Agroecology: The Capitalist Elephant in the Room

I set up this blog in 2012 because, having worked in the agricultural sector for close to ten years, I had reached the conclusion that only diverse, ecological systems focussed agriculture (agroecology, as I will refer to it) provides any long term hope for feeding the world. The benefits of agroecological methods are extremely broad, from the human health benefits of eating food grown in healthy and biologically diverse soils, to drastically reduced input costs for farmers, increased water holding capacity of soils and associated drought resistance, reduced environmental damage from ecosystem polluting herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilisers, and the list could go on and on. Agroecology is as close to a win win solution as you could possibly find, except as I will explain later, at the level of the system.

But possibly the single most important benefit of agroecological methods is that, at a time when carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere represents one of the single biggest threats to humanity, our soils represent the only real options for directing that CO2. More than that, our soils are desperate for carbon!

The conventional agricultural practices of the ‘green revolution’ have robbed our soils of carbon and meant that global agriculture, instead of helping to mitigate the effects of climate change, has instead been a major contributor to it. An excellent report released recently by the Rodale Institute and titled ‘Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change’, suggests that direct agricultural emissions have increased about one percent a year for the past decade, reaching 4.6 gigatonnes of CO2 per year in 2010, or about 10% of total annual emissions. But this is only part of the picture. The report goes on to estimate that the food system at large, including feed, fertilizer and pesticide manufacture, processing, transportation, refrigeration and waste disposal, accounts for 30% or more of total annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no denying that our current global food system is a huge part of our climate change emissions problem, but this is also why it provides such an amazing opportunity for positive change. The Rodale report estimates that shifting our global food system to organic agriculture or agroecological methods could potentially sequester all of our current annual COemissions, roughly 36 gigatonnes per year. Granted, this sort of shift is hard to imagine in the near future, but it certainly highlights the potential of agroecology. And when you couple these figures with the reality that an agriculture that sequesters carbon is also an agriculture that addresses issues such as our planetary water crisis, extreme poverty, and food insecurity, while at the same time protecting and enhancing the environment now and for future generations. You start wondering why are we even debating this?

It is here that I come to the subject of this piece – the capitalist elephant in the room.

Reports like the Rodale report are by no means alone. The United Nations has also begun to call for shifts towards agroecology, with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Agriculture (UNCTAD) last year releasing a report with the not too subtle heading – ‘Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate‘.

But are these growing calls having much impact at the policy level? Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear so, and here’s why.

The central concept that underpins agroecology is about working with, combining, and utilising the natural resources available to create a self maintaining, sustainable systems at the local level. That is, agroecology is about teaching farmers to become self sufficient. In agroecological systems there is far less opportunity to sell inputs and control outputs. Therefore, the capitalist system abhors it by its very nature.

For evidence of this, look no further than the amount of research currently being done into agroecological or organic systems. Last time I checked these figures in Australia (about two years ago), the research being done on agroecology was less than the combined grower levy contributions of organic farmers – organic farmers were subsidising research into conventional agriculture! In the UK, it seems the figures are slightly higher, with around 2% of the annual agro-research budget being spent of agroecology, but compare this with 15% for GMOs alone and it’s clear where the priorities lie.

How is it that, when presented with what is undoubtably one of the biggest hopes for human sustainability, we are barely even interested in pursuing research into it? Again, the answer is obvious: it’s the system, stupid. Why would we expect anything else?

With agroecology, in my view at least, we have a cornerstone of the future of human civilisation on this planet. For me, this is an undeniable, unquestionable fact, at least when you look at the big picture. The industry will tell you that we can’t ‘feed the world’ with agroecological methods. But this is little more than a clever byline aimed at deflecting debate. The fact is, we can ONLY feed the world with agroecological methods in the longer term, the questions is are we going to, as UNCTAD put it, wake up before it’s too late?

Coming back to the subject of research. Unfortunately, there has been far too little comparison done between agroecological and conventional agriculture. Where studies have been done, agroecological methods have almost always performed extremely well. Again the Rodale Institute is a good point of reference here having run a 30 year farm systems trial that has directly compared conventional production with organic. In this trial for example, the organic crops have been slightly more productive over the entire trial, but that’s looking only at output, when you look at profit margins the difference is stark.

The amazing thing for me here is that organic has proven more productive and profitable even though almost all of our research has focussed on the conventional system. With this fact in mind, I can’t help but wonder what the potential of future agroecological production might be, were we to direct our entire research attention towards it? I don’t think we can even begin to imagine the progress we might make. The best thing is that it would be progress in the most important area possible, that of humanity learning to work in harmony with the natural world, as opposed to against it.

Having spent much of the past decade of my life thinking about how I can contribute to creating a future that works, I can think of no area that is more central, more critical than agroecology. I am confident in this to the extent that I am prepared to dedicate my life towards it. But to begin transitioning towards these types of systems we have to acknowledge how this transition is being blocked within the bigger system.

Just this week, for example, Australian prime Minister Tony Abbott, in referring to his intention for industry to take a greater role in Australian schools, said “There’s something like $10 billion worth of research which government funds every year. And we are determined to try to ensure that we get more commercial bang for our research dollar”. This statement highlights the problems we face in shifting research towards agroecology. Where Governments are seeking to get commercial ‘bang for buck’ they are always going to seek conventional agriculture’s input and commodity driven systems.

Somehow, we must shift the focus of our scientific and political debates out of the blinkered, short term, 3-4 year political cycle, and into longer term vision focussed policy discussions. This is a task not only for the agroecology movement, but for all movements interested in the long term futures of people and the planet, ahead of corporations and the 1%.

As I outlined in this post on the ‘Sandbox Syndrome’,  one of the biggest successes of the system is in convincing us that we are all separate, when the reality is, at the deepest of levels, we’re much more aligned than many would have us believe. It is through recognising and celebrating this unity that real systemic change will occur. The revolution is coming, but if we play our cards right it will be a gentle, conscious revolution that celebrates truth and unity over fear and separation.

Viva la revolucion!


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  1. Ben Gleeson

    Great post, thanks Richard. It’s all so clear once we start to join the dots, isn’t it. The response to the UN AAISTD report was an eye opener for me. All agri-tech representatives walked out when they realised that GMO’s were only seen as a small part of the solution to world hunger and that Agroecology was the main player. USA, Australia and (I think) Canada refused to sign off because it made economic and trade recommendations, when they preferred it to ”stick to agricultural matters” (i.e. focus on proliferating more industrial technology to produce more food to fuel a competitive free market). Urbanised middle classes get cheaper food and poor farmers sell up or starve. You can see why Via Capasina and others want “WTO out of Agriculture”. Food should never be treated as just another tradable commodity, and living systems should never be treated as just profit-generating businesses. As soon as we start swapping REAL STUFF for a made up thing like money, we’re on a slippery slope to disjuncture with all kinds of troublesome little things, like the biosphere and thermodynamics. Please keep up the good work, Ben

    1. Profile photo of Richard Author

      Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the post. All I can say is yes to everything you raise. I see the issues faced by the agroecology movement as the same as those faced by all progressive freedom and environmental movements. I.e. Change must happen at the level of the system itself. By recognising the commonality of our causes, perhaps we might get somewhere. At least it’s our best hope, I think.

  2. Michael Croft

    Hi Rich,
    I was at UN’s Committee on world Food Security in Rome last week as Australasian Civil Society Mechanism delegate – in Rome for another 10 days, some of it at the FAO for the International Year of Family Farming meetings.
    Agroecology is indeed on the UN/FAOs radar, however many governments don’t know what it is, and in ignorance they insist on coupling it with the likes of Climate Smart Agriculture or sustainable intensification which is not good. Climate Smart Agriculture (catchy name) is capitals latest way to maintain control of a long chain, linear input/output productionist agenda for agriculture.
    Good to meet you again btw and keep up the good work. Best, Michael

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