Protocols, Principles and Guidelines for Participatory Action Research + Related Traditions of Research

We frequently hear requests for simple, short guidelines or principles that can be used by practitioners of participatory approaches to research, learning and action. In this context, we put a call out for ‘your input!’ to create a crowdsourced curated reading list on ‘protocols and guidelines for participatory, engaged-, decolonial, indigenous, feminist and other related traditions of research’. 

While we will make reference to more conceptual and longer pieces on these topics (and the importance of not only focusing on technical ‘protocols’), we are focusing on compiling accessible, short and pragmatic resources.

Do you have anything to add? Ideas? Comments? Links? Write to: colin.anderson@uvm.edu

List curated by Colin Anderson with input from Csilla Kiss, Maywa Montenegro de Wit, Michelle Nikfarjam, Jasber Singh, Tabitha Martens, Stephane McLachlanChiara Tornaghi and Lamis Jamil

The Curated List

Other related resources suggested as a part of the crowdsourcing process

Enroll now in popular UVM courses on transformative agroecology for the Fall semester

Interested in deepening your knowledge of Participatory Research?

Want to take a deep dive into Social Movement organizing for food sovereignty and agroecology?

This Fall, the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative is offering two online courses for graduate students, advanced undergrads as well as activists and professionals seeking creative learning in agroecology. Read below to learn more about these course offerings.

We believe that we learn best from a diversity of sources and a diversity of voices – online participation means you can join us from almost anywhere. Read below about our two offerings this autumn (September-December 2022).

Note that two additional agroecology courses will be offered in the spring semester (Jan-May 2023):
The Ecological Foundations of Agroecology (PSS 312) and a new course tentatively titled “Agroecological Transitions for More Just and Sustainable Food Systems” will be offered in Spring ’23. These courses can be taken as a part of a Certificate of Graduate study in agroecology (learn more here).

Available for credit or for non-credit (continuing professional development)
Instructor: Colin R. Anderson (colin.anderson@uvm.edu)
Class meeting times and location: August 30-December 6. 2 hour Weekly online meetings on Tuesdays (time tbd).

Participatory, transdisciplinary and action research have become internationally recognized as pillars of knowledge production for sustainable and just food systems. Participatory Action Research (PAR) can be described as a process of research, education and action in which participants work together to understand and transform reality.

In this course, students will examine how these approaches can deepen our collective understanding of complex issues and support societal transformations for social justice and sustainability, especially in the context of agroecology. Together, we will encounter the ‘politics of knowledge’ or the ways that power and privilege shape science, academia, innovation, and development, as well as the value of “people’s knowledge”. We will also engage with critical theoretical traditions, such as feminism and decoloniality.

Then we will get practical and focus on the nuts and bolts of doing PAR in agrifood system studies and action. We will examine examples of agroecological PAR projects, to draw lessons learned and to find inspiration. We will shine a spotlight on several methods used within this tradition including, for example, participatory photography, popular education, theatre, indigenous approaches, deliberative methodologies, auto-ethnography and different forms of qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods inquiry. This course develops students’ PAR and transdisciplinary competencies through a systematic engagement with theory, skills, methods, and a critical reflexive self-examination of our role in the research processes.Au

Photo Credit: La Via Campesina

Agroecology, Food Sovereignty & Social Movements (PSS 314)

Available for credit or for non-credit (continuing professional development)
Instructor: Martha Caswell (martha.caswell@uvm.edu)
Class meeting times and location: Weekly online meetings on Wednesdays from 9:00 – 10:30 EST.

Agroecology and food sovereignty are increasingly seen as intertwined alternatives to the predominant globalized and industrial agrifood model. “Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.” (Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007)

In this course, we will ask questions about the coherence of food sovereignty as the path forward, and about the role of social movements as the driver of change. Students will investigate social, political, and economic elements of the global food system from multiple perspectives, considering the ability to scale-up agroecology, and the potential intersection between agroecology, food sovereignty, and government policies. We’ll benefit from guest lectures by several professionals actively involved in the struggle for agroecology and food sovereignty.

New Publication Series: Perspectives on Agroecology Transitions

The ALC Agroecology Support Team in their work with the McKnight CCRP program launches a new publication series: Perspectives on Agroecology TransitionsThis series of short publications explores different aspects of agroecology transitions. It focuses on praxis, which is the continual consideration of theory/reflection with practice/action. This helps us to think deeply about our work and how to best contribute to social transformation. These short publications, each available in French, Spanish and English, are intended to be used by agents of change in agroecology transitions (including farmers, activists, researchers, policy-makers and others). 

The first publications in the series have been released:

No. 1 – Sweet Rose in the Field

English; French; Spanish

A spotlight profile on Ross Mary Borja, Director of EkoRural in Ecuador and her reflections on agroecology transitions.

No. 2 – Embracing Critical Friendship for Agroecology Transitions

English; French; Spanish

Presents the idea of critical friendship as as a method for anyone seeking to become better agents of change in processes of agroecology transitions.

Further publications in the series are in the works and will be released occasionally as they are finalized. Stay tuned for more.

Join our Introduction to Agroecology Course this Spring

Join our Introduction to Agroecology Course this Spring

Looking for a crash course that brings a learning community together to explore the social, political, ecological and cultural dimensions of agroecology? Join in on our Intro to Agroecology course. This year’s offering is fully online and will bring you into an interactive learning environment with committed instructors and inspiring guest speakers. More information below.

Click here to learn more and to register.

Questions can be directed to the co-instructors Vic Izzo (victor.izzo@uvm.edu) and Martha Caswell (martha.caswell@uvm.edu).

This 4-week online course presents an in-depth overview of research and applications in the field of agroecology. The last week students will participate in a virtual experience that engages with practitioners from our widespread agroecology network.

The course seeks to provide students with both conceptual and practical content, covering the evolution of the field of agroecology, from its origins to the present, as it gains increasing recognition in scientific, policy, social movement and farming spaces. Students will engage in some of the debates agroecologists are now facing, as they grapple with maintaining the core characteristics of the field as it is increasingly applied by a wide diversity of actors. A special emphasis is placed on discussing the different expressions of agroecology as a science, a social movement and a practice. We will consider the intersections of agroecology and transdisciplinarity, as we integrate different knowledge systems to search for solutions to the current challenges of our agrifood systems. And finally, we will explore the use of participatory action research (PAR) and agroecology principles, as an essential approach to agroecological research and practice. We will cover international and domestic geographic perspectives, and examine, more in- depth, agroecology and PAR with 3-4 local Vermont farms.

COURSE DAYS & TIMES: 

  • Full Course timeline: May 23 – June 17, 2022

By the end of this course, students will be able to: 

  • Describe the state and evolution of the field of agroecology and engage in the debate on agroecology’s dimensions as a science, a social movement and a practice
  • Understand and apply a principles-approach to agroecology
  • Understand some of the opportunities and challenges of applying agroecology and PAR in three local Vermont farms
  • Understand the challenges and opportunities of applying agroecology as a transdisciplinary, participatory and action-oriented approach
  • Engage in active peer-to-peer learning with fellow classmates, instructors and guests.

Students taking it as a non-credit course will receive a Digital Badge signifying completion of the course.

Event: “How the Other Half Eats” – an Online Seminar with Priya Fielding-Singh

Event: “How the Other Half Eats” – an Online Seminar with Priya Fielding Singh

Join us for this online event with Priya Fielding-Singh for a presentation and interactive discussion of her new book, How the Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequity in America.

February 23rd, 11am-12:30pm EST on Zoom. Click Here to Register

Hosted by the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, The Gund Institute for the Environment and Food Systems Graduate Program at UVM.

Inequality in America manifests in many ways, but perhaps nowhere more than in how we eat. In this session, sociologist and ethnographer PriyaFielding-Singh draws on her years of field research to bring us into the kitchens of dozens of families to explore how—and why—we eat the way we do. She will discuss her timely and powerful new book, How the Other Half Eats, which unpacks nutritional inequality in America through an in-depth examination of class, race and health. 

Shifting Funding to Agroecology for People, Climate and Nature

A new report produced by ActionAid with the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative and Cultivate! on “Shifting Funding to Agroecology for People, Climate and Nature“.

Click here to read the new report:
Shifting Funding to Agroecology for People, Climate and Nature

The majority of public and philanthropic funding supports ecologically and socially damaging forms of agriculture and food systems. How can financing be transformed so that it fosters transitions towards more just and sustainable food systems and enables agroecology to meet its full potential? This is the question that underpins a stream of research led by Coventry University, the University of Vermont and AgroecologyNow!.

The Need to Transform Food Systems

We urgently need to transform food systems. The depth of the ecological and social threats we are facing are staggering. A growing pile of high-profile UN and scientific reports have shown how the industrial food system is failing to nourish people around the world and at the same time is directly linked to growing inequality, injustice, ill-health, climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse.

Business as usual is no longer an option and we need to transform how we produce, move around and consumer food. Agroecology reflects a paradigmatic shift that can guide our pursuit of more  just and sustainable food systems, and reflects a bold transformation that is becoming increasingly attractive, viable and urgent.

Our action research on agroecology transformations is a part of a growing body of work in social movements, civil society, academia and amongst food producers to figure out how we get from here to there: how do we transition from our current state of crisis and degeneration to just and sustainable food systems. The question of how to finance or resource these transitions is a vital, yet grossly underdeveloped area of work.


Video 1 – UVM’s Colin Anderson and Nina Moeller (from CAWR at Coventry University) presented results of their studies analyzing finance for agroecology at an official COP26 side event in Glasgow November 2022. “How effective is climate finance in catalzing an urgently needed paradigm shift in food systems?” with a resounding: “a lot remains to be done!” A representative of the Green Climate Fund listened. We can only hope the conversation will continue. Click this link to watch the recording.

Our recent brief highlights how, in an enabling policy context, agroecology has proven to achieve robust gains in poverty reduction, food and nutrition security, women and youth empowerment and biodiversity and climate resilience.

Agroecology applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems. It includes practices aimed at mimicking or harnessing complex ecological processes, moving beyond the farm to include food production, distribution, consumption, and waste management.

Historically, although science plays an important role in developing agroecology, the knowledge that underpins agroecology has emerged from the practices of indigenous peoples and smallholders across the world. Agroecology is a scientifically and experientially justified practice of agriculture that (1) is sensitive to the ecosystems in which it takes place and (2) fosters the democratic participation of food producers, putting human rights and agency at the center.

Video 2 – In a recently published animation, we articulate the main arguments that have arisen through our research on financing and agroecology. “Institutions keep pouring money into harmful industrial agriculture. We urgently need investments in agroecology. We need to defund industrial agriculture and funnel that money into agroecology. Furthermore the delivery of funding needs to be better so that it can support agroecological pioneers and work for systemic change. It’s time to make money move for agroecology and together foster social justice and sustainability in food systems.” Also in Spanish and French subtitles.

Transforming Finance for Agroecology


Our research makes it clear that financing from institutions and donors for agricultural and rural development is woefully inadequate and work against just transitions in food systems.  This is an issue of both quantity and quality:

1. Quantity: There is not enough money going to agroecology.

Even within the already small amount of financing for agricultural development as a whole, almost all of this funding is allocated to encouraging farmers to adopt detrimental forms of high-energy, high-input industrial agriculture. A growing body of research has shown how agroecology is significantly marginalised in the financial architecture of development at all levels. There is a clear need to shift more funds towards agroecology.

The need to shift the quantity of money away from industrial agriculture was articulated brilliantly by one of our research participants,

“But another dimension of funding agro ecology is also linked to the amount of funding and the amount of support both in terms of policy as well as in terms of investments, that goes to the opposite of agroecology. And in some respect, one could claim that stopping this counter investments and the continued policy inclination for the opposite of what the agroecology wants to the kind of transformational agroecology wants to promote is equally important than generating let’s say, direct funding for agroecology. You could say that many agro ecological solutions actually squeezed by an over funded and an over emphasized other type of agriculture and other type of food system.”

2. Quality: Funding that is allocated towards sustainable agriculture and agroecology is often delivered in unhelpful and even damaging ways

The mechanisms, delivery and ‘modalities’ of funding are often highly problematic because they: are driven by donor rather than peoples needs; fail to affirm the agency of people; are inflexible; have inappropriate monitoring/evaluation systems; do not address inequity; and are based on short term approaches.

We have been working with Donors (e.g. the European Union, FAO, Green Climate Fund, Agroecology Fund), advocacy groups (Action Aid, CIDSE) and other researchers to explore the question of: When donors do decide to target sustainable agroecological food systems, how can we transform the modes and approaches of financing so that it actually enables agroecology?

Based on this research, a recent policy brief with Action Aid International provides a series of considerations and recommendations to increase the quantity and quality of funding for agroecology:

  • Substantially shift funding allocations to agroecology.
  • Funding for agroecology should be underpinned by a principle of co-governance where donors are accountable to the most affected. Donors should consider long-term multi-phased support for building agroecology in territories.
  • For financial support to be effective in supporting agroecology, a large portion of it needs to be comprised of small to mid-scale grants through food producer organizations and civil society organizations who are close to the ground.
  • Currently, agroecology is often marginally, or not at all, included in agricultural funding programs. Donors should closely evaluate their funding programs and shift towards agroecology explicitly as a target of funding.
  • Agroecology transitions are complex social and participatory processes that require adaptability in how plans are developed and implemented. In this context, it is vital that funders allow for flexibility in spending, activities and in monitoring and evaluation.
  • We recommend that donors engage in an in-depth and ongoing dialogue with food producer organizations to examine and increase the quantity and effectiveness of funds that are allocated towards agroecology, and to improve the quality of delivery.

This work continues, as we collaborate with our partners to advance the Transformation of public and philanthropic finance so that agroecology can achieve its unmet potential as a vital approach to confronting our global challenges.

Contact: colin.anderson@uvm.edu for more information.


Growing empathy: Community building and food justice inspired by women

Growing empathy: Community building and food justice inspired by women

Amaya Carrasco-Torrontegui, PhD student in the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, was awarded the Extraordinary Community Builder Recognition Award in Farm and Food Justice. In this blog post, she shares her inspiring acceptance speech.

On November 5th I had the honor to receive the “Extraordinary Community Builder Recognition Award in Farm and Food Justice” of the Women, Food, Agriculture Network. The Organization aims to engage women in building an ecological and just food and agricultural system through individual and community power in the United States. An organization built by women and that cares about women opportunities.

This award made me reflect that as humanity we are facing many challenges, like climate change and the current pandemic, but one of the biggest challenges, that not many people mention, is hyper individualization. To face apathy for the other and individualism, we need exactly what the Women, Food and Agricultural Network does: promote community and cooperative relations. Millions of women smallholders, typically invisible, are the ones who put food on the plate of millions more, particularly children and elderly –like, stated in a quote that has touched my heart:

“If you teach a man to farm, his family will eat. If you teach a woman to farm, the community will eat” (Unknow).

This resonates with me because during my years working in agriculture, I have witnessed how this reflection is a reality. During my time living in St. Louis, Missouri, I saw the power of women and food to build community. For four years I supported UCity and Bloom, an NGO focused on hands-on education in public school gardens. Through my involvement I observed the power of food as a key instrument to change food habits, especially in African American and Latinx children. This initiative was created by a group of women that decided to build community through the development of urban gardens in their neighborhood.

Source: Amaya Carrasco Torrontegui. 2019. School gardens run by UCity and Bloom

I also had the opportunity to reconnect with the cycles of life and nature through my participation in an apprenticeship program in an organic farm school rooted in Ferguson, EarthDance; the organization was created by a woman with the mission of teaching about farming and how to produce healthy food for the community. I also was part of Urban Harvest STL, an NGO that produces food in roof tops and donates all the produce to people in need. The leader of the organization was another woman that also was my professor at Harris-Stowe University, a historical university, and who is my coach nowadays. As you may have noticed, there is a pattern, all these organizations were created by women.

Source: Urban Harvest STL. 2018. Amaya Carrasco in the Food Roof Farm.

In the Global South, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (2020), 60-80% of the food that is consumed is grown by women farmers. This is something that I have personally seen while interviewing a group of urban farmers of the AGRUPAR project. In the city of Quito, my hometown, there are around 1,400 gardens and 80% of them are led by women with indigenous heritage (Carrasco-Torrontegui & Cárdenas, 2021). However, their work producing food is often seeing as a set of domestic activities, an invisible sphere, not productive because is not associated to an income. In the global scale, inequalities are striking, even though many women are farmers, men are the ones who own resources such as land, water, work tools. The women of AGRUPAR drive an economy of “diversity-oriented practices in the face of homogeneity, cooperation in the face of competition, collective access rather than private property and preference to barter instead of commodification” (Carrasco-Torrontegui & Cárdenas, 2021: 90). The same set of practices and values are particularly present in rural indigenous communities experiencing feminization of agriculture. I also have the privilege of being a part of the Caliata Initiative, a notable sustainable food system where women are the backbone.

Source: Amaya Carrasco-Torrentegui, 2009. Women working in the minga (Andean communitarian work) in Caliata.

Despite challenges and inequalities, there is hope, particularly in empowering women –as Ruth Bader said: “fight for things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”. For that reason, I want to congratulate the work of Women, Food, and Agriculture Network and say that I feel grateful to be a member of it. This recognition of my work could not be possible without the support of all the organizations and people that have help me and inspired during all these years. Definitely:

Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.

References:

Carrasco-Torrontegui, A. & Cardenas, S. (2021). Chapter 3: Urban agriculture lead by women: Just and resilient cities. Urban political ecology to face climate change. In Faculty of Latin-American Social Science (Ed.)

FAO (Organizacion de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la Alimentacion). 2020. “La mujer y la seguridad alimentaria”. Accessed from: https://bit.ly/3nhVFGU

Agroecological transition processes in West Africa CoP: visions inspired by core values and agroecological principles

By: Gabriela Bucini

Reflections on a two-part workshop given on April 6 and 15, 2021 by the Agroecology Support Team of the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program.

The West Africa (WAf) CoP is a dynamic group and an example of a community with a perspective on the future, which extends across local and global horizons. Agroecological transitions are actively taking shape in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, stemming from experience and knowledge in agricultural practices, nutrition and market activities. Research methods also have been changing over the years to engage project actors and farmers in collaborative participatory learning and to support innovations that build on local resources. Furthermore, the CoP has catalyzed actions directed at creating gender equality and social justice.

When the WAf CoP gathers, everyone’s work becomes a shared experience and an opportunity for co-learning.

In April 2021, the Agroecology Support Team (AES) proposed a workshop on the theme of agroecological transitions (AET) through a lens of agroecological principles and personal values.

The goal was to strengthen projects’ confidence in their own knowledge and to ease familiarity with the AET as a process.  The participants engaged with two main activities: 1) contextualizing agroecological principles to make them actionable within local realities; and 2) envisioning an agroecological transition for a desired change grounded in contextualized principles, personal values and local resources. Agroecological principles can inspire and orient us, but they become alive only when the actors enrich them with their words and realities. Assimilating practical references and examples, the definition of local farmers can ground action more easily.

A participant said that the recognition of the knowledge in hand of a community, and the exchange of this knowledge, are necessary to let the transition process emerge. In Niger, poverty is a big problem that agroecology must face but there is also a socio-cultural tradition of community work that can be a key resource, said another participant. Some communities organize themselves to support vulnerable people. Valuing this culture, we want to support communities that meet, find their own solutions and take initiatives around integration of people, animals and nature – a work of peace.  In this way we can make synergies tangible and advance in the transition. Not forgetting that poverty calls for concreteness, a participant reminded us of producers’ weak purchasing power, which limits the effective application of agroecological technologies. He appealed to the necessity of activities that bring revenue and security. The agroecology transition requires lots of action and time. It needs to deliver outcomes.

The AES team proposed a schematic of an agroecological transition (AET) process (Figure 1) to facilitate an AET visioning activity. The process is broken up into three phases along a circle, suggesting the natural cyclic motion of transitions. It tracks the phases of building a common ground with our transition companions, focusing on a few specific intentions and then acting, always remembering to circle back and reflect on learned lessons, renew our values and principles and direct our attention to our next action step.

The compelling story of the farmers from The Shashe farms in the Runde catchment area of Zimbawe  provided a concrete example of a value- and AE principles-based vision of an agroecological transition. This transition, led by Elizabeth Mpofu, engages multiple actors and disrupts narratives of failure (or problems) by reshaping them into narratives of assets and participatory action. We can read this story through the lens of the AET process (Figure 2). Mrs E. Mavedzenge, local farmer, says “We don’t allow water to just run through our fields; we keep every drop of water. We harvest rainwater which flows from the road and, as it rains, into the contours that we have built.” We recognize phase 1 as the people from the Shashe farms and Elizabeth Mpofu come together with their knowledge and core values, and use agroecology to create change. We find phase 2 in the focus on soil aridity and phase 3 with the synergy of principles guiding action (Figure 2).

Figure 2: AES’ depiction of the agroecology transition (AET) described in the project “The Shashe farms in the Runde catchment area of Zimbawe”. Top figure: a challenging factor – livestock –can be turned into an asset and trigger a real AET. Bottom figure: Concrete steps of the AET process guided by principles. For example, the third photo is described by “What water means to the soil’s life is what blood means to a person’s life”, which connects to the FAO element of Efficiency (innovative agroecological practices produce more using less external resources).

Inspired by the Zimbabwean example, the workshop participants were invited to work in groups by country and create a vision for an AET that starts from a local problem and can be turned into an asset through a transformative process and collaborative response. The groups’ visions were ambitious enough to be exciting but also achievable with local resources and the CCRP program’s support. They were also far enough into the future to work towards keeping faith and commitment. The groups aligned their visions and values to agroecological principles and showed attentive sensitivity to the CCRP principles as well. Indeed, co-learning, gender equity, diversity, support of better livelihoods and sustainability were all integral part of the visions.

Figure 3: Examples of slides presented by the workshop groups. Target agroecological principles were diversity, recycling and circular economy. The names of the group members or the names of the group projects are next to each slide.

The workshop participants showed that agroecological transitions are possible. In the AET visioning, groups identified new synergies among projects and/or strengthened existing ones seeking to have a more holistic view of the work and benefit from expert complementarity. The actions proposed relied on local knowledge, resources and adaptive capacity (examples in Figure 3). Groups contextualized the FAO agroecological principles using words that reflected local experience and needs. For example, the principle of resilience was expressed as “ensuring good nutrition and diversified income generation in a context of climate variability”. This specificity resulted in more realistic and actionable visions.

The majority of the presentations emphasized the interconnection among science, practice and movement. The explicit inclusion of socio-economic or socio-political factors, in the visions, was a sign that agriculture is seen in its human dimension, too. For example, the principles of food sovereignty and diversification were related to the political aspects of control over seeds and choice of crop varieties.  Those two principles are also key entry points for supporting and promoting women’s equality in terms of economic independence, access to education and decision-making processes at both the family and broader scale levels.

The participants clearly highlighted the influential role of regional and national policies on the future of food systems, agroecological practices and education in their countries. They sought a voice to influence national decisions and were aware of the importance for these decisions to be formulated with the participation of those intended to adopt the agroecological practices.

EVENT & MORE: State of the Smallholder Coffee Farmer: Webinar, online platform and report

October 20, 2021 | 11:00 – 12:00 EDT | 10:00 – 11:00 CDT (register below)

With a wealth of available information, has anyone really connected the data dots in coffee? The State of Coffee Smallholder Platform, an open access data resource for coffee farmers and other actors along the coffee value chain, seeks to remove barriers from equitable information sharing to help all value chain actors better assess socio-economic and environmental gaps, outcomes and trends. The platform, along with an accompanying report, will paint a more holistic picture of smallholder coffee farmer livelihoods and communities, while doing so in a way that’s less cumbersome for those gathering and reporting information. Stemming from a partnership between the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative at the University of Vermont, Lutheran World Relief, Heifer International and Statistics for Sustainable Development, this initial pilot focuses on Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, with the goal of expansion into a larger effort with broader industry support.

Panelists:

  • Rick Peyser, Senior Manager for Coffee and Cocoa, Lutheran World Relief
  • Carlos Barahona, Managing Director at Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stat4SD)
  • Janica Anderzén, PhD candidate in Agroecology, Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, University of Vermont
  • Ernesto Méndez, Professor of Agroecology and Co-Director, Agroecology & Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) at University of Vermont
  • Ciara McHugh, Statistician at Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stat4SD)
  • Cory Gilman, Strategic Initiatives Manager: Coffee and Commodities at Heifer International
Link to the open access, online platform and research report: https://coffeesmallholder.org/

BLOG: An Urban Farmer’s Perspective on Agroecology

By: Gabrielle Hayes
Gabrielle Hayes interned with the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative and the Gund Institute for Environment at UVM this summer as part of her degree from Columbia University. Before attending graduate school, she worked in urban agriculture and outdoor education in New York City for 6 years, farming in every borough but Staten Island. She is a founding member of the NYC chapter of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

In March 2020, soon before New York City businesses and schools were shuttered for a long siren-filled spring, I went to my local Trader Joe’s in downtown Brooklyn. The freezers and many of the dried goods shelves were empty. An employee had filled a large section of the produce area, labeled as potatoes and yams, with artichokes. In the mad dash to fill refrigerators and pantries inspired by an unfamiliar pathogen spreading throughout the city, artichokes were apparently the one vegetable New Yorkers were unfamiliar enough with to ignore.

At the time, I was managing and teaching an urban agriculture program for high school students. With the ground still frozen, this meant traveling through the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn to teach students the basics of plant and soil science and to show them seed catalogues with pictures of the purple carrots, red lettuce, and yellow cucumbers that we could grow in whichever community garden they’d be working in. “Tell me what you want to eat! We can grow anything! Except those artichokes. Our growing season is getting longer because of climate change but it’s still too short to start those now.”

I also taught them the difference between local and industrial food systems. Many students were first-generation Americans with family in Ecuador or Trinidad or Mali. They told me stories of the local market or the fruit trees and chickens outside their family’s home in the place they called “my country”. The students whose connections outside of the U.S. had been severed had a harder time visualizing a local food system. But they understood what I meant when I explained that the burdens and benefits of the industrial system are not evenly distributed. Many had been to the Upper East Side of Manhattan on school trips or had witnessed opulence on their television screens. Yet they lived with the pollution-filled air that results from the Bronx being the entry point for most of New York City’s food or they shopped at supermarkets that restock the produce section so infrequently your chances of finding carrots or an unwrinkled pepper are slim to none.

I taught them that growing your own food means gaining power. It frees you from reliance on the international supply chains that restrict the varieties sold in supermarkets to ones that travel well and that are subject to break down, as they did during the early days of the pandemic. I dreamed that some may become interested in farming as a profession and hoped more realistically that they may learn to love their local community garden or to experiment with growing tomatoes on their fire escape.

The experience of farming in food apartheid[i] neighborhoods shaped my understanding of the American food system. I received a daily reminder that this system, while lauded for its productivity, has succeeded neither in

 eliminating hunger nor providing universal access to the nutritious food needed to maintain bodily health. In my classes at Columbia University, where I am currently studying in pursuit of a Master’s in Public Administration – Development Practice, we talk of “structural transformation”. This is the idea that for a country to escape widespread poverty, there must be an increase in agricultural productivity such that labor is freed up to work in other industries. This spurs urbanization and, ultimately and desirably, reduces the number of farmers, and the value to the economy of their agricultural labor, effectively to zero. Disregarding that the equivalence of economic growth to progress is a Western invention, the assumption that farmers inevitably disappear in the process of raising living standards is a fallacy. To provide one example: Ireland, whose GDP per capita is higher than that of the United States, recently enacted a sustainable food policy intended to increase the value of its agricultural sector by providing support to, not encouraging the elimination of, family farms[ii]. The share of employment in agriculture there is 4.8%, compared with 1.4% in the United States [iii].

The ethos of structural adjustment, this idea that rural areas should be emptied, underpins much of the funding, research and efforts that have been devoted to agricultural development over the past several decades, despite the evidence provided by the United States that a likely outcome is inequitable and unsustainable food systems. The Green Revolution in Asia, while rightfully praised for reducing hunger and perhaps saving the lives of millions through increased agricultural productivity, also led to the suicides of an estimated 15 million farmers over the past 60 years [iv]. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which has received roughly $1 billion in funding over the last 15 years, has failed to improve food security in the relevant countries, and failed to increase yields by even one third of their original goal [v]. It is clear that the assumption that we need only to create high yielding seeds or provide fertilizer to increase agricultural productivity and therefore improve lives, is not accurate.

This is why I find hope in agroecology. Its adaptable principles that lead, over time, to increased yields and improved ecosystem health, align with what I was taught at The Farm School, where I completed a year-long residential and experiential learning program. Central Massachusetts receives enough rain that we had no need for irrigation save in emergency situations. The specific practices that we used will not apply in arid environments. But the agroecological principles used to design those practices (such as nutrient cycling, promoting biodiversity, and integrating animal and vegetable growing systems) translate to diverse settings.

The agroecology movement, exemplified by the work of La Via Campesina, aims to advance food sovereignty by addressing political and economic factors that limit its existence. Defined in the 2007 Nyéléni Declaration as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems”, a world in which food sovereignty is realized looks nothing like the United States.

Garden education programs like the ones I’ve managed exist in urban areas as an antidote to the crises of physical, mental and environmental health wrought by structural transformation pushed to its maximum degree. The industrial food system of the United States is not broken. It was designed to exploit land, resources and bodies in pursuit of productivity and profit and it has succeeded spectacularly. It is not a system that requires only tweaks to become “climate-smart”. It is not a system that can be replicated in every climate, landscape and form of government. It is not a system that should be replicated at all. Agroecology provides a path to designing food systems that are culturally and environmentally appropriate, sustainable for people and the planet. In this time of increased focus on food systems and their interaction with our rapidly changing climate, may those with the power to shape the future learn from the past.

__________________

Footnotes

[i] I use the term “food apartheid”, coined by farmer and food justice activist Karen Washington, instead of the more commonly used “food swamp” or “food desert” to connote the man-made nature of this phenomenon.  Swamps and deserts are vital ecosystems.

[ii] Though positive in comparison to what is happening in the United States, this is not an agroecological policy and it  has been criticized for not doing enough to address water pollution or to protect biodiversity.

[iii] https://foodsystemsdashboard.org/countrydashboard

[iv] Ayanthi Karunarathne, David Gunnell, Flemming Konradsen & Michael Eddleston (2020) How many premature deaths from pesticide suicide have occurred since the agricultural Green Revolution?, Clinical Toxicology, 58:4, 227-232, DOI: 10.1080/15563650.2019.1662433

[v] Wise, Timothy A. . “Failing Africa’s Farmers: New Report Shows Africa’s Green Revolution Is ‘Failing on Its Own Terms.’” Global Development and Environment Institute – Tufts University, July 2020. Working Paper No.20-01. https://sites.tufts.edu/gdae/files/2020/07/20-01_Wise_FailureToYield.pdf