Agroecology “Lite”: co-option and resistance in the Northern Countries

Agroecology “Lite”: co-option and resistance in the Northern Countries

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By Eric Holt-Giménez and Miguel Altieri

The Green Revolution is a standardized technological model that aims to develop world agriculture and that emerged in the "barn" of the United States. After World War II, the United States turned its "swords into plowshares" by transforming vast reserves of nitrate and poison used during the war into fertilizers and pesticides, and restoring weapons factories in order to build new — and great — machines. agricultural. They produced hybrid seeds that responded to irrigation and chemical inputs. Industrial agriculture exploded.

American farmers quickly bought all the new technologies they needed. Then seeds, agrochemicals and machinery began to accumulate in warehouses and warehouses. As a solution to the problem of industrial surplus, the industrial agricultural production model was exported to different geographical, cultural and social settings in the southern hemisphere.

Carl Sauer, a highly respected geography professor at the University of California Berkeley with extensive experience in Latin American agriculture, was initially hired by the Rockefeller Foundation as an advisor to the American Mexican Agricultural Program, on the possibility of export US agricultural technologies to Mexico, supposedly to increase Mexican food security. Sauer advised Rockefeller strongly against this approach:

“A group of aggressive agronomists and American producers could ruin natural resources forever, just to promote American reserves… and Mexico cannot move toward standardizing some commercial products without desperately affecting its economy and local culture. Unless Americans understand it, they would do better to stay totally out of this country. To tackle this, the soundness of local economies must be reassessed. " [i]

The Rockefeller Foundation dismissed Sauer's concerns and, despite internal opposition, carried out his project; a project that grew into a 50-year campaign, called the Green Revolution.

Thanks to subsidized credit and the support of international institutions and government programs, the Green Revolution spread to millions of farmers in southern countries. A massive investment program allowed to increase world food production, exponentially.

However, Sauer's predictions came true: since technology requires capital, production was concentrated on large farms and increasingly concentrated in the hands of few farmers; on the best agricultural land. Small farmers were displaced towards the fragile lands and the agricultural frontier of the tropical forests. Although they were offered cheap loans to buy seeds and agrochemicals from the Green Revolution, these inputs soon destroyed the fertility of their soils and eroded their local genetic diversity. Yields fell, millions of small farmers went bankrupt economically, and millions of hectares of forest and farmland were lost.

The Green Revolution was disastrous for the countries of the South. In the midst of the disaster, farmers struggled to continue working on their land and to restore the ecological integrity of their farming systems. They found a way with agroecology.

Although many Western scholars claim that the term agroecology was originally invented by European scientists in the early 20th century, [ii] agroecology is based on the ecological logic of peasant and indigenous agriculture, still widespread in various parts of the developing world. [iii]

Thirty years ago, Latin American agroecologists argued that systems developed by traditional peasants over centuries could provide a starting point for better pro-poor agricultural development strategies.

Since the early 1980s, hundreds of agroecology projects — incorporating both elements of traditional knowledge and modern agricultural science — have been promoted throughout Latin America and other countries in the developing world. Numerous agroecological projects demonstrated the benefits they bring to rural communities over time, improving food security thanks to a healthy local diet, reinforcing their basic resources (soils, biodiversity, etc.), preserving their cultural legacy and the way life of peasants or farm families, and promoting resilience to climate change. [iv]

Agroecology also contributes to the process of “re-peasantization” through which, unlike the general trend of migration from the countryside to the city, small farmers return to their agricultural lands. For peasant organizations, agroecology was vital in their struggle for autonomy: it allowed them to reduce their dependence on external inputs, credits and indebtedness, and also to recover their territory. [V]

Being developed and shared in many cases across a vast social network from Peasant to Peasant, peasant agroecological approaches are an integral part of many agrarian struggles for agricultural and trade reforms, as well as peasant movements against land expropriation and extractive industries. For them, agroecology is not only a scientific or technological project, but also a political project of resistance and survival. It is a science, a practice and a movement.

In Latin America, agroecology is often perceived as an applied science, rooted in a social context that questions capitalist agriculture and is associated with agrarian movements. In theory, Latin American agroecologists support both grassroots agricultural development and peasant resistance, against corporate agriculture and against neoliberal trade policies.

Agroecology is spreading in the United States and Europe. This is good news. However, like the spread of the Green Revolution in the south, the spread of agroecology in the north has been subject to a political dilemma.

In the Northern Hemisphere — and especially in the United States — the political dimension of agroecology is problematic, since questioning the root causes of the socio-environmental destruction of industrial agriculture implies questioning capitalism itself.

A radical critique is required — going to the roots of the problem — that goes beyond minor changes or "greening" the neoliberal economic model that is sometimes disseminated as if it were a substantial change. This places agroecology outside of mainstream government, non-government, and university programs; and within the resistance of social movements in favor of food sovereignty, local autonomy, and community control of land, water and agro-biodiversity. [vi]

But in the United States as in Europe, agroecology is not rooted in strong agrarian movements. The agroecological debate in northern countries is dominated by an eclectic cocktail of apolitical arguments (in other words: avoiding the issue of capitalism), widely promoted by consumers, academics, global institutions, large NGOs, and philanthropies. This institutional field uses a wide variety of terms (sustainable intensification, climate-smart agriculture, diversified production systems, etc.) to define agroecology in a reformist way and as a set of complementary tools that improve everyone's toolbox. Big as small, organic as conventional ... a little more agroecology could improve relations between all.

The co-option of agroecological practices will make industrial agriculture a little more sustainable and a little less exploitative; But this will not question the underlying power relationships in our food system. On the other hand, the “lite” version of agroecology does not take into account the fact that large-scale and industrial monocultures damage the existence of small farmers who farm agroecologically. The voices of agroecological producers — of African American, Latin American, indigenous, and Asian communities, small farmers and urban farmers — as well as low-income consumers, progressive academics, and NGOs critical of agriculture conventional, are marginalized or silenced in this discourse.

Agroecology — as a counter-movement to the Green Revolution — is at a crossroads, fighting against co-option, subordination, and reformist projects that erase its history and exclude its political definition. [Vii] A depoliticized agroecology lacks social meaning. It is disconnected from agrarian realities, vulnerable to the corporate diet, and isolated from the growing power of global food sovereignty movements.

Agroecology plays a decisive role in the future of our food systems. If it is co-opted by the reformist tendencies of the Green Revolution, the agroecological counter-movement will be weakened, the corporate food regime will undoubtedly be reinforced, and substantial reforms to our food system will be highly unlikely. However, if agroecologists formed strategic alliances with the agrarian and food sovereignty movements — inside as well as outside the national territory — the counter-movement would be reinforced. A strong counter-movement could generate considerable political will in favor of transforming our food systems. [Viii]

Whether we acknowledge the politics of agroecology, or try to hide it, it is precisely these agrarian policies that will determine the future of our agriculture.

Translation: Coline Charrasse.
[i] Jennings, B. (1988) Foundations of International Agricultural Research: Science and Politics in Mexican Agriculture. Boulder CO: Westview Press.
[ii] Wezel, A., S. Bellon, T. Doré, C. Francis, D. Vallod and C. David. (2009) Agroecology as a science, a movement, and a practice. A Review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 29 (4): 503–515.
[iii] Altieri, M.A. (2002) Agroecology: the science of natural resource management for poor farmers in marginal environments. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 93: 1–24.
[iv] Altieri, M.A. and C.I. Nicholls. (2008) Scaling up Agroecological Approaches for Food Sovereignty in Latin America. Development, 51 (4): 472–80. URL: here
[v] Van der Ploeg, J.D. (2009) The New Peasantries: Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization. Earthscan, London, 356 p.
[vi] Rosset, P.M. & Martinez-Torres, M.E. (2012) Rural Social Movements and Agroecology: Context, Theory and Process. Ecology and Society, 17: 17-26
[vii] Roland, P. C, and R. W. Adamchak. (2009) Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Tomich, T., S. Brodt, F. Ferris, R. Galt, W. Horwath, E. Kebreab, J. Leveau, et al. (2011) Agroecology: A Review from a Global-Change Perspective. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 36 (15): 1–30.
[viii] Holt-Gimenez, E and M.A. Altieri 2013 Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and the New Green Revolutio

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