The IX International Congress of Agroecology, held in Seville, Spain in January 2023, inquired into how academics perceive the current crisis in the primary sector of the economy affecting natural resources, and what activist-scholars engaged in agroecological research can contribute. Patricia Dopazo Gallego from the Soberanía Alimentaria Magazine spoke with Michel Pimbert and Clara Nicholls, keynote speakers at the event, and Gloria Guzmán, from the Alimentta group, responsible for organizing this year’s Congress.
The immediate context of the cost of living crisis, and the wider contexts of food and climate crises, marked the tone and discussions of January’s International Congress in Spain. When the event took place it was being reported that some agroecological projects – even those considered a benchmark in terms of production and consumption – were being closed down. More widely, the tangible effects of the climate crisis on agriculture, uncertainty about energy and raw material prices, and the food crisis, permeated discussions.
Professor Michel Pimbert, director of the Research Institute for Sustainability, Equity and Resilience at Coventry University, told the Congress: “Food insecurity is already a reality in Europe, it is not something of the future. The energy crisis in the United Kingdom has led to many people this winter not being able to afford to buy food because they prioritize their financial resources for energy to heat their homes. This is happening, in part, because we depend on an extremely fragile system sustained by fossil fuels which have suffered a price explosion. Social security systems have broken down and precariousness continues to increase, even for people with a job”.
Michel, who was a member of the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the Committee on the World Food Security (CFS) at FAO, says that if we had a multitude of farms embedded in territories and a web of proximity relationships, we would not find ourselves in this situation. He added: “But when you import apples and meat that can be produced in England, you build a vulnerable system where speculators take advantage of rising energy prices to make more profit.”
A Congress that builds hope and alliances
Gloria Guzmán, a researcher at Pablo de Olavide University (Spain), points out that agroecological thinkers had already predicted these problems. “We have had a very good diagnosis for years,” she said, “but we have seen the acceleration of environmental changes, which are already materializing (for example, the reduction in olive production this year, both in dry and irrigated areas); and, from a social perspective, the lack of generational renewal in agriculture and the rapid disappearance of farms. We have been working for decades to fix it and yet it seems to be falling apart despite all efforts”. In the process of organizing the Congress, Gloria and her team have noticed this general sense of discouragement, which is why they have emphasized the importance of the Congress being a meeting space that generates hope and strengthens alliances across sectors, connecting agroecology with fisheries and health, which tends to be a missing link.
Throughout the Congress, in any case, the positive dimension that Clara Nicholls summed up very well was not lost sight of. She said: “Thirty years ago they ridiculed us as utopians and revolutionaries, we had very strong debates and the university did not open its doors to us. In Latin America it was very difficult, but today I think we are on the right track: everyone is talking about agroecology, even the FAO, and the job now is to maintain the true identity of agroecology. We have to value what we have and understand the path we have travelled.” Clara, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, launched her own agricultural production in the mountains of southwestern Antioquia, in her native Colombia, during the pandemic, an activity that enriches her role as a researcher and international activist for agroecology.
What role does research have in social transformation? Michel is aware of the criticism that academics often receive from social movements. “It is important not to have a monolithic point of view on this,” he said. “There are many doubts about the social role of academia, but in the field of agroecology some of the best research groups work systematically with peasants, indigenous peoples, and counter-hegemonic movements based on equal power relations. In those cases, it has a very important social function.”
In his talk at the Congress, Michel stated that funding allocated to this type of work is ridiculously scarce compared to funds supporting industrial agriculture. Clara shared his view: “Economic forces are so powerful that they have a paralyzing effect. They have conquered universities. As a researcher I do not receive money for agroecology, I work in the poorest department. Researchers are at the service of corporations and what they give us as handouts. Fighting against that will be very difficult.”
Economic forces are so powerful that they have a paralyzing effect. They have conquered the universities.
Now, as has been repeated at the Congress, agroecology is ‘on everyone’s lips’ and new ‘windows of opportunity’ have opened, such as the Farm-to-Fork strategy in Europe. Gloria, however, has a realistic perspective on these programs. She said: “We celebrate these grants until suddenly we realize that we can be left out because we are not among the groups best positioned to receive them; in fact, disguised industrial agriculture lobbies are.”
She laments that the local food systems sector may not see any support measures outside of the rhetoric, when what is needed is to end an extremely hostile regulatory framework and concrete supports, but these do not materialise. Clara agrees and mentions the political changes in Chile and Colombia examples: “I don’t put so much hope into public policy because there are many locks that don’t let you move forward,” said Clara. “There is an agroecological opportunism that scares me. There are ‘ecological’ governments, but only their leaders speak, – the public policy directors do not know about the subject, they do not believe in it. I have hope in Colombia, but we don’t know who is speaking in the ear of the agriculture minister”. Both academics are of the view that we have an agroecology “co-opted by a globalized food system and its distribution and sales companies.”
Agroecological research has proven that agroecology and local food systems bring a range of goods, including making better use of resources, spending less on packaging and materials, using less transport, and health benefits. Why then is its implementation not supported more broadly? Gloria tells us that Alimentta‘s public policy group has identified three strategies adopted by the dominant system to block out transformative initiatives. One of them is to encourage their ‘conventionalization’, something that we see with organic farming because it is forced to integrate into the globalized food system.
Another strategy is to weaken transformative initiatives by introducing obstacles such as regulatory barriers that hinder their development. The final strategy is the capturing of fundamental components of the food system, as is the case with traditional crop varieties. “They know perfectly well what are the strategic aspects on which they cannot compromise, they can support you in certain things, but not in what involves an emancipatory transformation for autonomy. The people who are able to set up an alternative production and distribution structures end up being heroes but are precarious. The objective of Alimentta is specifically to support the sector with information of high quality academic research in order to open up opportunities”.
In this context, where governments fail to listen to the evidence on the consequences of climate change and systematically ignore scientific knowledge, for Michel it is inevitable that movements such as the Scientist Rebellion emerge. “There are scientists who are good citizens and consider it necessary to carry out acts of civil disobedience, which certainly attract attention and break stereotypes because they are not ‘extremists’, nor are they so young. I think it is important because they catalyze change to build alliances. It is a legitimate form of action as long as it is nonviolent, even if there is destruction of materials. It was an important strategy used throughout history by the feminist movements, against nuclear energy, against GMOs and in other situations where power was seriously imbalanced.”
Michel points out that to achieve the systemic change we seek, we need to build counter-powers and alliances from the bottom up, – a work of patience that involves popular education, awareness and imagination. It requires more horizontality, not modelled on the hierarchical vision of parties or leaders, but based on cooperation and mutual aid, on sharing power. “There are no easy solutions’, it is a collective process which requires talking, raising awareness, creating safe spaces with two dimensions: one that tries to change dominant institutions and another that invents ways of life that do not need these institutions. It is a path that is created by doing. There are no standard recipes. There are aspects that history shows to be valid, but we have to collectively invent a viable future”.
Clara follows in the same spirit of generating ‘spaces of hope’. For her, food systems need to be local and they must be built with small municipalities, communities of consumers, schools… in order to change our territory. “We are building islands. When there are many islands you can build bridges between islands. That is my perspective of agroecology, it has to advance from below, rather than coming from one charismatic individual in power”. She tells us about her recent visit to the island of Chiloé, in Chile, where there is a history of agroecology and popular organization and alliances. A microcosm like so many others that exist and that she is certain can be replicated.
New ways of knowing
Agroecology cannot be stripped of its political dimension and in this sense Gloria denounces the loss of popular sovereignty that we have suffered in these decades of free trade. “It is clearly seen when states cannot decide on international treaties and when conflicts are intended to be resolved in courts that no one has voted for. The globalized food model cannot exist in a fully democratic framework”.
The globalized food system cannot exist in a fully democratic framework.
At the end of his talk at the congress, Michel spoke of the need for academics to always have a critical vision of their role and of the role of both natural and social sciences, as well as the desire to break out of the dominant paradigm to invent alternative ways of understanding the world. He said: “I think that the progress of agroecology is positive and work at the farm level is very important. But how do we amplify these practices? We also need a systemic understanding of the challenges, threats and changes in today’s political economy. Academics must be able to transform ways of knowing and being in order to allow the emergence of post-colonial, post-capitalist and post-patriarchal knowledge”.
For him, a leap is needed to enable many more actors to work together to trigger change. “It seems important to me that the movement opens up to discussions on degrowth, feminism, decolonization and embraces intersectional justice. The movement must also invent forms of governance that are more directly democratic, – questioning the role of the State and being very critical of representative democracy that has never been designed to work for the people. We must include these reflections in the next phase of building the movement for food sovereignty and agroecology.”
This article has been adapted from an interview prepared by Patricia Dopazo Gallego from Revista SABC. For the original Spanish language interview, click here.