: social, economic, environmental and cultural. We would be happy to contribute scientific analyses from our various established research projects relevant to the principles and pillars of the Nyéléni Declaration in particular, and look forward to helping build on the “dialogue of knowledges[3]” that is at the heart of agroecology in order that we all may advance forward towards a sustainable, agroecological, food-secure and food-sovereign future.


M. Jahi Chappell, Ph.D.
Director, Agroecology and Agriculture Policy
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)
Minneapolis, MN, USA

* All institutional affiliations provided for identification purposes only and do not imply endorsement by the respective institutions.

** Please direct return correspondence to Dr. M. Jahi Chappell at Correspondence will be forwarded to the following individuals who have endorsed the letter.

Signing on the behalf of:

Miguel A Altieri, PhD
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley, CA, USA

Colin Anderson
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Centre of Agroecology, Water and Resilience
Coventry University
Coventry, UK

Molly D. Anderson
Professor of Food Studies
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT, USA

Catherine Badgley
Associate Professor
University of Michigan
Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Residential College
Museum of Paleontology
Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Jennifer Blesh
Assistant Professor
University of Michigan
School of Natural Resources and Environment
Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Professor Valentine Cadieux
Director of Environmental Studies
Hamline University
St. Paul, MN, USA

Liz Carlisle, PhD, Fellow
Center for Diversified Farming Systems
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley, CA, USA

Dr. A. Cristina de la Vega-Leinert
Geography and Geology Institute
Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University
Greifswald, Germany

Bruce G. Ferguson, PhD
Coordinator, Department of Agriculture, Society, and the Environment
El Colegio de la Frontera Sur
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, México

Joern Fischer
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Lüneburg, Denmark

Mike Friedman
Assistant Professor of Biology
American International College of Arts and Sciences of Antigua
University Park, Coolidge
St. John’s, Antigua, W.I.

Luis García-Barrios, Phd
Investigador Titular
Investigador Nacional
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Stephen R. Gliessman
Editor, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
Professor Emeritus of Agroecology
University of California – Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA, USA

Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, PhD Assistant Professor
Global Environmental Politics
School of International Service, SIS 306
American University
Washington, DC, USA

Doug Gurian-Sherman, Ph.D.
Director of Sustainable Agriculture and Senior Scientist Center for Food Safety
660 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E.
Washington, DC,  USA

Alastair Iles
Professor, Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley, CA, USA

S. Ryan Isakson
Centre for Critical Development Studies and Department of Geography
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Jack Kloppenburg
Professor Emeritus
Department of Community and Environmental Sociology
University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI, USA

Jonathan Latham, PhD
Executive Director
The Bioscience Resource Project
Ithaca, NY, USA

Claire Luby, M.S.
PhD candidate
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI, USA

Kathleen McAfee
Associate Professor
International Relations
San Francisco State University
San Francisco, CA, USA

Nathan McClintock, PhD
Assistant Professor
Toulan School of Urban Studies & Planning
Portland State University
Portland, OR, USA

Philip McMichael
Professor and Chair
Department of Development Sociology
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY, USA

V. Ernesto Méndez, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Agroecology & Environmental Studies
Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group (ARLG)
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT USA

Albie Miles, PhD
Assistant Professor
Sustainable Community Food Systems
University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu
Kapolei, HI USA

Maywa Montenegro, M.S.
PhD Candidate Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley, CA, USA

Raj Patel
Research Professor
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX USA

Antonio Roman-Alcalá
International Institute of Social Studies
The Hague, Netherlands

Alicia Tenza Peral
Departamento de Biología Aplicada
Área de Ecología
Universidad Miguel Hernández
Elche, Alicante Spain

John Soluri
Associate Professor
Carnegie Mellon University
Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Aileen Suzara
MPH in Public Health Nutrition
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley, CA, USA

Kathryn Teigen De Master
Assistant Professor
Agriculture, Society & the Environment
Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management
University of California-Berkeley
Berkeley, CA, USA

Alicia Tenza Peral
Departamento de Biología Aplicada
Área de Ecología
Universidad Miguel Hernández
Elche, Alicante, Spain

Ilyas Siddique
Professor of Agroecosystems
Dept. of Crop Science
Center of Agrarian Sciences
Federal University of Santa Catarina
Florianópolis, Brazil

Will Valley, PhD
Instructor, Applied Biology
Academic Director, Land, Food, & Community Series
Faculty of Land and Food Systems
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC, Canada

John H. Vandermeer
Professor, University of Michigan
Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Residential College
Museum of Paleontology
Ann Arbor, MI, USA

Tom Wakeford
Reader (Associate Professor)
Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience
Coventry University
Coventry, UK

Robert G. Wallace, Ph.D.
Visiting Scholar
Institute for Global Studies
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN, U.S.A.

Justine Williams
PhD candidate
Department of Anthropology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, SC USA

Hannah Wittman
Associate Professor
Faculty of Land and Food Systems
The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC, Canada

[1] Hereafter, the “Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration.”

[2] “The Director-General’s Medium Term Plan 2014-17 (reviewed) and Programme of Work and Budget 2016-17,” dated June 2015, retrieved from

[3] “Dialogue of knowledges” is the translation of a specific term from social movements, “dialogo de sabers,” meaning a dialogue between different forms of knowledge/ways of knowing.  Retrieve from 

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Food system scholars and scientists pen second letter to FAO Director-General supporting agroecology (Cross-post from IATP’s ThinkForward)

(originally posted June 24, 2015, at ThinkForward)

Used under creative commons license from unicphoto. FAO Director General Graziano da Silva

On June 24, more than 40 scholars and scientists of agriculture and food systems sent the Director-General (DG) of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) a second open letter, calling for the FAO to acknowledge and build on the historic, civil-society led Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology. This follows up on last year’s letter on the same subject, sent on the occasion of the FAO’s first International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security. As IATP wroteearlier this year, the Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration was the culmination of a landmark meeting of “international movements of small‐scale food producers and consumers, including peasants, indigenous peoples and communities (together with hunter and gatherers), family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people from around the world,” coming together at the Nyéléni Center in Sélingué, Mali this past February. The participants sought to reach a common understanding of agroecology as a key element of Food Sovereignty, and to develop joint strategies to promote agroecology and defend it from cooptation.

In their letter, the scholars affirm the importance of the Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration and discuss its origin from civil society and its strength in including concepts of human rights and justice, which they argue cannot be separated from any properly scientific approach to improving food security, food sovereignty and sustainability throughout the world. They then call on the Director-General to “seek to build on the Nyéléni Agroecology Declaration, in particular, to build on its incorporation of sovereignty, rights and justice as key elements of a rational approach to a sustainable and food-secure system that promotes human dignity.”

This second letter coincides with the first of a series of regional agroecology meetings, the Regional Seminar on Agroecology in Latin America and the Caribbean, which begins in the capital of Brazil, Brasilia, on June 24th. (Meetings will also be held in Senegal and Bangkok later this year.) The letter  further calls on the Director-General to continue to develop these regional meetings “with active participation and [to] reflect the priorities of autonomous diverse organizations and international movements of small-scale food producers and consumers”; to avoid “the reduction and cooptation of agroecology as a narrow set of technologies to fine-tune and further consolidate the industrial food system through concepts such as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ or ‘sustainable intensification,’” (as we’ve written about here and here); and to plan “the organization of two additional regional symposia on agroecology in Europe and North America”. Agroecology, after all, is not something that is only useful to Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean—the tools it has to offer farmers, and its respect for their knowledge and autonomy, should be available to all farmers, and supported in all areas as the best way to face the multitude of challenges before us in our food systems.

Noting, with disappointment, that the FAO’s Medium Term Plan mentions agroecology only once, while using variations on the phrases “climate-smart” and “sustainable intensification” throughout, the scholars commit themselves to contributing “scientific analyses from our various established research projects relevant to the principles and pillars of the Nyéléni Declaration,” and to volunteer to help build on what has been called the “dialogue of knowledges” that can be found at the heart of agroecology. The Nyéléni Declaration enunciates the important foundations for efforts that truly honor and collaborate with farmers’ traditional and experiential knowledge, together with scientific knowledge. With the historic Declaration originating from civil society, and now backed by a slate of scholars from around the world, we very much hope that the FAO and its member countries will heed the growing consensus that crosses the typical boundaries between “scholar” and “farmer,” and find them coming together around the importance of agroecology.

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Final Day at the FAO Regional Agroecology Seminar in Brazil – The Struggle Ahead (X-post from IATP’s ThinkForward)

(originally posted June 29, 2015)

IATP’s Dr. Jahi Chappell is blogging from Brasilia as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosts the first of three public symposiums on national and regional strategies focused on agroecology.

On Friday, the first regional agroecology seminar of the FAO came to a close in Brasilia. The seminar and closing day ended with a “mística” (the cultural/spiritual ceremony I described when it occurred at the opening of the pre-meeting). Lighting a candle, movement leaders told us that it represented fire, a basic element, and in doing so, evoked the vital importance of other basic elements of life, especially the need to honor the land, and for peasants and indigenous peoples to have access and make good use of it.

Following the ceremony, participants from all sectors – social movements, NGOs, academics, governments, and international organizations – gathered as friends and comrades, old and new, hugged each other and expressed gratitude for the space this FAO seminar had created. The morning and afternoon had seen difficult negotiations, both in plenary and within a smaller, closed-door drafting group, on a final platform of recommendations from the seminar. (We will post the final declaration when it is officially released.) There were the expected tensions among the participants from the different sectors, with academics and social movements pushing for ambitious and concrete statements and commitments, and the ability and willingness of governments and the FAO to go only go so far, given their own commitments, pressures, and restrictions to many constituencies going beyond the groups in the room.

And this, perhaps, reflects the deep potential, and incredible challenge of agroecology. The respect, productive dialogue, and collaboration that agroecology emphasizes between farmer and scientist, people and the environment, and society and governments means it is able to uniquely draw people from across what can be vast divides. Indigenous communities, farmers and consumers from countries both rich and poor, environmentalists, scientists, and increasingly governments are coming together around agroecology, and agreement is growing that new policies, and even entirely new paradigms are needed. This was affirmed by pretty much all of the speakers present, regardless of the sector they belonged to. From one member of FAO-Brazil: “We must work together as movements and government to make sure that agroecology is on every pertinent international agenda.” Another speaker, representing the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Development (whose head, Patrus Ananias, spoke the previous day) observed that the seminar hadn’t been “a space to exchange technologies, but to talk politics”. He acknowledged that the policies supporting agroecology and family farmers in Brazil “are the result of an on-going dialogue between civil society, the movements, and the government,” and promised that the Brazilian government “will go over the platform document [resulting from this meeting] point by point.”

As the president of the Brazilian National Food Security Council had emphasized the previous day, ongoing dialogue, and further, ongoing pressure from social movements is utterly essential. Members of the Latin American Scientific Society for Agroecology re-emphasized the need to respect and actively support indigenous and farmer knowledge as well as collaborative academic work, and further, the need to materially support the collaborations between scientists and peasant farmer. And here we begin to see the crux of the challenge. The space created by these seminars is clearly meant to be an opportunity to inform and advise governments, to convene pertinent groups, and bring together excellent evidence. But when said evidence points to the need for broad political changes, for new paradigms and approaches, the trickiness of the space is clear: what does it mean to “advise” governments of the agreed-upon need for political and paradigm change, given that it is these very governments, with their current paradigms, that the FAO is meant to serve?

This seminar was one opportunity for scientists, governments, and social movements to exchange notes and build solidarity. With the enthusiastic promises made by the Brazilian government, we see the result of historical and on-going processes of social mobilization and pressure in the Brazilian context. It falls to the civil society and academic participants and their allies, then, to maintain and expand the mobilization, both within and between countries. Because as agroecology is indeed anecessary paradigm shift requiring new approaches and policies—approaches and policies that will challenge entrenched inequality and big business interests—we would do well to remember the words of American abolitionist and escapee from the deprivations of American slavery, Frederick Douglass:

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

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Day two at the Latin America & Caribbean Regional Agroecology Seminar: innovation and power in agroecology (X-post from IATP’s ThinkForward)

(originally posted June 26, 2015 at ThinkForward)

The opening session of the Regional Seminar in Latin America and the Caribbean quickly built to a roar, at the same time raising questions that would have fit in at the last sessions of the day: how do we get to a system that supports food sovereignty and agroecology as the alternative paradigm for food and agriculture from our current system when many governments and corporate interests seek technical fixes that don’t actually fix the real problems?

The first session of the day started with comments from several of the key coordinating organizations: the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Reunión Especializada sobre Agricultura Familiar en el MERCOSUR (REAF), the Alianza por la Soberanía Alimentaria de los Pueblos de América Latina y el Caribe, FAO Brazil and the Ministry of Agrarian Development of Brazil. The Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology [SOCLA], who also helped organize these meetings, wasn’t in the first session, but SOCLA’s President, Dr. Clara Nicholls, did present in the second session. The relatively new Minister of Agrarian Development, Patrus Ananias de Souza, who served as the Minister of Social Development under former President Lula and was key to implementing Brazil’s Zero Hunger programs, built to an incredible crescendo, promising that the Dilma Administration was soon to launch a new plan for agrarian reform, one that would secure land for all of the landless people located in camps and settlements throughout Brazil. His passionate pledge brought appreciative applause from the audience of farmers, FAO and government officials, academics and NGO staff members. It was an agreed high note that will be revolutionary if the Brazilian government is able to pull it off. (The details of the plan will not be announced until next month.)

Riding on this wave of hope for revolutionary governmental action, the President of Brazil’s National Food and Nutritional Security Council (CONSEA), Maria Emilia Pacheco, spoke of the vital role of social mobilization in motivating and securing good government policy. CONSEA recently added consumers’ representatives to the council, which she hopes can foster an organized consumers’ movement in Brazil to start matching the high levels of organization seen in other constituencies in Brazil, such as the landless, the family farmer, the food and nutrition security sectors and increasingly, agroecology. We got a tantalizing overview of the philosophy and approach behind Brazil’s national-level food policy council; this institution goes back decades in Brazil, barring an extended interruption during the Cardoso administration of the 90s and early 2000s, and was re-instituted under former President Lula. Indeed, Brazil’s system of food policy councils at many levels, local to national, is built into its federal food security policies, and could serve as a model of some of the elements of participatory food democracy we’ve discussed at IATP recently.

As the day continued, we heard more from social movement members, farmers and scientists about the research, practice and potential of agroecology. Attendees from indigenous and peasant[i] farmer groups discussed practices, organizing and innovation throughout Latin America and the Caribbean—Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, and Mexico particularly—making agroecology’s reach, scope and potential abundantly clear from the positive stories shared with the audience.

As we approached the end of the day, several panelists discussed the meaning of the word “innovation” for them, and the importance of social and practical innovation, not just technical innovation. Agroecologist Peter Rosset pointed out the incredible organization represented by the institution of local schools and programs seen in the presentations, and noted that these innovations, set up by the local people themselves, are often overlooked by those from the outside looking to support agroecology. There is often a focus on new institutions, networks and ideas, sometimes imposed from the outside, that doesn’t acknowledge or build on the political agency built by communities themselves. He pointed out that government and officials’ responses to agroecological research sometimes go so far as to question the underlying validity of agroecology by denying the existence of demonstrable innovations from farmers. They overlook the fact that farmer-to-farmer networks, rural schools, movement building and new ways of relating and organizing with each other are all important innovations. Dr. Rosset admonished that we must not overlook policy and social innovations in favor of some machine or technique.

Agroecology cannot be confined to such a narrow definition. Indeed, scaling up agroecology will be about supporting cooperation and learning how to work together as much as it will be about how to work the land. Which perhaps gets to the crux of agroecology’s dilemma: like Minister Patrus Ananias de Souza’s  vision of a comprehensive new wave of agrarian reform, the question for many of us is not the desirability of the objective, but rather the social and political innovations and struggles it will take to get there. The Minister’s plan, and the kind of recognition for farmers and their social innovations that Dr. Rosset called for, means changing power relationships. Reforming land ownership means tackling the vast inequality in Brazil, but those who currently have more power and resources often don’t like to see it rivaled by the empowerment of those who have less. For example, as Dr. Rob Wallace pointed out in a recent presentation at IATP, large agribusiness long ago figured out that raising animals themselves was a risky, hard endeavor—one that lost money with the margins they wanted for their “raw materials”—and agribusiness is obviously afraid of their contract farmers even getting the basic power to exercise their constitutional rights.

Agroecology without justice, without empowerment, without changing power relationships, is not agroecology. But empowering female farmers, indigenous peoples and peasant farmers means an end to being able to push them into bad deals where they take the risk and agribusiness takes the rewards. Fulfilling this vision would be better for farmers, for consumers, for the environment—for pretty much everyone but large multi-national corporations. This is the implication of agroecology that many interested parties throughout the world want to paint as “unscientific” or even unnecessary. The question is, with clear evidence coming from both science and the lived experiences of producers on these necessities, will the regional seminars be able to step up to this challenging realization? Or is the possibility of rebalancing societal power going to be too much to ask of this first opening of a window at the “Cathedral of the Green Revolution”?[ii]

[i] “Peasant” (campesino in Spanish) at its root means “person of the land”, and it is this image of hard-working agricultural stewards of the land that many movements of Latin America seek to evoke with the word campesino/peasant. It does not necessarily have the same kind of distinctly negative connotation that it carries in English.

[ii] Based on comments made by FAO Director-General at the closing of the first International Meeting on Agroecology last year in Rome.

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