We spoke to Daniel about his work with the Agroecology Fund, what the agroecology movement is and what it can achieve, and some of the challenges involved in making the world’s food system work for people and planet.
What is agroecology?
DM: Well, to tease the word apart, agro– relates to agricultural, cultivated landscapes, and ecology refers to the existing ecosystem, so essentially it means drawing the ‘assets’ of the surrounding ecosystems into your agricultural use. (see What is Agroecology?)
We’ve come to the point in human history where the idea of agriculture is basically to raze clear cultivated land, destroying all the soil nutrients, getting rid of what we call weeds and adding chemical inputs. In contrast, the idea of agroecology is to use local assets: key resources are soil, water, plants and biodiversity. Agroecological approaches aim to safeguard those resources and understand the complementarities between them.
The goal of agroecology is still food and fibre production, but, while for industrial farming growing food is a means to extract resources from the ground, with agroecology, the idea is that you want a flourishing ecosystem, which produces yields for consumption, but is regenerative, so the resource is sustained. In that sense, it’s the opposite of extractive industries such as mining – you’re always putting something back.
Farmer participating in the AgroEcology Fund’s 2016 Learning Exchange, Uganda. Image © Rucha Chitnis
So, is agroecology just about going back to doing things in ways that they’ve always been done, not necessarily about innovations or new ways of doing things?
DM: It is true that in the agroecology movement there is great emphasis on validating farmer knowledge – they know their crops, they know their local environments – and on supporting farmer to farmer exchange. But one of the challenges that agroecology faces is that it is often seen as a throwback or as being somehow anti-progress. In fact, while agroecology values the knowledge and experience of smallholder farmers, at the same time there’s a lot of new knowledge about the nutritional values of certain strains of rice and millet, for example, or the interaction between certain strains of plants that can provide more nutrients, and so on. We bring university researchers into these collaborations.
Agroecology works best when there is a marriage of ‘hard science’ with more ‘traditional’ types of knowledge. Farmers have often been marginalised and discredited for their knowledge, so the idea is to really uplift and to validate the farmer as a researcher, because they’re the ones that are doing the in-situ experimentation.
This is very different to the approach traditionally taken by many agriculture ministries. Agronomists were trained to disseminate knowledge that farmers required, but they were unfortunately generally captured by what’s called the ‘green revolution’, the transformation in agriculture into a high input, chemical industry. Following that approach, agronomists would come in from outside with ‘solutions’, whereas the idea with agroecology is that there are local solutions derived from farmers’ experience.
West African farmers working with Groundswell International © Groundswell International
What is the goal of the Agroecology Fund?
DM: The goal of the AEF is to amplify agroecological solutions, but that’s a bit of a mouthful! Basically, we see agroecology as providing food benefits, land tenure benefits, employment benefits and climate change benefits in the sense of sequestering carbon in the soil and protecting biodiversity. It is not just about food production, but at the most fundamental level what we are seeking is a food system that nourishes people and planet.
The Agroecology Fund appears to have a very diverse range of funders. What makes agroecology such a ‘broad church’?
DM: It’s complex and difficult, but agroecology has a lot of appeal because it is a very proactive strategy which can accomplish so many different things. I spend a lot of my time speaking to other organisations to see where the ‘sweet spot’ of their interest might lie – we have foundations that join the Agroecology Fund from very different perspectives. Synchronicity Earth is a perfect example as they are coming at the issues from more of a conservation and biodiversity angle. The interrelationship between cultivated lands and forests, for example, is a fundamental part of agroecology. Then we have other funders who approach it more from a human rights angle, which I know is something Synchronicity Earth looks at as well, but the initial point of entry is different.
Is agroecology equally relevant and important, wherever you are in the world? How does it apply to the UK or the US, for example, or is it mainly relevant to Africa, Asia and Latin America?
DM: Well, the context is very different. With all the subsidy structures in place through the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe or the USDA Farm Bill in the United States, the playing field is massively tilted towards industrial agriculture: chemical inputs are subsidised, farms don’t have to pay for all the damage that they are doing to the soil, the water system and the water table and so on. Working with a five thousand-acre corn farmer in the Midwest is clearly very different to working with subsistence farmers in Malawi, for example, who may not be market-based, they may just be trying to provide for their families. Yet increasingly those corn farmers in the Midwest are also looking for different solutions – they’re realising that the ecosystem is failing, the pollinators aren’t coming around, and there are all kinds of other issues. We need to recognise what those externalities are, better understand the negative impacts of the industrial food system and create a subsidy structure where we see the farmers as stewards of our food supply, but also of land and resources and we need to shift our investments as a community.
Then you also have the whole consumer angle, and people becoming more mindful of issues around the nutritional value of food, or workers’ exposure to chemicals. There are certainly many individual behaviours and decisions we can make as consumers, to purchase locally and so on, but there is also a political or advocacy angle to it. The difficulty there of course is, if you ask the average UK voter what they think about the Common Agricultural Policy, I’m not sure many people would have all that much to say! But there are certainly opportunities to look at how we can have a more local footprint, how to support small farmers as a fundamental part of the food supply. It’s seeing the role farmers have in safeguarding resources but also, fundamentally, looking after our wellbeing and health.
What would you say to those who argue that the current agro-industrial system has given people cheap food and that without it, we would be unable to feed the growing global population?
DM: Well, it’s kind of hard to suggest to people that food ought to be more expensive – how is that going to appear to the average consumer who might be on hard times and barely able to feed their family? But in fact, and this might surprise many people, industrial agriculture only feeds around 30 per cent of the global population. The issue here is really about the subsidy structure which has resulted in all this cheap food. Some people argue that by shifting to organic the cost would put a lot of food out of reach for the average family. However, in reality, the reason that organic food is expensive is simply because it is not subsidised – and industrial agriculture gets away with murder for not having to pay for the mess it causes to planet and people – not because it’s an intrinsically more expensive way to produce food, it isn’t.
It is critical to see where the money flows are going. I think one of the things that consumers can do is, not necessarily to get into the ins and outs of agricultural policy, but at the very least to hold large agriculture accountable for its contamination, in the same way that tobacco companies, over time, have been held accountable. There are just so many agriculturally-related contaminants now in the earth but also in our bodies, in our food, there is a plague of obesity, the list goes on.