Announcing “Agroecology in Motion: Nourishing Transformation”

Articles written for Agroecology in Motion: Nourishing Transformation are written to stimulate reflection and learning, inform political-practical work on agroecology and move people to action. This first article in the column lays the groundwork for future contributions.

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Agroecology is entering a new phase. A range of circumstances have catapulted agroecology into the limelight. From the acceleration of the climate crisis, the dangerous decline of biodiversity and Covid-19 to the sustained and committed work of social movements to raise agroecology’s profile – agroecology is now gaining recognition and momentum as an alternative to a failing food system.

Agroecology is constantly evolving and moving, by nature it is a process of experimentation and creativity; it is a plurality of pathways rather than a destination. As a concept that is gaining steam on international political stages, and in territories around the world, it is ‘in motion’ as different actors with different agendas, positions and priorities begin to engage, adapt, reinterpret…and co-opt it. Sometimes it is moving so fast that it is hard to keep track of what is going on under the umbrella of ‘agroecology’. Articles in Agroecology in Motion will explore this movement where new ideas, contradictions, edges, fusions and opportunities are constantly emerging. 

Agroecology is also ‘in motion’ in the sense that its main roots and lifeblood are  in social movements that are advancing a deeply transformative vision of agroecology that holds great promise as an antidote and alternative to the ills that emanate from the dominant food system. This column will foreground the transformative agroecology reflected in the movements organizing for agroecology, food sovereignty and the right to food. 

Contributions in Agroecology in Motion are intended to nourish a transformative agroecology by probing and pushing the boundaries of thought and action. The column will be provocative and inspiring, international in scope and connected with agroecology happenings all over the world. The articles will be critical, compelling and analytical, focusing on the dynamics of political and social transformation in the political agroecology and food sovereignty movement(s). To this end, we are asking contributors to speak to one or more of the following: 

  • Hunches – What do you think you know but can’t yet prove? And, by extension, what are the missing elements in your emerging theory or hunch? 
  • Edges – What are the edges of agroecology? – that is: the places where agroecology butts up against another movement or issue, and opportunities for exchange and learning can be explored and harnessed for social transformation (e.g. the edge between agroecology and the Black Lives Matters Movement or feminism, etc.). 
  • Visions and Horizons – What are the horizons and futures for agroecology? What visions of the future does agroecology imply? And what horizons need to be brought into view in order to realize them? 
  • Doubts – What are the shortcomings and blind spots of agroecology? What are the implications of these for agroecology transformations? How might they be overcome?  
  • Contradictions and Threats – What dynamics undermine agroecology? – either its internal contradictions, or threats from outside.  
  • Unpacking narrative and evidence i Who is building narratives based on what arguments and evidence to argue for or against agroecology? What are their vested interests and what is the effect on agroecology (e.g. when corporations adopt agroecology language or where politicians attack agroecology).
  • Inspiration – Provide a story, narrative or example that inspires. This should not only include a description of the how, but also a sense of the ‘why’ the case has achieved success. 
  • Learning from mistakes or ‘failures’: Share a postmortem on an initiative or project that didn’t achieve its desired outcome or from mistakes you’ve made in your own practice. Be sure to draw lessons learned.  

We will ask authors to write with the following sentiment in mind: 

How can I write/present this work in a way that is most likely to stimulate deep reflection/learning, provide practical guidance on political action and/or that is most likely to move people to action?

Agroecology is most transformative when it is used as a tool to confront systemic inequity. Yakshi and the India Food Sovereignty Alliance embed work on Agroecology in an anti-caste, anti- patriarchy and anti-capitalist foundation. It is from this starting point that they engage with the politics of food sovereignty and agroeclology.

Context: Agroecology – a struggle for the future of food, farming and the environment

Once situated in relative obscurity, agroecology is being taken up by global social movements, universities, private companies, local regional and national government as well as intergovernmental bodies like the FAO. 

There is growing evidence that agroecology is an approach that can meet many of the Sustainable Development Goals and ultimately can provide the basis of a more just, resilient and sustainable food system.

But what is agroecology?

Agroecology is a term being filled with multiple meanings… Agroecology is a movement. It is knowledge and wisdom. It is “a science”. Cultural practices. Technical application of particular practices. It is viewed by some as a business opportunityA way to realise food sovereigntyA marketing tool for agribusiness. A way of life. A word obscure to some…and deeply meaningful to others.  A way to embody spiritual practice. Viewed as a revolution to some. An aberration to others. A category to fit one’s practices into. A way to transform the way we think. “Just another name for organics”. Only fit for farmers in the global south. Suited to farmers everywhere. 

Agroecology is all of these things and more – and clearly there are many tensions amongst these meanings being projected onto agroecology. In fact, agroecology has multiple meanings, multiple practices and multiple politics. It is a field of contestation – of struggle. And this struggle is playing out in different regions of the world, amongst a range of actors and at different levels of government.

Agroecology has enormous emancipatory potential when framed as a political approach to reimagining and constructing a more just and sustainable agri-food and fibre system. 

It is being used by social movements, especially by peasant and other food producer organisations, as a mobilising concept. From this perspective, agroecology is placed in opposition to industrial-corporate agriculture and also distanced from more technocratic and top-down approaches like climate smart agriculture, sustainable intensification and corporate organics. 

Whereas these more dominant approaches to sustainable agriculture and food systems leave the underlying structures of power intact, agroecology, the way we see it, is fundamentally based on a different set of values and principles. Here, agroecology and social transformation are two sides of the same coin 

The transformative vision of agroecology being advanced by social movements puts people and planet at the centre of decision making and especially focuses on the empowerment of food producers and people – and, on the flip side – the disempowerment of powerful agri-business corporations, and elite policymakers. At its core, this agroecology is about dismantling centres of power and relations of inequity as it relates to agri-food and fibre systems. Agroecology, from this perspective, is deeply subversive.

Like a garden, agroecology needs nourishment and care. This new column will invite contributors and readers to consider what agroecology needs to grow and thrive. Watering an agroecological garden at the Nyeleni Centre in Mali. Photo credit: Colin Anderson.

Contested Visions of Agroecology

But not for everyone. Not by a long shot. There are also a range of actors, empowered within the existing regime, that are framing agroecology in different terms – as a way to tweak the existing system, as set of technical practices with no overtly political character and ultimately as a minor and inconsequential side event to their main show. 

Here, attempts are being made to control, side-line or ignore agroecology. For example, the US, Canadian and Australian governments have been openly blocking agroecology from gaining prominence in the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) despite a massive effort by civil society, sympathetic bureaucrats and 15 other countries in the ‘Friends of Agroecology Group’ of FAO. 

Huge agribusiness companies – like McDonalds and Syngenta – that obviously have a much different view of agroecology have begun to incorporate the language of agroecology into their PR /business.

Moreover, despite efforts to ensure that agroecology articulates with local realities, it has been observed that as agroecology gains momentum it risks becoming a universal development paradigm that erases local cultures and food systems. People and institutions that adopt this developmentalist approach can reinforce colonial dynamics between the global north and south.

Further, agroecology actors can fail to address the wider societal complexities and inequities that prevent agroecology from fulfilling its potential. Efforts to critique agroecology from a decolonial, indigenous, feminist and queer perspective are pushing agroecology to a more emancipatory place.

Exploring the Complexities: Agroecology in Motion

It is also too simple to say that agroecology is a matter of good vs. bad, a political agroecology vs. a non-political agroecology. There are way too many in-betweens. This binary is far too simple and, although helpful for clearly articulating what agroecology should not be, may be troublesome and alienating for many. 

It is clear, for sure, that there are powerful, oppressive actors that are carrying out unambiguously abominable acts and interventions which need to be condemned – the murder of peasant leaders advocating for land rights and agroecology being only one terrifying example. 

It is obvious that the power of agribusiness companies must be curbed and that they have no place in shaping agroecology, from our perspective. Agroecology is, after all, distinguished by its emphasis on the agency and autonomy of farmers as well as ‘eaters’ and other actors (e.g. processors), especially marginalised ones, from these oppressive and exploitative forces. 

March for the Life of Women and Agroecology, Brazil. Photo Credit: Nilton Pereira/AS-PTA

But we must also deal with the complexity of scaling agroecology in a world that is at odds with the very tenets of an agroecological imagination. There are many contradictions and tensions that are begging more thought and consideration. Some of the potential topics that will be covered in Agroecology in Motion might include:

  • Where do large farms fit into agroecology?
  • What role do different kinds of market arrangements, including trade and certification systems, have in agroecology?
  • How does agroecology articulate with the debates about the role of livestock and meat in a future climate-just food system?
  • Does science lack wisdom? How can science and research be transformed to enable agroecology?
  • What kind of approaches to governance is implied by agroecology? 
  • To what extent can agroecology address inequity, making links to food justice (gender, racism, etc.); 
  • If agroecology is about autonomy and farmer-led approaches, how can governments and institutions support agroecology without co-opting it?
  • What is the FAO doing with agroecology and why does the FAO matter?
  • Can agroecology be feminist, decolonial, queer – what does that look like?
  • Do we want to or need to ‘scale-up’ agroecology? If so, how to avoid the traps of losing the critical, political edge and values based in relationships and local knowledge?

Agroecology in Motion will be convened by the AgroecologyNow! team at Coventry University and managed by Chris Maughan, Colin Anderson and Csilla Kiss. We will invite guest co-authors from an international network of leaders in agroecology practice, politics and research. We strive to include co-authors from all major regions of the world and cover important emergent issues.

We plan for Agroecology in Motion to be some combination of: provocative, poetic, boundary-pushing, artful, edgy and ultimately to stimulate thinking and action – further developing agroecology as a basis for a more just and sustainable food system.

Stay tuned…