By Bob Garthson
In her book, Who Really Feeds the World, Vandana Shiva emphasizes the central role of Agroecology: “the knowledge and science of the complex interactions that produce our food.” She refutes many widely-held beliefs regarding the global food crisis and articulates a powerful manifesto for agricultural justice and sustainability.
Growing up in the Brampton of the 1950s and 60s, I watched the elimination of some of the world’s best farmland, replaced by the seemingly endless construction of highways, factories, warehouses, malls, and subdivisions. At its peak, more than 100 acres of farmland were lost each day. Since the 1960s, farmland elimination and urbanization has snowballed. The family farm, on-farm income, and access to farmland, particularly for women and people of colour, have been the victims. Eco-destruction, pollution, and climate change have been the offspring. Covid-19 has brought to light the exploitation experienced by many migrant farm workers. Our current premier and his government appear to have learned nothing from our past, approving more superhighways, less conservation and the accompanying development, and trading local food security for profit, wealth and power.
While I have had the privilege to be able to grow produce organically since 1956 on a number of different properties from urban to rural to recreational, it was after I retired from teaching that I was able to combine organic, biodynamic, and permaculture principles on my 25-acre property in Northumberland County. I was able to provide food for my family, friends, local markets, and food banks. Serving on the EFAO Board of Directors, the local Agricultural Advisory Council, and the Food Policy Council, and reading numerous articles and reports on agriculture, I came to the realization that I needed a new framework to form the context for food and for the components that make food security possible.
About 10 years ago, I discovered a report prepared for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO). This UN agency became an advocate for agroecology as the necessary approach to meeting the challenges of food justice, loss of biodiversity, climate change, and rural devastation and poverty.
“Agroecology is based on applying ecological concepts and principles to optimize interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.” (UNFAO)
To provide guidance to countries so that they can “transform their food and agricultural systems to mainstream sustainable agriculture on a large scale, and to achieve Zero Hunger and multiple other Social Development Goals,” the UNFAO established the following 10 Elements of Agroecology, all interlinked and interdependent:
Diversity: diversification is key to agroecological transitions to ensure food security and nutrition while conserving, protecting and enhancing natural resources.
Co-creation and sharing of knowledge: agricultural innovations respond better to local challenges when they are co-created through participatory processes.
Synergies: building synergies enhances key functions across food systems, supporting production and multiple ecosystem services.
Efficiency: innovative agroecological practices produce more using less external resources.
Recycling: more recycling means agricultural production with lower economic and environmental costs.
Resilience: enhanced resilience of people, communities and ecosystems is key to sustainable food and agricultural systems.
Human and social values: protecting and improving rural livelihoods, equity and social well-being is essential for sustainable food and agricultural systems.
Culture and food traditions: by supporting healthy, diversified and culturally appropriate diets, agroecology contributes to food security and nutrition while maintaining the health of ecosystems.
Responsible governance: sustainable food and agriculture requires responsible and effective governance mechanisms at different scales – from local to national to global.
Circular and solidarity economy: circular and solidarity economies that reconnect producers and consumers provide innovative solutions for living within our planetary boundaries while ensuring the social foundation for inclusive and sustainable development.
In Canada, where to my knowledge no government policy or program acknowledges agroecology, the National Farmers Union has adopted agroecology as their framework for the future of agriculture and food:
“Agroecology is a holistic approach to food production that uses—and creates—social, cultural, economic and environmental knowledge to promote food sovereignty, social justice, economic sustainability, and healthy agricultural ecosystems.”
Based on La Via Campesina’s 2015 Declaration of the International Forum on Agroecology, the NFU presents eight Common Pillars of Agroecology, which include an increased emphasis on the political nature of agroecology, including the need “to transform the structures of power in society and the recognition of women and youth as leaders and controllers of land and resources.”
Due to the growing prominence of agroecology, there is substantial academic research and writing examining its status and development. In an article in the journal Sustainability (2018), a number of scholars and practitioners, including EFAO’s Director of Research Sarah Hargreaves, explain that, “Although the prevalence and prominence of agroecology is growing in Canada, its presence is still small and the support for its development is limited.”
The article includes Canadian examples that serve to “highlight the opportunities and the challenges advocates encounter in their efforts to radically counter a history of policies, practices, and ideologies that have prioritized maximizing agricultural yield over other socioeconomic, environmental, and biocultural objectives.” It makes the case for agroecology as a means of reimagining our agricultural systems.
“Agroecology offers both a practical and an aspirational approach to addressing issues – one that encompasses various aspects of alternative agricultural systems thinking and which aims to support local economies which strengthen biodiversity, resilience, and social justice,” explain the authors. “Motivations for engaging with agroecological practices are derived from a range of thematic and methodological approaches, including environmental and biological sciences, political economy, labour, food sovereignty, and justice.” While organic, permaculture and biodynamic approaches share much in common with agroecology, they do not reflect its scope.
In a more recent article in Bioscience, Jennifer Blesh and ten other academic researchers suggest that in addition to offering a much wider scope, “applying resilience thinking to agriculture could help reduce system vulnerabilities . . . Agroecological approaches seek to ensure long-term productivity through the restoration of biodiversity and the full array of ecosystem functions that support food production and human well-being.”5 Connecting food policies with current economic practices, the authors emphasize that “Globalization poses complex tradeoffs for food system resilience . . . and it may also contribute to less healthy diets and overconsumption [and] can push systems over planetary boundaries of resource use.”
Organic, biodynamic, regenerative, and permaculture practices are the building blocks for the agricultural components of agroecology. In addition, agroecology incorporates economic, social, and cultural justice issues that in turn address the human right to clean water, access to productive soil, preservation of biodiversity, food security, Indigenous sovereignty, anti-racism and anti-sexism. In order for agroecology to become the lens through which we see our world, dominant practices focused on profit and exploitation must be reversed.
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As the article by Isaac et al explains, it is important to recognize that should governments in Canada at least balance their (local and global) policies in order to support the refocusing necessary for the establishment of agroecological production as a primary focus, this would “run counter to a long history of governmental support for an export-oriented agriculture that is based on economies of scale, mechanization, standardization, and the widespread and increasingly intense application of industrial style inputs.”
Should the Federal Government continue on its current path, it would be contradicting the major changes promoted in the A Healthy Environment and A Healthy Economy plan, including their expressed commitment to significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions both within the economy as a whole and within the agricultural sector, where emissions continue to rise. What about the promises to recognize Indigenous sovereignty and traditional knowledge? “Indigenous communities are denied the most important medicine people can receive: kindness . . . To live in peace, a person must learn the kindness of the Earth as directed toward all living things.”
Further, in order to respond effectively to the actual crises that the world now faces, the Government will have to be prepared to spend a great deal more on ecological practices and to acknowledge ecological leaders.
When it comes to agriculture, farmers must be recognized as the leading voice. In February 2021, Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS), a national coalition of farmers campaigning to make agriculture part of the solution to climate change, released a comprehensive and well researched budget submission to the federal Government. Providing expert data related to every aspect of agriculture, their submission documents Canada’s severe underfunding of environmental programs in comparison with the EU and the USA. The solutions FCS provides are all compatible with the principles of agroecology.
In his well-documented book, The Good War, Seth Klein argues that in order to avoid irreversible climate catastrophe and civilization collapse, governments can﹘and must﹘move into “emergency mode” as they did during World War II, when the debt to GDP ratio was much higher. To be actually in emergency mode, governments must meet four basic criteria or “markers”. They are as follows:
- Spend what is required to win,
- Create a new economy, with just transitions, based on the Green New Deal,
- Move from voluntary to mandatory,
- Tell the Truth (otherwise the old ways of thinking, feeling, and acting will impede the changes that must be made).
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Local farmers and millions of people across the globe are demanding climate action now. In Northumberland County, our local Blue Dot group prepared a document urging politicians to support our recommendations for strengthening and focusing government direction and policies in all areas that impact climate change. Specifically, there must be specific and immediate targets, action plans, timelines, public advisory committees, and comprehensive reviews. There must be government accountability. I urge every community to take similar action.
The new imperatives, including the implementation of agroecological practices, should not be viewed as an imposition or economic impediment but as a path to a better future for all life. This is a return to “the Commons” and our responsibility to Mother Earth, as described by Vandana Shiva:
“Ecological civilization is based on the consciousness that we are part of the Earth, not her masters, conquerors, or owners. That we are connected to all life, and that our life is dependent on others – from the air we breathe to the water we drink and the food we eat . . . The right to life of all beings is based on interconnectedness. The interconnectedness of life and the rights of Mother Earth, of all beings, including human beings, is the ecological basis of the commons and economies based on sharing.”
In their thought-provoking book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimas write, “To anyone who doubts that the cycle of agricultural peaks and collapses will repeat – to anyone who doubts history – the clinching argument is nature. None of our technological enchantments has been able to conjure away the limitations of earth, seed, water, and light. We can ape them. We can hammer together greenhouses and loop new strings of DNA. But the miracle of the loaves and fishes remains just that: a miracle . . . Atrophy doesn’t make for a particularly stirring exit, but it’s the way that food empires usually die.”
Today’s superpowers, obviously, have the greatest impacts. As a result, we are, according to Jeremy Lent, “accelerating towards global catastrophe . . . We need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one that is life-affirming: an ecological civilization … where each living system is interdependent on the vitality of all other systems.”
Richard Powers, in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, refers to sticking with the old ways as “legacy cognitive blindness.” Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme suggest that, for people to achieve “the psychic energy needed for the renewal of the Earth,” it is essential that we come to understand that “our individual self finds its most complete realization within our family self, our community self, our species self, our earthly self, and eventually our universe self.” The policies and structures that make up our world must account for all of these vital aspects of human existence.
“If we are to balance and direct our remarkable technological muscle power, we need to regain some ancient virtues: the humility to acknowledge how much we have to learn, the respect that will allow us to protect and restore nature, and the love that can lift our eyes to distant horizons, far beyond the next election, paycheque, or stock dividend. Above all, we need to reclaim our faith in ourselves as creatures of the Earth, living in harmony with all other forms of life.”
﹘David Suzuki, quoted in Hope and Hard Times by Ted Bernard
As consumers of food, we need to connect our choices and behaviours to their impacts on sustainability, availability of nutritious food, diversity, and justice. The continuing massive decline in the diversity of cultivated crops by over 75 per cent, primarily related to globalization, and the increased reliance on pollinators combined with the major loss of species diversity poses a significant threat to those pollinators. Industrial agriculture is clearly a dangerously failed system. But the principles that can bring about its reversal are slowly being recognized as essential to survival and as most deserving of financing for much needed research and implementation. Today, many organizations and individuals around the world are advocating for the urgent need for these changes. And they are up against innumerable challenges, not least of all the threat of the co-option of the principles of agroecology by profit-seekers.
In a recent article for Civil Eats, Lisa Held quotes Shiney Varghese, senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who says, “it’s important to distinguish between farmers who . . . genuinely want to adopt agroecological practice to make their operations more sustainable, and corporations specifically using agroecological messaging﹘and increasingly the term ‘regenerative’ in the US to increase profits while changing very little about how they operate.” Agroecology cannot be cherry-picked﹘separating into individual components (such as no-till) or it ceases to be agroecology. All components are equally essential and valuable.
Will moving to an ecological/agroecological world include the ending of increasingly exorbitant wealth, power, and privilege and our return to the commons?
Let’s hope so. Let’s focus our minds and energies to ensure that this happens. Let’s share our desires, knowledge, and resources.
“What we care for, we will grow to resemble.”
﹘Richard Powers, The Overstory