The Zen of Agroecology: It's not the destination it's the journey, Commentary on Farming for
Originally Published on Great Transition Initiative in April, 2016
Thanks to GTI for taking up this issue and doing so with Frances Moore Lappé’s brilliant overview of the issue. She again shows her gift for marshaling a wide range of the most solid research in a way that is compelling and accessible. It is also wonderfully nuanced in highlighting that agroecology is primarily neither a state of mind nor a pure agricultural practice. Rather, it is a process, one in which agroecology itself should be seen more as a journey than a destination.
It is something I have been thinking about a lot since attending a conference in Mexico last year hosted by ANEC, a national association of small-to-medium-scale grain farmers. The convening organization cast the issue perfectly, I thought, referring to its own “Integrated Project on Scientific and Traditional Knowledge” and encouraging a “dialogue of knowledge systems,” an inelegant translation of the Spanish “diálogo de saberes.” The stated goal was to bring modern agroecological science into the fields to work with farmers to create more ecologically and—just as important—economically sustainable practices.
What was striking about the conference was the mix of people in attendance. On the one hand, we had established agroecology professionals and practitioners from all over the Americas, most notably from Cuba, where such practices are perhaps the most advanced. Many of these experienced agroecologists led discussions on diversified farming, integrated pest management, soil composition, the protection and use of native maize seeds, and the evils of corporate-led industrial agriculture.
On the other side of the room (literally)—in one breakout session—were about 100 ANEC members, farmers from different parts of the country, who were often silent in the larger discussion. Why? They were overwhelmingly commercial farmers, well integrated into national markets for maize, wheat, beans, and other staples. Many are now using hybrid seed varieties in monocultures fed by chemical inputs, which is practically the only way to sustain monocultures. These farmers were not returning to native maize seeds intercropped with beans and squash—the famous Mexican milpa—anytime soon.
ANEC’s embrace of agroecology is, for them, a challenge, and it entails significant risks. Their farmers depend on farm sales for a living, and they can’t afford the kind of initial yield decrease often associated with a shift to organic practices. They have loans to pay off, for one thing. But their lands are a long way from the agroecological ideal. Like many smaller-scale farmers in the developing world, they are no longer defending traditional agroecological practices. They are on the technology treadmill, and they know it is getting them nowhere fast, but that doesn’t mean they can just get off.
In the conference room, we turned the discussion from agroecology as an ideal to agroecology as a transition, and they opened up. Their own experiences illustrated the genius of ANEC’s approach to the issue, which focuses less on an ecological ideal than on the goal of reducing both production costs and dependence on multinational input suppliers. For these farmers, this is what “food sovereignty” means: increased control over their production and their livelihoods.
One farmer said that with the help of ANEC’s scientifically trained extension agents, he had reduced input costs by two thirds and, despite a slight drop in productivity at first, had experienced a significant increase in profitability. Slightly lower yields but much lower costs. What practices was he introducing? Some that one associates with agroecology, such as compost instead of fertilizer, and microbial applications to release soil fertility. And some that one doesn’t, such as self-produced hybrid maize seeds that his cooperative could produce for one-third the cost of the varieties sold by multinational firms. Fertilizer applications had been reduced from two to one per season, and pesticide use had declined as well. Soil quality was slowly improving, and he expected further reductions in chemical use. Did he expect he would reduce it to zero? No. Did he care? Not really.
This was what the transition toward agroecology looked like on a small commercial farm, and I was impressed at how different it was from the agroecological ideal. For millions of farmers around the world, including many of the farmers who grow most of the food for local markets, this is the kind of transition that needs to happen.
Lappé’s characterization of the challenges facing us in agriculture left ample room for such practices, valuing them every bit as much as the crucial defense of native seeds and organic practices. I think many of us always knew there was a zen quality to her work: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.