Altieri on agroecology

Miguel Altieri at the APPG
(the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology) 12 January 2012

If anyone articulates the political potential of sustainable food as a means of social transformation, it is Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at Berkeley, the University of California. Altieri has a simple explanation of what agroecology is "It’s like a stool that has three legs. One that is socially just, one that is economically viable, and one that is ecologically safe. And when one of those legs lags, then the stool falls down". In other words, it's all or nothing. Agroecology thus demands the total transformation of our food system; tweaking it here and there will not do.


Altieri's direct political message is unsettling some. He is barely into his stride, when he is reminded that in this country the tradition is one of reformist change. "Revolutions are out of place". Which is just as contentious as when it comes to agriculture and social change the very opposite would be true - the clearances, the enclosures were nothing but revolutionary and achieved top down. It may not have the same alarmist ring in parliament as bottom-up insurrection but revolutionary it certainly was.


The reform v revolution binary can be a simplistic diversion from the real-politics. However for Altieri, agroecology's political agency is not through the political institutions but through a 'counter-political class' that confronts the interrelated contemporary crises: the economic crisis, the energy crisis, and ecological crisis. The 3 crises that make up the stool that we are sitting on. Which needs to be replaced by the agroecological stool.


The switchover example that Altieri offers is not surprisingly Cuba. To illustrate how quickly it can be done, in 1999 the National Association of producers in Cuba had 200 members; by 2011, it grew to 111,000 members. And though public perception in Europe might see such an agriculture as labour intensive and therefore 'backward' by association, Altieri claims agroecology reduces labour by 60%. By decoupling itself from fossil fuels, the Cuban model has also seen a high level of animal integration, with the use of oxen instead of tractors. In terms of efficiency, a hectare in Cuba now feeds 15 people; in the UK the figure is 1.5 at most.
Cuba aside, globally it's the small agroecological farmer who at present feeds most of the world's population growing some 1.8 million varieties based on heterogeneity and horizontal resistance. In comparison, industrial agribusiness reliant on monoculture for its profitability produces a mere 800 varieties – less than one two-thousandth of the existing biodiversity - whilst constantly investing in new varieties based on vertical resistance. For Altieri, these are horizontal and vertical world views that are opposed to each other. 'The industrial system has declared war on us' he says 'There is not 1 hectare of transgenic food feeding the poor. Biotechnology only perpetuates the control of the food system.'


Also critically, Altieri maintains agroecology is flexible in scale - that small is not necessarily beautiful or the only way. It is totally possible for agroecological farms to be large, 200 hectares or more. The MST (Brazilian landless workers movement) for instance uses large farms, the bigger scale creating new synergies, with 10% of land being used for biofuels to run tractors and machinery. This allows the MST to integrate food sovereignty with energy sovereignty with technological sovereignty. In effect a sovereignty stool that the MST have built for themselves. All together the MST cultivates 10 million hectares of farm land incorporating 3 universities for farmer-to-farmer research based on experience or lasanguinas (fingernails). In comparison at Berkeley where he teaches, a mere 1% of the research budget on agriculture is for ecological methods; whereas thanks to BP the budget for research on transgenic genes is 500 times as much.


It is a challenge to interprete how Altieri's message applies to the UK or the EU without restructuring the very fabric of society as we know it - as only 1 or 2% of the population here is engaged in agricultural production. Demographics aside, the economic nature of our society is different. Through food three forms of economy intersect - the formal money economy with its financial markets, the 'traditional money' economy based on material exchanges and nature's economy of resource renewal. In the West, the first has exercises monopoly power, whilst the third is rendered invisible. In the Latin Americas the middle is dominant so an informal market economy of various shades provides most people with their livelihoods. Via Campesina for instance relies on the existence of informal economies for producing resilience at the citizen level. In this context, horizontal networking becomes socially meaningful as it's based on economic autonomy, and therefore a sense of political autonomy at the community level.


Further, it can be argued, activist culture in the west is different to Latin America given the nature of our society's economic base. The social reality of activist movements in the west is rooted in cause-based campaigns rather than immersive social movements which merge the means of livelihood into sustainable communities of resistance. Here our measure of autonomy is measured by a different yardstick in terms of individual choices. As free subjects we choose how and what we consume. In the 'liquid modern' societies of late modern capitalism, anything which interferes with that is considered to be politically regressive. They would undo hard fought political gains which define our values of autonomy, freedom and progress that underpin all aspects of our society. This is something that the marketing culture of agribusiness has emerged from and fully understands. And so does a progressive left markedly disconnected from the politics of food though we know our society has been corralled into a total dependency on subsidised industrial food. The poor are dependent on cheap food and therefore the ethos is "don't victimise the victims..".


To illustrate when last year the Indignados of Spain released their manifesto after weeks of occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid to present their vision of a fairer Spanish society there was hardly a direct mention of Spanish agriculture; yet the state of intensive fossil fuel based farming in Spain based on cheap north African labour is damning. What should be the primary building block for a new social order in agroecological terms was missing. Which is at odds with Spain's agrarian recent past in particular the Extremadura campaign. In February 1936, 60,000 landless peasants led by the socialist land union, the Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Tierra, occupied thousands of farms. The republican Popular Front government then followed by legalising the peasant's occupation with land reform acts. By the summer of 1936, the number of peasants increased to 200,000. Imagine that now? Well back then, Franco sent in the bombers and the Nationalist forces and by September executed thousands. But the scale of the Extremadura occupation followed by legislative change to force a debate on land rights, work, ownership and democracy should not forgotten.


Whilst agragrian occupations are reappearing in the political landscape, there are lessons to be learnt here for agroecology's political potential in urban-centric Europe and how it can connect with other strands of contemporary global culture. At present it's politically disconnected. And so long as it remains so, the very opposite to what food activists claim prevails in the market place. We should check the figures on types of food consumption. We can see the continued proliferation of fast food on our high streets. Large sections of the progressive activist community do not see food as a tool for political change and are openly suspicious about the way farmers' markets and urban gardens insert themselves into social space, involving a narrow social base and invariably inviting gentrification. The undeclared policy? "When meaningful political change does arrive, food can be dealt with likewise". Which is perfect for agribusiness.


The unified agroecological stool then becomes difficult to place into this complex lexicon of modern aspirational society. At the heart of it all lie the missing links in our politics of representation. Who in this scheme of things does agroecology politically represent? How do sustainable food activists represent the interests of the disenfranchised in society? How can agroecology empower the disempowered sections of contemporary society and alter its internal power relations? These are critical questions and need considerable political articulation. Altieri has a transformative vision but the means and constituencies need to connect politically in ways we do not consider at present. But that said, the food of tomorrow will invariably be the result of the political contestations of today.


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