What is agroecology?

As we consider a world of 7 billion and counting, the same two questions are coming up over and over again – how will we ever have enough water? And how on earth can we feed that many people?

The issue of food is a controversial one – everyone has an opinion. They’re widely divergent opinions too – from those who believe that Big Ag and genetic modification is the solution to billions of hungry mouths, to those who promote an aggressively local and small-scale farming system as the only way to stave off global hunger.

Unsurprisingly, I’m not in that group of folk who think that GM and monoculture cropping are going to save the world. In fact, a future like that seems very bleak and dystopian to me – the idea of a handful of companies essentially owning our food and thus our bodies is abhorrent to me. Local and small-scale is wonderful, but not always realistic on its own – every city would have its challenges in producing clean and healthy food, other regions lack the fertility of soil and availability of good weather conditions to be able to fully sustain their populations. It’s a good start though, especially when it incorporates the principles of agroecology.

Image from agroecology.org

But what is agroecology? The word hasn’t yet acquired that buzz-word status, like ‘local’ or ‘organic’ (and, thankfully, hasn’t been diluted into a fuzzy meaninglessness like those words). And while agroecology can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Essentially, agroecology is a movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006). UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems describes it as the development of ‘sustainable food and agricultural systems that are environmentally sound, economically viable, socially responsible, nonexploitative, and that serve as a foundation for future generations.’

From the Union of Concerned Scientists. Click through to embiggen.

Agroecology is therefore the antithesis of Big Ag. That sounds pretty appealing, for sure. But does it work?

Yes. Plus, it kind of has to. The 2013 Trade and Environment Review from the UN Commission on Trade and Development concluded that major changes in agriculture are necessary, recommending a ‘rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.’ Our current systems are not resilient (monoculture cropping is by its nature more vulnerable than polycultures), nor are they sustainable – the extensive requirements for chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides contributes to degradation of soil, of water supplies and climate change. Business as usual will end up business-as-it-used-to-be.

Agroecology has the potential to stop this damage to our agricultural systems and ensure a lesser environmental impact in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

We need to make a change and agroecology has a small but positive track record – at the very least, running more trials, replicating these on a large scale and thus collecting more evidence of its efficacy is worth a shot, as it may well provide us with a solution to an eventual crisis.

SNAP and the Farm Bill – what does it all mean?


image from newamerica.net 

“A vote for this bill is a vote to end nutrition in America” – Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut

Last Thursday, the Republican House voted to remove the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the Farm Bill. It took a wee while for me to get everything about this clear in my mind – I was fairly au fait with SNAP, but lacked much knowledge of the Farm Bill.  Given the complexities of it, I broke it down into bite sized chunks -hopefully this will help others to get a handle on it too!

1) What is SNAP and who does it help?

The Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA describe SNAP as a program which “offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.” In 2009, 45 million people were eligible for benefits, of which 32 million actually received them. Most of the recipients of this type of assistance are children and the elderly. Many of them are the “working poor.” In 2009, 43 percent of SNAP recipients were below the poverty line. With the receipt of SNAP though, 13 percent of that group moved back above the poverty line.

While SNAP is very efficient at reducing food insecurity in needy families (although unemployed adults with no dependents may only receive SNAP for 3 months of a 3 year time frame), according to Feeding America, the benefits often don’t last participants for the entirety of each month. SNAP plays an important role, but expanding it further would definitely be of nutritional benefit to many of America’s poorest families.

2) What is the Farm Bill? 

In short, the Farm Bill is basically the legislation that covers all agricultural policies in the US. It’s quite a complex legislation due to the huge number of ‘titles’ – essentially subcategories – which are part of it and due to the wide range of vested interests that are involved in these. In 2008, the Titles included commodity programs; conservation; trade; nutrition; credit; United States rural development; research; forestry; energy; horticulture; livestock; crop insurance and disaster assistance; commodity futures; trade and tax provisions; and miscellaneous. Each Farm Bill and its titles are renewed (and sometimes altered) every five years or so.

So, how is it linked to SNAP? The Farm Bill has been linked to food stamps since 1973. The Nutrition Title was the largest Title in the Farm Bill, covering 75 percent of its expenditure, of which SNAP accounted for 95 percent.

3) So, what does removing SNAP from the Farm Bill mean?

It depends on who you ask. As I understand it though, it is a blow to ensuring food security for the poorest families in the US. It transfers funding from those experiencing poverty to large agricultural corporations. The integration of SNAP and the Farm Bill wasn’t ideal – Michael Dimock argued in an article over at Civil Eats that the separation of agriculture and nutrition opens new possibilities in achieving better food policies that are less tied to Big Ag interests. I don’t disagree with him. But getting such good food policies approved may be an enormous challenge, and in the interim, if this Farm Bill sticks,  there are a lot of people who might just find themselves wondering where their next meal is going to come from.


Gail Collins writing in the New York Times

Michael Dimock at Civil Eats

Feeding America

Marion Nestle at Food Politics

New York Times

Snap to Health 1 and 2

USDA Food and Nutrition Service 1, 2 and 3

Notes on Corn: Part 3


Today I’m finishing up my wee Notes on Corn series with a bit about food sovereignty and agroecology.  It’s the good part of the story, the part where people work towards change for the better and unite to retain their identities and protect the agricultural future of the planet.  Food sovereignty and agroecology movements= awesome.

Such movements are not limited to maize farmers and involve producers of a range of crops from a range of countries, both in developed and developing nations.  As McAfee describes it, farmers and peasants worldwide ‘are challenging liberal views of citizenship as a set of rights and responsibilities granted by the state’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006).  The movements that have stemmed from such challenges to identity have included the international peasant organisation, La Via Campesina, as well as new models for global agriculture and food production, such as food sovereignty and agroecology.

La Via Campesina is one of the most important organisations to draw together the movements that have stemmed from these new global identities to work for change in the international food system.  Firstly, it ‘[consolidates peasants] collective identity […] building alliances with other social movements and progressive non-governmental organisations (NGOs)’ (Desmarais 2008).   This ability coalesce the aims and values of disparate movements – it comprises around 150 local and national organisations from  70 countries – has shaped La Via Campesina’s overall goal, i.e. the movement away from industrial agriculture to a system based on food sovereignty.  Secondly, since its inception in 1993, it has become a broad enough social movement that it is heard by organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

Food sovereignty, as defined by La Via Campesina, is:

  • The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems… It puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
  • Food sovereignty prioritizes local food production and consumption. It gives a country the right to protect its local producers from cheap imports and to control production. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not of the corporate sector. Therefore the implementation of genuine agrarian reform is one of the top priorities of the farmer’s movement. (La Via Campesina 2011).

Food sovereignty thus describes an alternative economic, political and ecological system.  It removes peasants from their role as contract farmers to large agribusinesses, allowing them choice in what they grow and how they sell their produce, which may, in its turn, improve food security.  Furthermore, proponents of food sovereignty suggest that when ‘livelihoods […] are tied to the longer-term health and productivity of the land […] farmers have more incentive to conserve and improve soils, landscapes and water systems’ (McAfee in Cohn et al 2006).  As such, food sovereignty represents a paradigm shift, from corn as commodity back to corn as food.  For large agribusinesses, the trade of corn as a commodity means that such externalities as the environment are of less interest – they can easily move elsewhere if the land ceases to be productive.

Food sovereignty is not the only movement towards more sustainable farming that has developed in response to the neoliberal agricultural system.  Agroecology is also a growing international movement towards more sustainable farming methods, based on ‘time proven farming methods, new ecological science, and local farmer knowledge’.   While the movement itself can be seen as a relatively recent reaction to the shortfalls of industrial agriculture, it is based on farming techniques that are often hundreds of years old. Agroecology has been described as a genuine alternative to current agribusiness models, with some authors suggesting that over the next 10 years, small-scale farmers will be able to double food production using currently available agroecological methods (Altieri et al 2012).   In terms of its environmental impact, it involves greater biodiversity than conventional agriculture in three ways:

1)  A variety of crops are usually planted on each farm, rather than monocultures.  This also reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides.

2) Crop biodiversity is preserved.  As discussed earlier, in situ conservation is vital to the preservation of the wide variety of maize landraces

3) Less land is required to produce a similar amount of food, thus posing less of a threat to the local environment

In addition to the environmental advantages of agroecology,  its impact on re-peasantisation and the overall survival of rural and peasant culture should also be considered.   Agroecology is thus a particularly interesting movement because it suggests that agriculture, prosperity in both developed and developing nations, and the health of the environment are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Such reactions to industrial agriculture and unsustainable farming techniques are also not exclusive to farmers in developing nations.  Alternative agricultures are also emerging in developed nations such as the United States, where the ongoing sustainability of productivist farming methods has been questioned, in terms of both their human and environmental impacts.  In a parallel to ideas of food sovereignty, movements towards alternative food networks that encourage ‘ healthier food and environments […] long term maintenance of farming livelihoods, the provision of quality food and nutrition to individuals regardless of socio-economic status, and the distribution of public goods’ are gaining momentum (Trauger and Passidomo 2012).  Such alternative notions of agriculture, like food sovereignty, reimagine economies as local rather than international networks, reimagining producers as economic actors in their own right, rather than as subservient to major agribusinesses.

Food sovereignty and agroecology, as well as moves towards post-productivist agriculture in developed nations are thus challenging the status quo and the notion that prosperity in the developed world must come at the expense of the health of the environment and the prosperity of developing nations.  Given that most of these movements are still relatively young though, the full extent to which such movements are able to truly challenge the power of global capitalism in corn agriculture, still remains to be seen.  Exciting, no?

Bibliography for the series
Altieri M A,  Funes-Monzote F R, Petersen P 2012,   Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: contributions to food sovereignty, Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 32:1-13.
Bellon M R and Berthaud 2006, Traditional Mexican agricultural systems and the potential impacts of transgenic varieties on maize diversity, Agriculture and Human Values, 23:3-14
Cox C, Hug A, Bruzelius N 2011, Losing Ground, Environmental Working Group, http://static.ewg.org/reports/2010/losingground/pdf/losingground_report.pdf, Accessed 23 September 2012.
Del Casino Jr. C 2009, ‘Social Activism/ Social Movements/ Social Justice’ Social Geography: A Critical Introduction, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell: 154-182.
Desmarais A A 2008,  The power of peasants: Reflections on the meanings of La Vía Campesina, Journal of Rural Studies, 24:138–149
Fitting E 2006, Importing corn, exporting labor: The neoliberal corn regime, GMOs, and the erosion of Mexican biodiversity, Agriculture and Human Values, 23: 15–26
Ford Runge C 2002, Institutional Innovation in International Governance to End Hunger, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 84(3): 839-844.
Hunt S A and Benford R D 2004, ‘Collective identity, solidarity, and commitment’ in Snow D A, Soule S A, and Kreisi H (eds) The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing: 433-458.
Keleman A 2010, Institutional support and in situ conservation in Mexico: biases against small-scale maize farmers in post-NAFTA agricultural policy,  Agriculture and Human Values, 27:13–28.
Kneen, B 1999, Restructuring food for corporate profit: The corporate genetics of Cargill and
Monsanto, Agriculture and Human Values, 16: 161–167.
Koc M and Dahlberg K 1999, The restructuring of food systems: Trends, research, and policy issues, Agriculture and Human Values, 16: 109–116,
La Via Campesina: The International Peasants Voice, http://viacampesina.org/en/, Accessed 5 November 2012.
Lang T 1999, The complexities of globalization: The UK as a case study of tensions within the food system and the challenge to food policy, Agriculture and Human Values, 16:169–185
May P H and Segura Bonilla O 1997, The environmental effects of agricultural trade liberalization  in Latin America: an interpretation, Ecological  Economics, 22:5-18.
McAfee K 2003, Corn Culture and Dangerous DNA: Real and Imagined Consequences of Maize
Transgene Flow in Oaxaca, Journal of Latin American Geography, 2(1): 18-42
McAfee K 2006, ‘Sustainability and Social Justice in the Global Food System: Contributions of the Yale Workshop’ in Cohn A, Cook J, Fernández M, Reider R, Steward C (eds) 2006, Agroecology and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in the Americas, http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/14506IIED.pdf?, Accessed 3 November 2012.
McAfee K 2008, Beyond techno-science: Transgenic maize in the fight over Mexico’s future, Geoforum, 39 (1):148–160
McMichael P 2009, A food regime analysis of the ‘world food crisis’, Agriculture and Human Values, 26:281–295.
McMichael P 2011, Food system sustainability: Questions of environmental governance in the new world (dis)order, Global Environmental Change, 21: 804-812.
Merrett C 2001, Understanding Local Responses to Globalisation: The Production of Geographical Scale and Political Identity, National Identities 3(1): 69-86.
Patel R 207, Stuffed and Starved: From Farm to Fork, the Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Portobello Books, London.
Pollan M 2006, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The search for a perfect meal in a fast-food world, Bloomsbury, London.
Reider R 2006, ‘Food Security and Food Sovereignty: Production, Development, Trade’ in Cohn A, Cook J, Fernández M, Reider R, Steward C (eds) 2006, Agroecology and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in the Americas, http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/14506IIED.pdf?, Accessed 3 November 2012.
Ribeiro S 2004, The day the sun dies: contamination and resistance in Mexico, GRAIN, http://www.grain.org/article/entries/423-the-day-the-sun-dies-contamination-and-resistance-in-mexico, Accessed 3 November 2012.
Rosset P 2008, Food Sovereignty and the Contemporary Food Crisis, Development, 51(4): 460-463.
Rosset P and Martinez-Torres M E 2012, Rural Social Movements and Agroecology: Context Theory and Process, Ecology and Society, 17(3): 17.
Shapiro L 2006, ‘Interview: Jesús León Santos, Integral Peasant Development Center of the Mixteca
(CEDICAM), Mexico’ in Cohn A, Cook J, Fernández M, Reider R, Steward C (eds) 2006, Agroecology and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in the Americas, http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/14506IIED.pdf?, Accessed 3 November 2012.
Steward C, Cook J 2006, ‘ Food Security and Trade Reconsidered,’ in Cohn A, Cook J, Fernández M, Reider R, Steward C (eds) 2006, Agroecology and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in the Americas, http://pubs.iied.org/pdfs/14506IIED.pdf?, Accessed 3 November 2012.
Trauger A & Passidomo C 2012, Towards a post-capitalist-politics of food: cultivating subjects of community economics, ACME:An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 11(2): 282-303.
Tscharntke T, Clough Y, Wanger T C, Jackson L, Motzkea I, Perfecto I, Vandermeer J, Whitbread A 2012, Global food security, biodiversity conservation and the future of agricultural intensification, Biological Conservation, 151(1): 53-59.

Notes on Corn: Part 1


While travelling in Mexico recently, I saw this sign in the zocalo in Puebla (sorry the photo is so dreadful – I only had my phone with me that day and it was a bright afternoon).  It reminded me of research that I’d done recently on globalised agriculture and food sovereignty, mainly in relation to corn (with Mexico as the obvious case study).  Over a few posts, I’d like to share with you some of that research, so that you can see why, while on an overseas holiday, I got excited about a sign about corn.

Introduction to Notes on Corn

Over the last hundred years, maize has been reimagined as a commodity rather than a foodstuff, changing the way in which it is grown, processed and traded.  In 1999, Brewster Kneen described global trade agreements as ‘the deliberate restructuring of life in accordance with a narrow ideology and plan for extrinsic (corporate) purposes’ .  A small number of organisations now control the global maize market including production, processing, transport and retailing.  So, for example, Mexico’s National Union of Autonomous Regional Farmers’ Organizations (UNORCA), which represents food producers organizations in 27 Mexico states, contends that just 12 US, Mexican and transnational agro-food firms are NAFTA’s primary beneficiaries.

Arguably, beneficiaries have also been farmers and consumers in developed nations, where the potential uses for corn have expended wildly, creating the illusion of cheapness and choice.  This prosperity, however, has come at the price of threats to maize biodiversity; erosion and pollution as a result of monoculture cropping; ‘dumping’ of excess produce on developing nations; depeasantisation; decreased food security and loss of social and cultural identity.

Notes on Corn: Diversity

The threat from trade liberalisation to in situ maize diversity has been described as ‘the most pressing issue facing Mexico in the post-NAFTA context’ (Keleman 2010).  These threats include:

1)  Agribusiness demands for high yields of a smaller variety of maize species, which has encouraged monoculture planting.  Because the maize industry is so concentrated, production is now heavily influenced by demand for particular types of corn that are regularly used by food processors, for whom quantity, consistency and uniformity of grain is paramount.  Farmers choices in the crops that they plant may be limited by these standards (see Keleman 2010).  In addition to the threat that this poses directly to maize variety, in areas of intensive,  large-scale agriculture, land is often deserted after only 40-50 years as it is no longer productive .

2) The growth of, and contamination from genetically modified crops.  Insufficient regulation of imports (including seeds) is likely to have been one of the main causes of the contamination of Mexican maize by transgenic grain varieties in 2002, as the wholesale planting of genetically modified maize is still under a moratorium.  Furthermore, the manner in which corn reproduces makes it very susceptible to the adoption of traits of new crop varieties which may then spread.

3) An influx of cheap maize from developed nations.  Since the implementation of NAFTA, Mexico has become a net importer of corn from the United States, not because they are incapable of producing adequate amounts to be almost self-sufficient, but because of the ‘dumping’ of heavily subsidised, and therefore considerably cheaper, corn from north of the border.   Between 1996-2004, imports of maize from the US to Mexico increased by 320 percent.  The impact of this has been two pronged. Mexican maize landraces have been contaminated in some instances by genetically modified crops, and many farmers, no longer able to compete with low priced imports, have been driven from the land, usually to cities, or, ironically, across the northern border into the United States.

4) Social factors such as the displacement of rural populations and associated loss of knowledge.  While the migration of farmers is an outcome in and of itself, it has also left in situ conservation of maize diversity in jeopardy. The maize diversity that exists in Mexico is substantially the result of the knowledge and practices of farmers who have bred the wide variety of species over hundreds of years.  Concerningly, the poorest populations which are most likely to migrate internationally, have previously been the most likely to plant the most genetically diverse crops.  Without their knowledge and input, and with the reduction of the number of farmers required in an industrial system, much of this diversity may be lost.

High-yield, genetically modified and identical varieties of corn have allowed food companies to produce consumer goods that are standardised and inexpensive at the supermarket.  However, their overall cost is the threat to the biodiversity of maize species as a whole – and you know how I feel about the preservation of genetic resources.

(Part 2 will be on the impact of corn commodification on peasants identity and culture.  Part 3 will talk about food sovereignty movements that have arisen as a result.  I’ll also include a full reference list, for anyone else who wants to geek-out over this sort of thing.  I’ve taken the embedded references out of this and tried to remove a bit of academic dryness as well, but if you’re curious about anything, please let me know!)

Ensuring the future of food

The other day, I briefly touched on a TED talk  by Cary Fowler about protecting the future of our food through seed banks.  It was an interesting, albeit slightly alarming view of  the genetic diversity that we’ve lost, particularly over the last 200 years.

This week, I read this article on traditional English foods in The Guardian.  I thought that they tied together beautifully, particularly given this passage:

“Modern varieties [of plants] are like highly trained athletes. They go very well but they’re very highly tuned, and therefore if something goes wrong then they fail quickly. Whereas these old varieties are more like a donkey – more resilient but may not go quite as fast.” We discard these hardy plodders at our peril.”

There has been quite a lot of talk about the impact that climate change will have on genetic diversity, but, in my view, not enough on how genetic diversity may help us to weather climate change.  We currently grow so many monoculture crops, in terms of both species and usage of farmland (think of the US corn belt, for example), and we have bred so many of our current agricultural crops to suit current climate conditions.  True, we could probably continue to do this again as the impacts of climate change are felt.  But retaining a wide variety of genetic material with which to do this is imperative.  And this is why facilities like the NorGen storage space in Svalbard, in conjunction with farmers and producers growing heirloom crops and reinvigorating traditional foods and cooking methods are so very important (not to mention the huge variety of flavours and experiences that we would miss without them).

If you’re interested in reading more, another starting point other than the TED talk and the article above is some of the work that has been done by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).  You can access their libraries here.

The entrance to one of the world’s most precious resources – the NorGen facility at Svalbard

thoughts from steinbeck


“The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth…and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. Then…the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks or months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.”

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

This is something that I’ve been pondering over the last few days. Does an understanding of the land have to be mutually exclusive to the mechanisation of agriculture? Could traditional agriculture feed 7 billion people – and would we be willing to go back to more labour intensive methods of production? Have we reached a point where industrial agriculture is the only way?