Agroecology and the Social Ecological Sustainability of Food Systems
According to the August 2019 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report, “Climate Change and Land,” human exploitation of the planet has led to massive land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and the contamination of water resources. This is not only altering ecosystems but also depleting our ability to feed ourselves, and climate change will only continue to add more constraints on when, where, and how we can produce food. On top of this, research suggests that our food systems are also degrading social relations by maintaining inequalities between women and men, corporate owners and workers, and rural producers and urban consumers.
In light of this reality, proponents of agroecology and food justice advocates have called for a transition to sustainable farming practices that support biodiversity and soil health as well as structural changes that will improve access to land and resources for historically marginalized people including small-scale farmers, women, Indigenous communities, and the poor. Such a transition thus requires a holistic approach to sustainability and food systems, one that connects livelihoods and economic security, land and environmental stewardship, and social equity and human health. In other words, while rotating crop systems and nitrogen-fixing cover crops are necessary to support the productive capacities of soils, we also need to ensure that producers have equitable and secure access to sufficient resources that will allow them to substitute conventional practices with alternative ones without taking on an unfair burden of risk.
Creating a more level playing field across food systems means that we must inject strong values into food policies that place the interests of well-being among the poor, the landless, the hungry, and the malnourished above the financial interests of shareholders. The current institutional arrangements that govern food systems must be restructured to give ordinary people an equal voice in shaping food policy as it relates to production, distribution, and consumption. Corporations profiting from the status quo are unlikely to make system-level changes that improve lives for all. Rather it is incumbent upon the collective will of the people to hold policymakers accountable for ensuring that everyone has access to safe, affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food and can trust that those who produced the food work under fair and dignified conditions.
Finally, agroecology calls upon us to reconsider fundamental relationships between nature and society. The dominant ideological paradigm of modern society holds humans both outside of and above the natural world. This human exceptionalist thinking lends itself to seeing Earth and its resources as external objects to be extracted and exploited for the benefit of society. This not only doesn't make logical sense from a scientific perspective (humans evolved out of natural processes and are embedded within natural ecosystems), but also the exploitation of our finite planet combined with anthropogenic climate change is creating a world where fewer and fewer benefits are shared among fewer and fewer people. Agroecology thus entails applying a set of principles that help people reintegrate with the natural world and foster synergies across social, cultural, economic, and ecological dimensions. These include:
- Building agroecological systems that mimic natural ecosystems. This allows for positive, life-promoting interactions between the various elements of agro-ecosystems (plants, animals, soils, microbes, water, etc.) and increased resilience and capacity throughout the system to adapt to climate change. Agroecological farming systems also promote the diversification of crops while reducing the cost of external inputs, giving small-scale producers more financial autonomy over their livelihoods.
- Recognizing Indigenous knowledge in food production systems. While agroecology is rooted in sound science and research, it is not an entirely new approach to building environmentally and culturally sustainable food systems. Indigenous communities have been developing and practicing forms of sustainable agriculture for thousands of years, using heritage crops, saving seeds, conserving soils, limiting tillage, and composting organic material. Respecting the expertise and authority of Indigenous groups allows us to build upon deep knowledge systems while also creating new relationships of trust with communities that have experienced centuries of violence and dispossession.
- Placing women, Indigenous people, people of color, and the poor at the core of food systems. Global food systems would cease to function if the above-named groups stopped producing food, and yet their labor is often devalued, providing barely the means to survive and live a dignified life. Furthermore, they are overrepresented among the hungry and malnourished, the landless, and those facing the earliest impacts of climate change. Making sure marginalized groups have a strong political voice in shaping food systems will facilitate more inclusive forms of development that deliver benefits to all.
There is still a great deal of skepticism about agroecology’s ability to provide a viable alternative to industrial food systems. However, research continues to make the case for its potential. In 2018, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems published a report documenting seven case studies of successful agroecological transition. The risk of not transitioning to sustainable food systems is almost certainly food systems collapse. Agroecology presents a way forward for increasing biodiversity, equity, trust, security, and longevity in a world undergoing rapid change and destruction. But while it is widely supported among small-scale producers and scientists and is gaining increasing traction among policymakers, it will likely face immense resistance among a powerful minority that benefits most from the industrial model. Building broad-based collectives that can pressure policymakers to make meaningful changes will be key to creating more inclusive and sustainable food systems.