The industrialized food system, studies have shown, is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, algal blooms, pesticide pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss, to name a few ecological troubles. Add to this a long list of social ills, from escalating rates of obesity to the demise of the family farmer and deadening of rural landscapes and rural economies across much of the U.S.
In 2010, the National Academies of Science updated its seminal 1989 publication “Alternative Agriculture” with a fresh look at the state of food and farming in America. Its expert panel concluded, “Growing awareness of unintended impacts associated with some agricultural production practices has led to heightened societal expectations for improved environmental, community, labor, and animal welfare standards in agriculture.”
Yet that growing awareness and those heightened expectations haven’t led to alternative agricultural systems becoming the norm. Organic farming has made some headway, but many organic growers have been forced to imitate industrial farming: grow bigger, resort to monocultures instead of truly diversified fields, and sell to large supermarkets — forgoing many of the benefits alternative agricultural systems offer, such as natural pest control, pollination from native bees, and a smaller production scale conducive to family farmers and local food economies. How can more wholesome food production methods such as agroecology become conventional instead of alternative? The good news is, agroecology is already beginning to make headway.
Agroecology is already a thriving science. Universities with agroecology departments and training programs, journals dedicated to agroecology research and international societies such as the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecologyshow that agroecology science is increasingly accepted around the world, at least within research communities. Still, a criticism sometimes levied at agroecologists is that their science is more ideological than empirical, more aspirational than applicable.
Agroecologists can bolster the empirical basis of their science. A long-running criticism of agroecological farming is that it cannot possibly “feed the world.” However, research is still only beginning to establish “agroecological yield.” University of California, Berkeley scientists are showing that organic systems can lag behind conventional systems by just 19 percent when it comes to productivity, and just 8 or 9 percent when farmers alternate crops year-to-year or grow several crops together in their fields. In other words, adding more agroecological practices results in yields that are significantly better than “bare-bones” organic. And this is the case even though organic and agroecological research has been systematically underfunded. With further research into agroecology on tap, industrial food supporters will find it harder to refute evidence that agroecology is yield competitive.
Olivier De Schutter, former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, says that agroecology is an essential part of achieving the right to food globally. Agroecology can enable societies around the world to make rapid progress in meeting the needs of many vulnerable peoples while maintaining the ecological and social foundations of food systems. Many governments are now beginning to introduce anti-poverty programs aimed at those without sufficient food, such as Brazil’s Zero Hunger policy, which connects family farms with schools in some regions.
Meanwhile, La Via Campesina, a global peasant coalition, is demonstrating the practical, civic and political legitimacy of a new moral moment for agroecology. Formed in 1993 in response to free trade and globalization, LVC has grown into the largest social movement on the planet with an estimated 250 million smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fishers and indigenous peoples in 164 organizations from 73 countries. Agroecology has become an important tenet of the LVC movement, which says, “Agroecology is the answer to how to transform and repair our material reality in a food system and rural world that has been devastated by industrial food production and its so-called Green and Blue Revolutions. We see agroecology as a key form of resistance to an economic system that puts profit before life.”
Most Americans still accept industrial food practices as credible and authoritative, and in doing so consent to the use and existence of such practices. But movements are underway to change that. With a focus on what’s right about agroecology, not just what’s wrong with industrial agriculture, we can turn the alternative into the everyday and the undervalued into the legitimate — and give agroecology the credibility and authority it well deserves.