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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.