Food distribution in Rio de Janeiro during the pandemic. Source: AS-PTA.

Agroecology or Collapse Part III – Reclaiming the ‘archaic’, ‘anarchic’, and ‘utopian’ as the language of food system transformation

In Long Read by Paulo Petersen

Agroecology is a struggle to overcome industrial agriculture and is simultaneously a practice, a science, and a movement. Detractors often criticize Agroecology saying it is archaic, anarchic, & utopian. Perhaps, paradoxically, this is where its potential lies. 

Agroecology is archaic, anarchic, and utopian – of course it is and thank goodness! In the final post of this three-part series, Paulo Petersen and Denis Monteiro push back against the arguments often made against agroecology. They engage with the language used to critique agroecology, and reverse it to articulate these as critical resources for social transformation. They go on to present the case for agroecology as the alternative model to prevent the looming collapse focusing on the Brazilian situation as a case in point. Click through to read Part I and part II. Earlier versions of this pieces were previously published in Portuguese.

By Paulo Petersen and Denis Monteiro | 

Agroecology has been defined based on three interdependent dimensions: as a practice, as a scientific approach and as a social movement. As a social practice, it is expressed in the various ways in which peasant family farming and indigenous and traditional peoples and communities organize their work for the diversified production of food and other agricultural products. This is accomplished through cooperative processes developed in close interaction with ecological and socio-cultural dynamics of the territories in which they take root. By using systemic and participatory approaches, agroecology articulates frontier knowledge based on different scientific disciplines combined with popular biocultural knowledge. 

At the same time, agroecology presents itself as a critical theory that poses a radical questioning of industrial agriculture and the corporate food regime. In its political dimension, it is organized as an emerging social movement that articulates subjects explicitly involved in its practical and theoretical construction. It also extends to growing segments of society engaged in struggles for social and environmental justice, for the ecological integrity of biomes, for collective health, for the social and solidarity economy, for equality between men and women, against racism and LGBT+phobia and for more balanced relations between the rural world and cities. Synthetically, agroecology is affirmed by the virtuous synergy between social practice, scientific theory and political movement, condensing its analytical focus, its operative capacity and its transforming social force into an indivisible whole.

Healthy Food available for poor people trough PAA. Source: ANA.

Agroecology is multifaceted and harnesses the diversity of local social practices to synthesize agroecological principles for the analysis of reality and for collective action. It opposes formalized protocols and bureaucratic conceptions of command and control which characterize the logic of industrial production that dominate scientific and political institutions. To a large extent, it is this peculiarity of an emerging social process, which combines new epistemological foundations for scientific production with new pedagogies and languages for social and political mobilization, that still make agroecology difficult to be understood and assimilated as a strategy for activism and social emancipation even in important parts of the left movements and parties.

In this respect, it is worth remembering that the domain of positivist thinking and economic productivism typical of industrial societies are not exclusive to the right-wing. The use of these same lenses of interpretation of social reality shared in both ideological fields, explains to a large extent the reason why agroecology remains largely assimilated as an archaic, anarchic and utopian proposal. It is often claimed therefore that agroecology is unable to offer answers that are effective on the scale necessary to resolve the serious systemic crisis that humanity is going through. Ironically, the three characteristics attributed to agroecology are, at least in part, true. But not with the negative charge attributed by the positivist and productivist lenses.

A progressive archaism

Agroecology is archaic because it dialogues with traditional popular cultures, projecting them into the future through dialogue with academically systematized knowledge. Overcoming the dichotomy between the archaic and the modern is a condition for the biocultural memories to be revalued within the heterogenesis of agriculture worldwide. In Fernando Pessoa’s eloquent words, this means that 

“the true novelty that endures is that which takes up all the threads of tradition and weaves them together for a reason that tradition cannot weave”.

It is becoming increasingly clear that agroecology is equivalent or even superiorin terms of production yields compared to conventional agroecological methods. Yet, the negationist rhetoric remains in force as a strategy to delegitimize agroecology in the public opinion and the institutional political system. 

recent examplewas expressed in the statement by the American FAO ambassador, Kip Tom, during an event promoted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). For the ambassador, who is also chief executive of Tom Farms, one of the largest seed producers for Bayer/Monsanto, FAO’s democratic and scientifically supportedinitiatives to uphold the agroecology institutionalization agenda in public policies at the country level represent “an explicit rejection to the idea of ​​progress”.

This episode reflects the frequent conflicts of interest that manifest in these institutional spaces in which crucial public issues are debated and politically addressed. The rhetoric of modern versus archaic continues as a powerful discursive device to justify the institutional rejection of agroecology. As Eric Holt-Gimenezsharply identified, under this narrative smokescreen are the three “sins of agroecology according to capital”: it rejects agrochemicals, relies on local biodiversity and strengthens peasant agriculture.

An anarchist ordering

Agroecology is anarchist, because it attaches high importance to local processes of self-organization. These processes are expressed in the territorial level multistakeholder networks responsible for building sharing economies and defending common goods, thus assuming an important role in the governance of decentralized food systems. But this anarchic character is relative, since these networks are not organized from the perspective of defending localism and being hostile to the over-determinations derived from the processes of economic and cultural integration at more aggregated geographical scales. It is emphasized here only to explain the necessary counterpoint to the authoritarian imperial logic currently dominant in the global governance of agriculture and food. In this sense, agroecology establishes a reciprocal relationship with participatory democracy. While contributing to democratize food systems, it depends on a democratic institutional environment for its practices to flourish and develop. For this reason, the validity of the democratic and constitutional States is an indispensable condition for the creation of self-organized spaces in which economies of proximity, the foundations for social and solidarity economy, can be experienced and developed.

An achievable utopia

Agroecology is utopian, because it is positioned to prevent the confirmation of the most probable futures by advocating for a historical turn towards desirable futures. This is not an unrealizable utopia anchored in idealistic and unworkable propositions. Rather, it is a matter of recognizing the strength of the latent and invisible social force of peasant agriculture in alliance with other social segments interested in ensuring healthy food, balanced environmental conditions and more just and harmonious societies. A real force that projects desirable futures already in development in various parts of the world. This force can be activated and developed if articulated locally with movements of conscious food consumption. It is never too much to remember the motto that “eating is a political act”.

Moving towards this utopian horizon implies the need to recognize that the path will not be illuminated by avant-garde forces with a revolutionary universal theory. The forces of transformation are present in the myriad of anti-hegemonic social practices aimed at the reterritorialization of food systems. Through local networks of production and food supply, increasing degrees of autonomy are built in relation to the modes of production and distribution commanded by capital. It is in this sense that agroecology presents itself as a powerful strategy to “crack capitalism”, as proposed by John Holloway, for whom “the only way to think of changing the world radically is as a multiplicity of interstitial movements running from the particular”.

In order to become a reality, desirable futures need to be imagined. Furthermore, the paths that will lead us to them are not given at first. They need to be collectivelyinvented. This requires creativity in the political struggle so that the institutional and cultural obstacles that impede progress in the imagined direction are removed. Brazil has rich experience in this field. The current severe crisis is the moment for the lessons learned from this Brazilian experienceto be rescued in order to inspire this collective invention.

Agrobiodiversity Fair during the XI Brazilian Congress on Agroecology. Photo – ANA

Learnings from Brazil 

Brazil stands out worldwide as the first country to recognize agroecology in a nationwide policy, the National Policy for Agroecology and Organic Production (PNAPO), instituted in 2012. We won’t detail here the extensive path of accumulating forces in society for this achievement to become possible. We highlight, though, that the emergence, dissemination and public affirmation of agroecology in the country coincided with the period of democratic victories that began in the 1980s, after two decades of military dictatorship, when the project of the Green Revolution was imposed on Brazilian society. A synchronic path to that seen in other countries in Latin America, whose historical processes were also negatively influenced by the Green Revolution, an authoritarian political-ideological project imposed across the region in clear response to the so-called “risks” of spreading the “red revolution”, at that time already experienced in Cuba.

Although the emergence of agroecology in Brazil as a counter-hegemonic social movement has been driven from various social and geographical origins, there are two determinant aspects that channeled the processes of mobilization and converged towards the formation, respectively, of the National Articulation of Agroecology (ANA) and the Brazilian Association of Agroecology (ABA-Agroecologia): the first, closely associated with the historic rural struggles for agrarian reform and in defense for the territorial rights of indigenous and traditional people and communities, mobilizes social movements in the countryside, water, forest and cities, as well as advisory organizations, notably NGOs; the second, related to critical social and environmental thinking in the scientific-academic universe, involves the engagement of educators, researchers, extension workers and students.

Both strands developed and increased capacity for public expression based on gradual processes of approximation and mutual recognition between different collective subjects who radically criticize agribusiness and other economic megaprojects that are destructuring the means and ways of life of the pluri-diverse peasantry, traditional communities and indigenous peoples. The collective identity around agroecology was also amalgamated by the affirmation of alternative models for the social, technical and economic organization of the rural world and food systems. In the midst of this process of social struggle – whilst resisting and affirming alternatives to agrarian capitalism – agroecology was incorporated as a theoretical reference for the description, analysis and mutual identification of counter-hegemonic social experiences.

ANA and ABA-Agroecology’s convergent action was decisive for the accumulation of forces and for the cohesive public expression of everyday struggles of movements and social organizations in the heterogeneous realities of the territories, where agroecology is effectively expressed as a material force and as an approach for the relocation of food systems.

Along this path, we highlight the particularly favorable situation starting in 2003, when the Lula government adopted the fight against hunger as a political priority. The establishment of the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy, which instituted an intersectoral governance process with the active participation of civil society, was instrumental in creating a new generation of public policies aimed at agriculture and food. This process was inspired by and learned from previous experiences in the agroecological field, many of which were made possible by the signing of partnerships between organizations and social movements with municipal and state governments and federal government bodies.

However, the reaffirmation of the political and ideological hegemony of agribusiness under the administration of the Worker’s Party (PT) narrowed down the advances in this alternative field to a small niche of institutional innovation. Yet, some lessons from this period must be recovered at this moment when hunger and misery once again occupy a prominent place on the national political agenda.

It is important to reiterate here that the Covid-19 pandemics is not responsible for this historical regression that is putting Brazil back on the United Nations’ map of hunger. This is a structural problem rooted in the economic system that generates abysmal social inequalities. Since the 2016 coup d’état and, especially, since January 2019, this reality has been worsening with the increase in poverty rates resulting from the imposition of neoliberal orthodoxy on government management, including the dismantling of food and nutrition security policies.

Unlike the measures adopted by political leaders from other countries in the midst of the pandemic, the reactionary forces that control the power of the State in Brazil take advantage of the situation to try to carry out their regressive agenda. While the Minister of Economy claimed the need for reforms to reduce the size of the State, the Chamber of Deputies approved the Green and Yellow [TN: colors of the Brazilian flag] Employment Registry, further unprotecting work in favor of capital, and subnational governors renewed the tax exemption for pesticides.

From the regressive cycles of agribusiness economy ….

In addition to denouncing the cowardly and criminal approach adopted by the agents of the shift, it is now up to the democratic forces to fight for the implementation of public measures capable of responding to the humanitarian drama of hunger with the urgency that the situation demands. If these measures are not adopted, the hard earned, sluggishly released and insufficient emergency aid of 600 Brazilian Reals (around 100 euro) directed to people in a situation of greater economic vulnerability will be spent for the purchase of food of very low quality. In addition to compromising individual health at the exact moment when people’s immune systems need to be strengthened, the billions of dollars spent in this direction will (again) favor the economic interests of food empires, when they could play the role of generating multiplier effects on economies powered by millions of small-scale producers and distributors of healthy food articulated in local networks across the country.

By favoring the increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods, government initiatives already implemented compromise the production and distribution of healthy foods, contributing to inflate their prices. In this sense, we conclude that the economy of ultra-processed foods, now strengthened by measures to combat the effects of the pandemic, functions as an articulating link in a vicious cycle formed by the concentration of income, by the destruction of jobs, by impoverishment, hunger and health problems. The essence of this perverse logicof accumulation, which connects poor quality food, relatively cheap for consumers and highly profitable for large monopoly complexes, is in the control exercised by the latter in the final stages of the production chains, exactly where the greatest profits are made.

…. to the virtuous cycles of the economy of agroecology

Structural emergency measures should be designed to interrupt these regressive cycles so that virtuous cycles are promoted by associating income distribution with health promotion, the dynamization of social and solidarity economies and the generation of jobs. In place of the massive appropriation of added value by the owners of capital, social wealth would be fairly divided among millions of small economic agents who, with their work, structure territorially decentralized food chains.

This change in perspective leaves no doubt as to the path to be followed: on the one hand, eliminate public support for the production and consumption of ultra-processed foods; on the other, stimulate the production and consumption of healthy foods. In order to have immediate effectiveness and create conditions to face the impoverishment crisis associated with food and nutrition insecurity that will tend to extend for a long time after the pandemic, a strategy in this direction necessarily implies the creation of demand for production from family farming. In addition to being able to react quickly to economic stimuli in this direction, peasant family farming, as already argued, has an economic rationale that induces the generation of multiple social, cultural and ecological effects necessary to face and overcome the structural crisis that concerns and involves the whole Society.

Creating a physical, ideological, political and economic space for family peasant agriculture to develop its multifunctional potential requires the implementation of an integrated set of structural measures of a public nature, starting with the fulfillment of the currently threatenedconstitutional mechanism on the social and environmental function of the land. 

Many critical formulations and proposals consistent with the agroecological perspective have been produced in this regard over the past few years, giving rise to wide-ranging debates and consultations involving organized civil society. We highlight two of them here: the letterfrom the 5th National Conference on Food and Nutrition Security, 2015, whose motto was “Real Food in the Countryside and in the City”; and the letterfrom the IV National Meeting on Agroecology, 2018, whose motto was “Agroecology and Democracy: Uniting the Countryside and the City”.

ANA Plenary meeting in Brazil.

What now?

In spite of the fact that agrarian, agricultural and food realities have intensely degraded in Brazil since these letters were released, the essence of the proposals presented in them remains in force as a horizon for social struggle. Advancing structural changes such as those advocated by civil society requires a long process of accumulation of forces. In this moment of crisis, the correlation of forces in society and in the political-institutional sphere is unfavorable to the advancement of this agenda. This implies the need to implement concrete, politically and economically feasible actions, which respond to the urgent needs of the most socially vulnerable sections of the population and contribute to fostering territorialized networks of solidarity economy. This is the challenge that must immediately be adopted by the field of the democratic left.

On an emergency basis, public actions should focus on access to healthy food by the most vulnerable populations, among whom are the homeless, residents in slums, quilombola and indigenous communities and residents in urban peripheries. Exactly the same focus already assumed by civil society based on the solidarity initiatives that are multiplying throughout the country. Now, more than ever, the role of the State must be to recognize and strengthen the capacities of civil organizations to mobilize in solidarity with the most vulnerable.

A multifaceted proposal

The immediate resumption of the Program for Food Acquisition from Family Agriculture (PAA) proposedby ANA at the very beginning of the quarantine, aimed at strengthening the solidarity networks quickly activated by civil society across the country in order to ensure the access to healthy food for those most affected by the pandemic. The PAA is one of the instruments conceived since 2003 as part of the previous government’s strategy to overcome hunger and food insecurity in Brazil.

Based on the broad and active participation of civil society organizations in the National Council for Food and Nutrition Security (Consea), the PAA inspired the creation of intersectoral arrangements capable of overcoming the institutional fragmentation of the State, one of the biggest barriers for the internalization of the agroecological perspective in public policies. By purchasing food produced by family farming and allocating it to socially vulnerable sectors of the population, the program promoted synergistic effects between segments of the functional structure of the State with traditionally autarchic functioning: economic promotion (guarantee of purchase and minimum prices for family farming), social protection (food assistance to vulnerable populations), environmental conservation (rescue of biodiversity, incentive to productive diversification) and cultural revaluation (reaffirmation of identities, products and regional eating habits and self-esteem). In addition, one of the aspects that distinguishes the PAA in relation to previous policies of production and food supply was the bet on the productive potential of the most impoverished sector of family agriculture, the one mistakenly called “subsistence agriculture”, generally assumed by the State exclusively as the public benefitting from assistance policies.

With budgetary resources coming from a single source, the program was able to produce symbiosis between different administrative sectors of the State. It thus demonstrated a high fiscal efficiency in the use of public resources and contributed to the impetus of virtuous processes of rural development by favoring the creation of direct links between food production and consumption, by contributing to the increase and greater appropriation of added value by producers and also for revaluing cultural practices and expressions tied to the social use of biodiversity.

By supporting short distribution chains, the PAA also encourages the productive diversification of family farming establishments, a central element of any agroecological-based strategy. Through this double positive effect, the PAA provided an increase in the income of the farming families without having to subject them to relations of technical and economic dependence on the agro-industrial and financial sectors.

The PAA was one of the public policies that suffered severe budget cuts in the last 8 years. At the height of its execution, in 2012, the program allocated approximately 150 million euros for the purchase of almost 300 thousand tons of 380 different types of food produced by 185 thousand farmers/family members, benefiting 24 thousand food assistance entities. Even this relatively small volume of resources, but of high demonstrative value in its results, has been strongly eroded by the current government’s socially regressive policies. The 2020 budget was restricted to 30 million euros, of which 11 million were blocked at the beginning of the quarantine.

ANA requested the immediate allocation of 170 million euros (1 billion Brazilian reais), a sum enough to purchase 300 thousand tons of food. This amount could supply 11 million people with fruits and vegetables for more than 60 days, ensuring daily consumption per capita of 400 grams of these foods, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

We know that in serious crisis situations like the one we are currently experiencing, the poorest must prioritize the meager financial resources that come to their hands to buy the “bulk” of food, that is, rice, beans, sugar, pasta and a few more items. The PAA may therefore play a decisive role in ensuring more balanced nutrition. This is especially relevant in a country in which there are practically no public campaigns to promote healthy and adequate food and where the advertising of ultra-processed foods is broadcast on a daily basis for hours on end by the mass media. 

In addition to ensuring priority access to healthy food for those most in need, the resumption of the PAA would directly contribute to strengthening the economy of thousands of family farmers.  Resources allocated to family farming through the PAA will be reinvested in production, generating multiplier effects on local economies. The instrument must also be understood as a territorial development policy that stimulates the economy based on the generation of jobs and income in essential activities for the promotion of food and nutritional security and the health of the populations.  

ANA’s proposal must be understood within the framework of a public strategy aimed at generating demand for food produced by family farming. This strategyshould combine an integrated set of policies and programs, involving public purchases, tax incentives, credit, soup kitchens, educational campaigns, among other government market intervention instruments. The resumption of participatory governance spaces at the various levels of the Federation is an important condition for ensuring the intersectoral perspective of the strategy, as well as its co-management with civil society. 

Counter-hegemonic struggles have resulted in important achievements. It was the struggles for democracy that made it possible for millions of peasant families to have reached conditions today to continue producing healthy food that reaches those who need it most through the most varied solidarity initiatives. It is in the most dramatic historical moments that the importance of the place occupied by and the role played by peasant family farming in social development becomes more visible and that its simultaneous recognition as a historical agent and as a societal value is required.

Conclusion – The Time for Agroecology is Now, as ever

The coronavirus has picked up the pace of history and the future is imponderable. But it never hurts to remember that history is written through social struggles. Preventing the collapse that is being announced requires humanity to be reunited with itself and its vital sources. Agroecology points out ways for the economy to be rooted in the values of human solidarity and reciprocity with nature. By providing guidelines for the development of regulatory institutions for healthy, fair and sustainable food systems, it would function as a locally triggered antidote against the necropolitics imposed globally by food empires.

Creating the conditions for the promises of agroecology to become reality is, above all, a political challenge. In view of the powerful resilience of the corporate food regime, this challenge will only be overcome if it is taken on by broad social majorities to the detriment of the interests of a predatory and parasitic minority. It is up to the organized democratic forces of society to update narratives and methods of mobilization so that the demands of different social and identity segments active in the defense of democracy and sustainability are articulated. More than ever, the coronavirus crisis shows that healthy eating, a vital daily necessity of the people, presents itself as a powerful link between these demands.