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Agroecology: A Week with Miguel Altieri & Clara Nicholls

Agroecology |  Miguel Altieri | Clara Nicholls

By Richard Meddows

I had the privilege of attending a weeklong course on agroecology at Schumacher College with Miguel Altieri and his wife Clara Nicholls. Having become more and more interested in the area of agroecology over the past few years, it was particularly fascinating to get the opportunity to hear from two of the field’s most senior and respected scientists. Miguel Altieri, in particular, has been a Professor of Agroecology at UC Berkeley for almost 35 years. During that time he has authored over 230 scientific publications and numerous books, including one of the core Agroecological texts – Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture’.

This post is an attempt at summarising my experiences and take home messages from this fantastic course. The course itself felt like it was about three years of university material packed into five days of lectures. As such, any attempt to summarise it would likely result in an article far longer than most would have the patience to read. Therefore, instead of summarising the entire course, I have decided to focus on a few key take home messages that have stayed with me in the week following the course. These messages include the following:

  • Principles not Practices
  • Empowering Farmers
  • A Political Movement
  • Blurring the Lines, and
  • Food Sovereignty

Principles not Practices

The main reason that I have become such a vocal supporter of agroecology over the past five or so years, is that I see it as an umbrella term that can bring together any method of farming that is functioning on an ecologically sustainable basis. This thinking was not only supported by the course, it was, for me at least, the strongest take home message.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about agroecology is that it is not about any one specific practice, it is instead about a series of principles. Therefore, there are many farmers around the world, millions of them in fact, that are practicing agroecology without ever having heard of the term. This means there is very little dogma associated with the term agroecology; it is simply a tool kit for assessing agricultural production systems that can help to determine whether or not they are functioning at an ecologically sustainable level.

As I have outlined many times before (see post on ‘the sandbox syndrome’, for example), one of the biggest problems I see in our fight to shift our farming systems towards sustainability is that there are so many different approaches to farming that could all, in the right circumstances, accurately claim to provide viable and sustainable solutions. The problem is that these different approaches are all associated with specific practices: permaculturalists practice permaculture; biodynamic farmers practice biodynamics; Holistic Management practitioners practice holistic grazing; etc., etc.

If there is one thing that I have learnt about sustainable agriculture, it is that there is no one solution. And herein lies the value of agroecology. It is the only term I have come across with the power to unite all forms of ecologically sustainable agriculture under one banner, into one movement.  Any decent permaculturalist, for example, will also be an agroecologist. Agroecology simply provides the permaculturalist with a principles based toolkit for assessing the ecological sustainability of her system.

At the broadest of levels the principles of agroecology ask the following questions of any system:

  1. Recycle Nutrient – does it enhance recycling of biomass, optimise nutrient availability and balance nutrient flows?
  2. Build Soil – does it work to secure favourable soil conditions for plant growth?
  3. Minimise losses – does it minimise losses due to flows of solar radiation, air and water by way of microclimate management, water harvesting and soil management?
  4. Optimise Diversity – does it optimise species and genetic diversity in time and space?
  5. Promote Beneficial Interactions – does the system enhance key ecological processes and services via the promotion of beneficial biological interactions?

If the answer to the above questions is yes, then we are talking about agroecology. Where the answer is no, we have established where our focus should lie, should we decide to build a system based on agroecological principles. It is as simple as that.

Empowering Farmers

It is easy, particularly for me, to get caught up in the theory and philosophy of agroecology. That is why I found it so refreshing that both Miguel and Clara put so much focus on practical methods for assessing systems from an agroecological perspective.

There were many different tests, both qualitative and quantitative, that can be combined to assess agroecosystems according to the principles outlined above, but what struck me most about these different tests was just how simple they were. Most requiring almost no expensive or technical equipment, to the extent that at one point I found myself raising my hand in class, to ask how farmers in the more technically advanced countries such as the UK might respond to such seemingly primitive methods of assessment?

Then it struck me – by reaching this point where farmers have to call in agronomists with expensive equipment to come to our farms, collect samples and then send back detailed technical results, we have disconnected our farmers from the health of their own farms; we have completely disempowered them. Whilst this toolkit for agroecological assessment might, at first, appear primitive, in reality this is exactly where the power and value lies.

By developing tools that any farmer can use to assess the health and vitality of her own system, we are empowering farmers to develop an ever deepening relationship to that system. And what is more, because these methods are so cheap and accessible they can be passed on, from farmer to farmer.

This is exactly what is meant when it is said that agroecology is a bottom up, grassroots movement. When we talk about agroecology we must understand not only that the change cannot come from the top, but also that the top will actively fight it. This is because there are entire industries set up around the service and input sectors of our agricultural systems. Think about it: is it in the agronomist’s interest to teach farmers to assess their farms themselves? Is it in the fertiliser company’s interest to promote the recycling and creation of nutrient on farm? Is it in the pesticide company’s interest to promote biological pest management?

A Political Movement

It is for this reason that both Miguel and Clara were very clear in confirming my already firmly held view that agroecology is more than simply an agrarian philosophy, it is a political movement. It is a political movement because we live in a top down world. A world where almost every agenda is driven by the profit motive. This is a world where BP gave UC Berkeley $500 million to develop the ‘energy biosciences institute’, and yet, at the same time, we expect these institutions to carry out independent science in the interests of our people and societies.

Agroecology is about empowering farmers to take back control of their own lives and lands. But we have to realise that the system is not going to just roll over and hand that power back to farmers. It is going to fight the growing movement towards agroecology at every chance it gets.

Blurring the Lines

One of the most effective tools used by proponents of the conventional system is to begin co-opting terms like agroecology; blurring the lines between their own systems and those being promoted as environmentally sustainable.

The clearest and most obvious example here is the adoption of the term – ‘the green revolution’. For those that don’t know, the green revolution was actually the chemical farming revolution, it was the point at which we completely departed from our previous organic forms of agriculture and began growing intensive monocultures across much of the world’s lands. There was absolutely nothing green about this ‘revolution’, it was a revolution away from natural diversity and towards unnatural monocultures, but by using the term ‘green’ proponents were able to promote the idea that what they were doing was in some way good for people and the environment. It wasn’t and it isn’t.

The latest example of this type of language, as Miguel and Clara explained, is Climate Smart Agriculture. But alongside attempts to promote chemical based farming as ‘climate smart’, there are also moves to begin co-opting the term agroecology itself. Since the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (the FAO) held a conference on agroecology in Rome last year, the stocks of the term have been rising to the extent that industry can no longer ignore it.

The problem for the industry here is that implicit within the term agroecology is an understanding that this method is the opposite of conventional farming in almost every single way. Knowing that they can no longer simply ignore the term, there has been a huge political push of late to begin challenging the meaning of the term agroecology itself.

One of the clearest examples of this is that the FAO has scheduled a number of regional meetings on agroecology for 2015, but, due to pressure from industry and Government lobbies, many of the key thought leaders of the movement, including Miguel and Clara themselves, have been specifically blocked from attending.

This move points to the power of industry to do pretty much whatever they like. Miguel Altieri is probably the single biggest name in the field of agroecology, a tenured professor of UC Berkeley who has been there for nearly 35 years, he has been one of the key leaders in defining the field of agroecology, yet because his message doesn’t suit the current agenda he is being completely sidestepped.

Food Sovereignty

There can be no doubt that the global fight for the term agroecology is well and truly on, and if there is one message that I took away from the week with Miguel and Clara about this fight, it relates to the importance of the term Food Sovereignty. Food Sovereignty refers to the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

It doesn’t matter how the interests of industrial agriculture attempt to co-opt the term agroecology, whilst agroecology and food sovereignty remain closely aligned they cannot succeed. So this was my final take home message from what was an amazing and intense five days of learning – as agroecologists our job is to take ownership of this term, communicate clearly, loudly and effectively what it means to us, and always ensure to connect it back to the growing global movement for food sovereignty.


This article is reproduced by permission of the author. Original article here >>

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