For the Agroecological Businesses project, Antonio Ioris and Kate Symons (both at University of Edinburgh) completed an extensive literature review of agroecology and the history of this approach to farming in Latin America. This page provides a summary of their literature review and a full bibliography of relevant texts.
Latin American Agroecology: A Literature Review
Agroecology has steadily grown in visibility and importance in recent literature. While some contestation persists around its definition and status as a discipline, recent literature has done much work in consolidating it as a trans-disciplinary concept which encompasses scientific questions of ecological processes, along with transformative social ideas and political critiques of dominant food production systems. Much of this political vision has its roots in Latin American agroecological history and contemporary debates. A distinctive Latin American agroecology can be characterised as a practice-based social movement focussed on peasant empowerment and food sovereignty. The tone of contemporary literature is often passionate and celebratory regarding the innovative potential of agroecology in Latin America, and the region is home to several examples agroecological success, such as Cuba, and several innovative institutions and movements. Yet while many agroecologists present a hopeful vision, there remain significant questions and thorny issues. These include: A need for greater analysis of the uses of agroecology discourses and ideas in different framings of, and responses to food (and other crisis) debates; ongoing debates over productivity; questions relating to scale and scaling up agroecological successes; the type of knowledge agroecology is producing and how this could be (or, indeed, should be) made relevant to policy makers; and, the nature of, and relationship between elements within a food regime or system. Additionally, there are emerging critiques relating to a misplaced optimism in agroecology, and the uncritical romanticisation of peasant farmers, food, and nature.
Summary of Literature Review
Agroecology can be viewed as a “scientific discipline, as a movement or as a practice”. Though these three meanings have been used in different ways, with some authors calling for “those who publish using this term [to] be explicit in their interpretation” (Wezel et al 2009: 503), the most recent literature indicates two clear ‘family groups’ of agroecology concepts. The first is a narrow scientific agroecology, which is associated with Western scientific epistemologies and methodologies, tends towards analyses of food production processes rather than food systems and wider social, cultural or political processes, and which has evolved to pursues and support solutions to food crises which favour technological and apolitical interventions (Mendez et al 2013). The second is a political agroecology. The latter family can be divided into two perspectives, practical agroecology, which views the practices of agroecoogical food production (characterised as local, participatory and action-orientated towards autonomy and sustainability in food production, e.g. Gleissman 2013, Guzman-Casado et al 2013), and “political agroecology” (Gonzalez de Molina 2013: 45), which explicitly considers food production as inherently political, and which calls for concepts of agroecology which foreground power and politics. Political agroecology develops many of the grounding concepts from political ecology, drawing attention to the power relations such as class and gender which produce uneven access to natural resources and which produce ecological degradation (e.g. Peet and Watts 1996). There is significant cross-over between these perspectives, in particular, practical agroecology is often characterised as a social movement, and has its roots in Latin America in explicitly political reactions to top-down food production systems such as the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and later, large corporate agri-food businesses (Petersen et al 2013). Practical agroecology centralises farmer knowledge, which is often viewed as an inherently political means of challenging top-down food institutions and corporate interests (Chambers 1983, Rosset et al 2011, Vandermeer and Perfecto 2013).
The multiple uses of the term are due to cultural, historical, geographic and epistemological reasons, and the definition and content of the term has evolved, as has the political and scientific agendas associated with the concept. This review traces the particular development of the concept in Latin America, demonstrating that Latin American agroecology has often been politicised and politically-focussed. The review also considers current trends in agroecological thinking, in which several key authors such as Gleissman (2013, 2011) and Altieri and Toledo (2011) are articulating an action-orientated, trans-disciplinary and explicitly political agroecology. At the same time, agroecology may be increasingly appropriated into apolitical and technical discourses of risk, resilience and using technology and efficiency to overcome crisis. Current contributions focus on moving agroecology into increasingly political spaces, using lenses including food sovereignty and food justice, wider and multiple ecological crises (food-water-energy-economic-climate) and considering what a transition to sustainable food production might look like.
The review concludes by explaining opportunities for further empirical research and conceptual clarification. These include the following:
- Meat production and animal husbandry
An important research gap appears to be animal agroecology, that is, a focus on applying agroeconoimic principles to animal husbandry and meat production. Meat is a major cause of climate change and industrial meat production raises ethical and environmental questions (Nidjam et a 2012), and consequently could benefit from the application of agroecological principles (Durmont et al 2013).
- Gender and other community-level power relations
Political egroecologists point out that power relations are fundamental to ensuing equal access to food (Mendez et al 2013). At the same time, agroecology often promotes community-level action. There is significant research from development studies which shows that an idealised ‘community’ disguises uneven access to resources at the small scale. A community can be divided along gender, age or class lines leading to ‘elite capture’ of benefits ostensibly targeted at improving access to resources (Cleaver 1999, Mosse 1994). Development theorists have also shown how invoking an idealised community of ‘stakeholders’ at the policy level can be a depoliticising device (e.g. Agarwal 2000, Cooke and Kothari 2001, Ferguson 1994). Political egroecology literature, particularly that which advocates family and community work and local livelihood diversification strategies (Schneider and Niederle, 2010), and localised food provision and local markets (Martínez-Torres and Rosset, 2014 appears to have a tendency to under theorise and idealise the community. Agroecology may therefore benefit from applying a more critical perspective to the community, for example by conducting case based research which makes gender and community-level power relations explicit.
- Critiques of participatory action research
There has been much debate in development studies historically around the emancipatory claims of participatory action research (e.g. Brock and McGee 2011). However, some agroecology literature takes the emancipatory claims of participatory research at face value, and a future research agenda may benefit from interrogating the links between bottom-up and farmer led knowledge and actual outcomes in more detail.
- Operationalising political agroecology
There are also opportunities to further explore the question of whether agroecology can be seen as essentially a revolutionary or reformist agenda. There are some scholars who explicitly consider agroecology in relation to capitalist and neoliberal food systems, and who attempt to theorise the nature of change within capitalist food production political-economic systems. These scholars identify a fundamental and central tension between ‘conform versus transform’ (Levidow et al., 2014, Gimenez and Shattuck 2011, Altieri and Toledo 2011, Gimenez and Altieri 2013). This question of whether change happens through gradual reform or through radical revolution is both a conceptual and empirical one, and there are major questions and gaps specific to agroecology. These include the conceptual and practical implications of adopting a food sovereignty approach, the links between accumulation by dispossession and expanded capitalist reproduction of food systems, and the implications to political agroecology of adopting a food systems approach. These questions have been introduced yet not fully explored in the current research agenda.
- Critiquing ‘nature’ in agroecology
Geographers and political ecologists problematise the concept of ‘nature’ (e.g. Castree 2005). In particular, a strong trend in political ecology critiques the idea of a pristine nature, and shows that discourses of naturalness can be invoked to advance particular political positions (Smith 1984), and that power relations determine access to natural resources (e.g. Watts and Peluso 2013). Geographers also aim to dissolve the boundary between what is considered natural and social, for example Tsing (2015) questions the idea of feral or invasive plants. While political agroecologists have recently adopted some tenets of political ecology (for example, Ernesto Mendez et al 2013 refer to the founding political ecology study of soil degradation by Blaikie and Brookfield 1987), much of this rich and extensive knowledge is virtually ignored and the idea that agroecology can get food production ‘closer to nature’ is uncritically assumed. The idea of ‘nature’ is taken for granted, and would benefit from much more critical attention in agroecology literature.
- Critiquing ideas of ecological sustainability
In a similar way to ‘nature’, ecological sustainability (cf. “the transition to sustainability” in Ernesto Mendez et al 2013) is often invoked but it is underexplored, and literature which critiques the concept is seldom incorporated (e.g. Adams 1990, Rist 2004). There is much literature which critiques capitalism’s need to further exploit nature for new services, and its need to preserve the natural world as a basis for life (e.g. Apostolopoulou and Adams 2015) which may benefit greater theorising around an agroecological perspective on what ‘sustainability’ actually means.
- Knowledge – what types of knowledge does agroecology research produce?
Debates around knowledge include the relationship and conflict between narrow scientific knowledge, the question over what types of knowledge agroecology produces, and questions over how political agroecology knowledge can be integrated into policy knowledge (i.e. is critical/political social science relevant to policy makers who tend to prefer generalizable, quantifiable knowledge which indicates technical solutions)? This epistemological debate is important because it relates to how (and whether) to institutionalise agroecology, how to spread and mobilise its ideas, how (and whether) to develop knowledge that is relevant to policy-makers, and whether the claims of agro-ecology which take into account the so-called ‘human dimensions’ can be seen as disinterested scientific knowledge (and whether/ how this matters).
Agroecologists have begun explicitly considering scale. Ernesto Mendez et al (2013: 12) consider that political agroecology means shifting from local and participatory perspectives to focus on “broader forces – such as market and government institutions – that undermine farmer’s cultural practices, economic self-sufficiency and the ecological resource base”. This implies that ‘political’ means large scale or system scale. However, research critical approaches in geography problematise the local-regional-national-international formula (e.g. Tsing 2005, Marston et al 2005, Neumann 2009, 2010), moving towards relational or flat ontologies (De Landa 2006, Thrift 2008). This provides an opportunity to develop agroecology literature in line with these theoretical innovations.
Further gaps may include:
- Understanding crisis and resilience discourses, including more critical work around the relationship between agroecology and food-water-energy-climate-economic crises
- Theorising a ‘food system’ – this would seem to relate to the scale debate and be fundamental to developing and clarifying political agroecology. This also links to the potential to engage in debates about how to understand and operationalise the ‘agroecological transition’ (Levidow et al., 2014, Holt Gimenez and Shattuck 2013).
- Understanding the appropriation of agroecology by policy/ government/ corporate actors and linking this to the transition/ revolution/ reformist debate
- Ongoing examples of innovation in Latin America
- Clarifying the distinct characteristics of Latin American agroecology (resistance? cf. Pahnke 2015, Pahnke et ak 2015)
- Further scientific research on the (debated) productivity of agroecology (e.g Jansen 2015)
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