Bringing People’s and Scientific Knowledge Together to Unlock a Better Food System for Everyone 

In this article, the authors discuss the often problematic ways that evidence is called for and mobilized to justify industrial food systems. They lay out the importance of bringing different knowledge systems into dialogue and then describe the notion of cognitive justice or the right (and the need) for multiple knowledges to co-exist. The article ends by calling for three strategies to work towards cognitive justice in agroecology: 1) Supporting self-organised knowledge systems of farmers, Indigenous peoples and their communities. 2) Transforming the institutional public research system and third and 3) strengthening transdisciplinary, participatory, anti-colonial and feminist agroecology methodologies.

Written By: Colin R. Anderson, Barbara Van Dyck, Martha Caswell, Ernesto Méndez, Michel Pimbert,  Georges Félix and Nina Isabella Moeller

Environmentalists appeal to global audiences to listen to scientific evidence. Policy makers and industry strive for evidence-based decisions. But… what is evidence?  Whose evidence counts? What does evidence reveal? What does it erase and conceal? How is it used, and to what ends? And ultimately, where does evidence lead us?

These are sticky questions that are often overlooked, yet they beg us to consider whose knowledge prevails and counts as ‘evidence’ in the governance of the natural world, food systems, and society. The way that ‘evidence’ is used to frame, legitimize, amplify or side-line different types of knowledge (i.e. scientific, Indigenous, practical) has enormous consequences for the wellbeing of people, land, and nature. 

The preoccupation with generating and using ‘evidence’ in many cases may actually undermine social transformations, especially those aspiring to be just and sustainable, because it shifts attention away from issues of how power and knowledge shape the governance of food.

Many people are turning to science, scientific innovations, and techno-fixes as ‘The Solutions’ to the myriad problems of industrialized food systems. While scientific and technological innovation may alleviate some of these problems, they cannot in and of themselves address their causes. Indeed, the overwhelming focus on technical fixes can prevent the fundamental changes needed by diverting efforts and resources away from tackling the roots of the ecological and social crises. 

In contrast to the technology-intensive and market-led approaches that dominate industrial agricultural development, agroecology focuses on a paradigmatic change that aims to design food systems based on natural processes, eliminate the need for synthetic inputs, limit the dependency on capital intensive machinery, promote closed resource and nutrient cycles with minimal negative externalities, and prioritize the agency and knowledge of food producers and civil society. Agroecology is based on a transformative process where peasant farmers, farmworkers, and citizens are centered as protagonists and knowledge holders, who can contribute their wisdom to co-create innovation, decision-making, and action. 

Andean agrarian landscape where traditional indigenous agriculture practices strongly reflect the principles of agroecology. Caliata, Ecuador.

Agroecology is said to be knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive. However, in contrast to the dominant approaches that predominantly value scientific knowledge and technical innovation, agroecology combines different knowledge systems to build ecologically sound and socially just food systems. In this way, it brings together trans-generational knowledge of farmers, local communities, and Indigenous peoples with insights from scientific research. 

Faced with the enormity of the climate and biodiversity crises, increasing levels of inequity,  and food and nutrition insecurity we need to be looking for responses that simultaneously address multiple aspects within complex and interconnected systems. Social movements, scientists, institutions, and coalitions are looking to embolden the shift towards agroecology by generating and amplifying evidence on the multifunctional benefits of agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways. This points toward a tricky problem – namely how to move away from business as usual in the way of ‘evidencing’ that focuses narrowly on science and scientists. So what other options are there beyond science that underpins the current social-ecological and economic crises?

Scientism and the Erasure of People’s Knowledge

A compendium titled The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches, and Indigenous Foodways (2021) synthesized contributions of fifteen groups, bringing together agroecologists from around the world, to examine the question of ‘evidence’ using an agroecological lens, and its deep implications for how we produce, view and mobilize evidence to build more just and sustainable food systems. This compendium, along with a spin-off open access special issue on “Ways of Knowing and Being for Agroecology Transitions” provide important commentaries on the relationship between evidence, knowledge and power.

‘Evidence’ as the basis for decision making or practice can conjure a sense of neutrality and of knowledge that is detached from politics and power. However, a light scratch of the surface reveals how the production and use of evidence is deeply embedded in what Anne and Norman Long (1992) call a ‘battlefield’ over knowledge and power. Evidence is an important part of legitimising ideas and is central in contesting, defining, and shaping both processes and outcomes relating to policy, governance, regulation, law, and the lives of people. 

Emerging from the field of evidence-based medicine, evidence-based decision-making replicates patterns that represent sometimes implicit, but often explicit, hierarchies of evidence (see figure). Within this canon, it is the highly controlled, reductionist, and quantifiable science that is privileged over qualitative, site-specific, and transdisciplinary knowledge approaches.


Notably, non-scientific ways of knowing are entirely absent from the evidence-based decision-making hierarchy. Agroecology, in contrast, argues that scientific knowledge together with other ways of knowing are important in building evidence. Here, it is important to distinguish science from scientism where the latter argues that the world in its entirety (including natural, social experience, humanities, etc.) can only be legitimately understood and explained using ways of knowing developed and cemented in and through European modernity. 

Scientism also perpetuates the belief that scientifically produced knowledge reflects an objective reality that is unaffected by values and social processes. We respect the aspiration for an understanding free of biases, but believe that positionality and perspective are ever-present influences on what is presented as ‘fact’ or even on what research questions are being asked in the first place. 

The call for evidence can create a flattening effect that approaches problems exclusively through Euro-American, scientistic and universalist modes of thinking. Those frames tend to marginalize the alternative cosmovisions, pluriversal realities and alternative modernities (e.g. Buen Vivir or Sumak Kausay in Latin America; Ecological Swaraj in India) that are embedded and valued within agroecological approaches. Thus, many experiences, bodies of knowledge and wisdom that are contextual, are excluded from consideration in favor of a universal knowledge that is specific to nowhere. 

Agricultural research is too often too narrow in its focus, measuring a limited number of indicators, (yield and profit are the dominant indicators), with a strong bias towards quantitative metrics. Basing decisions only on this evidence restricts our ability to consider other factors that have critical relevance to analyse and re-design food and farming systems. By denying the validity of multiple sources of evidence representing diverse knowledge systems, resulting recommendations for practices and policies replicate existing power relations, promote an impoverished understanding of what is at stake, risk being ignored by end users or worse, actively undermine the value systems of the people and places for which they are intended.  

Elders are important holders of knowledge and culture in agroecology, reflecting the need to recognize and value local, indigenous and farmer knowledge and to put it in dialogue across generations and with other ways of knowing.

Cognitive Justice and People’s Knowledges for Agroecology

Indigenous Peoples and farmers have long recognized the interconnectedness between food systems, health, and the planet. This holistic and inclusive understanding of food systems is an essential aspect of the cosmovisions of many different people in many different places of the world. It provides a crucial foundation for transforming our approach to knowledge, research, learning and evidence. A growing counter-science or post-normal science is evolving, based on the idea of dialogues of knowledges or diálogo de saberes, of transdisciplinarity, and of cognitive justice. 

Cognitive justice, a term coined by Shiv Visvanathan, asserts the right of “different systems of knowledge to exist as part of a dialogue and debate.” An agroecological approach to evidence facilitates and enables dialogue between otherwise incommensurable knowledges to inform decision-making. This is important not just for reasons of cognitive justice and the basic value of respecting the world views of people, but also because of the dire societal implications of homogenization. Visvanathan (2009) argue’s that, “plurality is the guarantee that alternative solutions and alternative paths to problem solving are always available within a culture.”

So, what is required to put Cognitive Justice into action? Below we present three possible  ways forward:

  1. Supporting self-organised knowledge systems of farmers, Indigenous peoples and their communities: Researchers and institutions working to advance agroecology can humbly support and engage with the extensive knowledge, wisdom, and innovation generated in farmers’ fields, markets, farmer organizations, and civil society organizations, where communities are generating and interpreting their own evidence and applying it in  agriculture and food systems. These knowledges and innovations are essential to the creation of sustainable and just food systems but remain under-recognized and hardly documented as they develop outside of the support of formal institutions. They are generally self-organized, citizen-led and often generate processes and connections that scientists do not consider in more conventional research frameworks, namely: values (social, spiritual, etc.) that exist independently from the market economy, as well as socio-cultural norms that are embedded in local communities, cultural traditions, and non-western cosmovisions. These self-organized knowledge processes deliver contextually relevant evidence that is applied in place, even while it offers the potential for informing  policymaking and practices across places. 
  2. Transforming the institutional public research system:  A fundamental transformation of agricultural research and knowledge depends on converting the current system of corporate oversight and control of research agendas to reflect public interest – namely, a democratically controlled system that puts people and the environment ahead of profits as the strategic priorities driving research and innovation. Examples include farmer research networks and Indigenous Intercultural Universities and Pluriversities. Reform is needed to change the current system of academic valuation so that outcomes other than scientific publications and obtaining research grants are seen as valuable contributions. This could support further co-inquiry, participation, plural ways of knowing, and democratization of knowledge. The resulting systemic knowledge base could contribute to providing alternatives to the current dominant paradigm, which prioritizes quantitative outcomes, reflects Western biases and siloed thinking.
  3. Supporting and strengthening transdisciplinary, participatory, anti-colonial and feminist agroecology methodologies: Methodologies that break down colonial and patriarchal knowledge regimes help to reveal and to counteract the ways by which knowledge systems are shaped by systems of oppression related to race, class, religion, caste and gender. They offer the tools to adopt intersectional lenses to explore people’s lived experiences with the ambition of lifting-up,learning from, and integrating the agricultural knowledge systems of women, Indigenous Peoples, and other marginalized communities. 

Agroecology across latitudes is being led by Indigenous peoples, farm workers, farmers, grassroots organizations, and civil society groups, often in partnership with collaborators in research institutions and NGOs. These combined efforts show real promise, but require institutional support if they are to evolve from islands of success to oceans of change. There is great need to shift public research funding and institutions away from damaging, profit-driven forms of industrial agriculture towards agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways, with a focus on the public good rather than private interests. 

Resources for Deeper Digging

Anderson, C. & Pimbert, M. (2020). Domain B: Knowledge and Culture. In AgroecologyNow! Transformations Towards More Just and Sustainable Food Systems. (Eds) Anderson, C. & Bruil, J., Palgrave MacMillan, 67-84.

Brock, S., L. Baker, A. Jekums, F. Ahmed, M. Fernandez, M. Montenegro de Wit, F.J. Rosado-May, V.E. Méndez, C.R. Anderson, F. DeClerck, M.D. Anderson, R. Bezner Kerr, B. Hoare, H. Wittman, A. Peeters, P. Gubbels, C. Stancu, S. Bellon, J.G. Lundgren, S. Renduchintala, V. Thallam, J. Maland Cady, and P. Rogé (2024) Knowledge democratization approaches for food systems transformation. Nature Food 5: 342-345.

DARE Statement: Democratising Agricultural Research In Europe (2015).

Long, N., and A. Long, eds. (1992). Battlefields of knowledge: the interlocking of theory and practice in social research and development. London: Routledge.

Pimbert, M.P. (2018). Democratizing knowledge and ways of knowing for food sovereignty, agroecology and bio-cultural diversity. In M. P. Pimbert (Ed.), Food sovereignty, agroecology and biocultural diversity (pp. 259–321). Routledge.

Timmermann C, & Félix GF. (2015). Agroecology as a vehicle for contributive justice. Agriculture and Human Values 32(3): 523-538.

Utter, A., A. White, V.E. Méndez, and K. Morris (2021) Co-creation of knowledge in agroecology. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 9 (1).