This piece is co-authored by Tony VanWinkle, Director of the Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems, Faculty in Sustainable Food Systems and Nicole Civita, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives
Sustainable agriculture is at an inflection point. But you might not have noticed it. You may, however, have noticed that there are a lot of ways to describe alternative approaches to agriculture. Terms like Climate Smart Agriculture, Sustainable Intensification, Carbon Farming, Regenerative Agriculture, and Agroecology — all of which the UN Food and Agriculture Organization refers to as “nature positive production,” a term that does more to obfuscate than clarify. Even without widely agreed upon definitions, these concepts attract plenty of zealous supporters who loosely coalesce into movements vying for ascendancy. The stakes are high. The victor will exert substantial influence over the way humans produce food during an era of climate volatility and ecological crisis.
For many decades, sustainable agriculture persisted in the shadow of so-called “conventional” agriculture. But now we know, without a doubt, that dominant methods of production — better described as synthetic-intensive, extractive, and industrialized agriculture — are doing a world of damage. This makes alternatives alluring. Each of the new (or repackaged) alternatives claim to be better and “greener” than what has come before. Each is positioned as existentially necessary in the context of climate change. And each hopes that their particular reinvented narrative for sustainable/alternative agriculture captures the imagination and carries the day. But beneath these similarities sit stark differences in motivations, values, and priorities. Some contenders have entered this struggle with the aim of capital accumulation; others seek genuine socio-ecological transformation. Still others fall somewhere in between.
Agroecology, the oldest of these descriptors, took shape as a movement during the late 1970s in Latin America. In the intervening decades, it has become an increasingly important part of global food systems discourse. (Nevertheless, it remains less well known in the United States.) Agroecology’s structure is a three-strand braid, plaiting science with a set of practices and a social movement. It is rooted in and evinces deep respect for the ecological rationale of indigenous and peasant agriculture. Agroecologists favor bottom-up approaches to agricultural research and development that center local people, their knowledge, and their place-based natural resources. They also believe that change happens by scaling out, not up — spreading knowledge via relational exchange and in communities of practice.
At Sterling College, we maintain a strong commitment to agroecology as an organizing and guiding framework on our farms and across our undergraduate and continuing education programs. We view agroecology as superior to some of the nature-positive newcomers precisely because it doesn’t separate the environmental sustainability of food systems from social sustainability and the values of equity, inclusion, and community self-determination.
Unfortunately, the fundamental social movement component of agroecology is threatened by actors within the very system it challenges. Proponents of other alternatives — especially those originating in the Global North and promoted by mutli-national agribusinesses — have started throwing around the term “agroecology.” But they deliberately ignore the radical social movement goals at the heart of agroecology’s identity and articulation in much of the Global South. Groups working to green (and “greenwash”) industrial agriculture are cherry-picking only those agroecological principles that do not challenge their fundamentally extractive and profit maximizing orientations and misapplying the term agroecology to their efforts. When agroecology gets positioned as one among a suite of standardized “innovative approaches” promising more “nature-positive production” systems, the larger contexts of food sovereignty, community self-determination, peasant’s rights, and indigenous knowledge get tossed aside, blunting agroecology’s transformational potential.
Co-optation by erasure of the radical is both intentional and familiar. As agriculture began to commercialize and industrialize in the nineteenth century, alternative visions of both “nature-positive” and people-positive production systems emerged in response. For example, Karl Marx demonstrated how the industrial factory and the industrial farm were similarly exploitative, noting “the former lays waste and ruins the labour-power and thus the natural power of [humanity] . . . the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil.” The Humus Farming Movement of the mid-to-late 19th century opposed widespread reliance on inorganic fertilizers, and advocated for maintaining the humus content of agricultural soils. George Washington Carver sounded a similar alarm, warning that reliance on synthetic fertilizers would end in soil collapse; to avoid this outcome, he encouraged farmers to be attentive to the “permanent building up of our soils.” These calls resonated with and shaped the work of thinker-practitioners in alternative agriculture across a century.
The organic agriculture paradigm, which took shape in the 1940s, is in this lineage. Sir Albert Howard’s earliest articulation of organic agriculture was, in fact, inspired by observing farmers in India who hadn’t yet been influenced by industrial techniques and were attentive to healthy soil, communities, livestock, and crops. J.I. Rodale, often considered the grandfather of the American organic movement, was subsequently influenced by these smallholders in India via Howard’s writing. The inaugural issues of Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine warned, “Unless more organic material is returned to the soil, the future of this country looks somewhat disheartening.” Across a century of organic agriculture, concerns over robbing the soil, dividing farm-prosperity from the well-being of living things, and compromising the future remained front-and-center. By the 1960s and 70s, counterculture sent many folks back-to-the-land and inspired others to develop alternative groceries. In this iteration, alternative agriculture was often (not always) bound up with a desire for systemic social change. It was as much about societal health as it was about soil health.
Not so today. As with so many of the “hip enterprises” pioneered by the countercultural generation, organic farming became largely absorbed into the industrial agricultural model. Regulations designed to create and defend market premiums for certified organic producers gave way to industrial scale and monocultural operations with a near-monopoly on legal use of the term “organic.” (Indeed, the industrialization of organic agriculture was, in several notable cases, actually carried out by some of its original countercultural proponents.) Once commodified, organic lost its countercultural edge and transformational potential. Mainstream organic foods — like those lining the shelves of your grocery store — fill an upscale market niche and have become little more than a way for those with extra income to buy a reprieve from toxic synthetic pesticide residues. We cannot allow the same fate to befall agroecology.
At this critical moment, Sterling College proudly proclaims its fidelity to agroecology as articulated by La Via Campesina (LVC) and member groups therein. We agree with the LVC, which explained that reducing the value of agroecology practices to the value of the carbon sequestered devalues agroecology’s wide array of potential benefits to the environment and to farmer livelihoods. We are attentive to the climate-healing potential of agroecological practices and focused on building resilience in the face of the climate crisis. Yet, we simultaneously resist and guard against the perverse incentives and squandered opportunities for transformation that result from reductionist co-optation of agroecology. We are skeptical that the neoliberally oriented application of somewhat more ecologically astute practices will enable humanity to survive the interlocking crises of our own making. To do that, we must also shift paradigms and reset power relations in food systems. You can participate in that reset by:
- Learning more about agroecological farmers;
- Shifting some of your food purchases toward smaller-scale producers in your own region and joining a CSA where you can;
- Conversationally inquiring about how your farmer builds soil, increases biodiversity, supports healthy ecosystems, and/or advances equity or liberation in their work, instead of just looking of just buying based on a certification or label claim;
- Supporting cooperatives — especially those that are worker-owned;
- Speaking out against the efforts of multinational agribusinesses and food corporations to horde resources and wield disproportionate political power;
And, if you are ready to learn more by doing, immerse yourself in all three pillars of agroecology at Sterling.