Update from the field: Soil analysis in the coffee plots
Between March and June this year, as part of our soil health project in smallholder coffee plots in Guatemala and Mexico, our team returned to the farms to collect soil samples and some additional data. As in the first visits, we focused on the same two sites within each plot: those that farmer-participants considered most fertile and least fertile. In total, we visited 60 plots in Mexico and Guatemala, collecting 120 soil samples in total. From there, we’ve moved on to analysis, including several analytical methods that we’ve conducted within the cooperative offices. A new post in the blog we’ve created to follow this process details what we’ve been up to over the last few months and a bit more on why we’re doing it.
Transitions toward just and sustainable food systems are complex processes involving evolving relationships between communities of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria, as well as conscious action by growing numbers of people with shared values. At the Institute for Agroecology (IFA), we focus on transformative learning as the fundamental component of building movements and co-creating understandings that can lead to positive change in agroecosystems, communities, territories and institutions.
Over the past two months the Institute’s Agroecology Support Team facilitated an online International Course on Agroecological Transitions with the participation of adult professional students from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.
The six-week course, entitled Agroecology for Life: Problem-solving in Transition Processes, was designed as a primer in Participatory Action Research for researchers, professionals and members of social organizations that accompany communities in processes of transformation using agroecological principles.
Taking full advantage of the tools of digital online education, the course combined lively synchronous discussion sessions with guest speakers, asynchronous forums, videos, readings from popular press and academic sources, songs and Andean prayers asking permission of Mother Earth.
This context includes the language and culture of Quechua and Aymara peasant farmers in the Andean region of tropical mountains and vertical archipelagos reaching from the Pacific Ocean to the Altiplano desert at elevations above 13,000 feet above sea level, as well as recent sociopolitical change emerging from new constitutions in 2008 and 2009 that recognized the “plurinational” character of Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively. In addition to the colonial language, Spanish, indigenous languages Kishwa and Shuar were recognized as official languages by Ecuador’s Constitution of 2008, while Bolivia’s 2009 Constitution recognized 37 official languages.
Indeed, the institutional context for agroecological transitions is unique in the Andes. Ecuador was the first country in the world to incorporate the Rights of Nature into its Constitution, and Bolivia followed suit in 2010 with the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, which grants all nature equal rights to humans. Both countries have constitutions that recognize the state’s responsibility to guarantee food sovereignty, the right of peoples to build, control and defend their own food systems according to their knowledge and culture.
This context shows the need for “a more horizontal, humble approach that sees the relativity of academic knowledge and NGO practice, one that recognizes rural communities and food producers as the fundamental pillar of agroecology,” according to Freddy Congo, an Ecuadorean popular educator with the Union of the Peoples of Moreles (UPM) in Mexico, winner of the Rural Vermont’s Agroecology, Education & Organizing Fellowship Award, and participant in the course.
Knowledge co-creation, mobilization, and exchange among these projects is one of the goals of our work, so a central theme of the course in on fostering participatory methodologies.
We need spaces that connect us in a broad and diverse fabric, in order to recognize the diverse ways of perceiving agroecologies on the road to food sovereignty, the emancipation of our peoples, social justice and the good life. The course Agroecology for Life is one of those spaces, where a variety of ways of thinking, feeling and being people are shared in cooperation, co-construction and co-learning.
Georgina Catacora Vargas, the Bolivian agroecologist, president of the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA) and guest lecturer in the course, argues that “our methodologies are the lenses with which we characterize and reflect on reality, as well as the reflection of our epistemological position, the way in which we (co-)create knowledge.” Her guest appearance in the course was a highlight mentioned by many participants in course evaluations.
Beyond the conceptual and methodological aspects of the Agroecology for Life course, an emerging property of the effort is the idea of building and consolidating a learning community: a space for mutual respect, cross-pollination, and exchange. As Renato Pardo, a course participant and program officer at PROSUCO in Bolivia, put it, the strength of the course is in the “possibility of sharing experiences with other institutions and other professionals working on similar themes.”
We’ve been so pleased with how the course has turned out, and have experienced and observed so much growth and integration as a result. We’ve also received positive feedback from our partners. In a recent communication, Claire Nicklin, Andes CoP Regional Representative for CRFS, noted “the IFA team did a fantastic job of facilitating a warm and collaborative space for practitioners to meet and discuss agroecological transitions.”
Do you have experiences, examples, stories or insights about how policy can support (or undermine) agroecology? Consider submitting an article to the first issue of the newly named magazine, “Rooted: Agroecology, Cultures and Foodways” [formerly ‘Farming Matters’].
Rooted magazine is a new platform for the exchange of voices, perspectives and knowledge of food producers and others at the forefront of action to transform food systems through agroecology.
For the inaugural edition issue of Rooted, planned for early 2024, we are warmly inviting you to contribute grounded stories that:
demonstrate the potential of policies to support the practice and spread of agroecology for food systems transformation;
reflect on how peoples’ advocacy, organizing and political processes are shaping relevant policies for agroecology.
We are especially looking for lessons and insights from real experiences.
How policies matter for agroecology
Agroecology has continued to gain momentum and recognition for its transformative potential to respond to today’s crises and to achieve food sovereignty. There is a growing evidence base about the impact of agroecology, and incidental policy support. Yet there are still many systemic barriers that prevent agroecology from achieving its potential in transformations towards more just and sustainable food systems.
Food systems are complex, and policies influencing them exist at multiple levels (local, national, regional, international) and in different domains. These include access to land and tenure regulations, seed laws, food safety regulations, water use mechanisms, market development, trade rules, state programs for rural women or youth, and regulations regarding social organization, among many other things. They also address community processes, ways of interacting and customary law. Policies are not only state-led. People’s agroecological processes or indigenous governance are equally meaningful forms of policy co-creation.
These (sometimes) disparate policies shape the governance of food systems: the way in which decisions about food and farming are made, by whom and where. Very few examples exist of policies that effectively enable agroecology. When they do exist, meaningful implementation is often lacking. So what can we learn from instances where policies for agroecology do exist and work?
This issue of Rooted aims to gather and consolidate concrete examples of how policies can facilitate the development of agroecological food webs, and enable the transition away from industrial food and farming systems.
You are invited to contribute your stories and experiences of policies that strengthen agroecology. We are particularly interested in delving into the following questions:
●How have actors in the food system and their experiences been able to shape policies (and their implementation) that support a transformative agroecology?
●How can policies be developed and implemented so that they provide a solid basis for agroecology to thrive without inhibiting the autonomy of food system actors?
●Are there examples of policies that have facilitated the use and spread of agroecological practices or encouraged the social relations that support it? What were the conditions that made these effective?
●What kinds of policies exist that reconfigure the power of corporations in the industrial food systems and support the agency and autonomy of food producers?
●What can we learn from existing policy for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants at national levels?
●What kind of people’s policies (including processes, proposals, convergences, governance arrangements and vision statements) have been created in support of agroecology and how?
●What are the lessons from these experiences for the practice, science and/ or movement of agroecology?
How to submit your contribution
We invite summaries of between 250 and 500 words. If selected, you will be invited to draft a longer article of around 2000 words. We invite two types of contributions:
1) ‘Testimonies’: which detail lessons from experiences from the ground and reflect on their wider relevance. What did you do? What worked (or not?) and why (or not)?
2) ‘Opinion/ perspective pieces’: these should also be grounded in concrete experiences, but focus on presenting a cutting-edge proposal for the future.
We will give priority to contributions from authors that have been involved in the experience themselves. We will seek to present a balance between knowledge from practice and academic contributions.
No writing experience is required: our editors will provide ample support where desired.
Rooted is published by Cultivate!, the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience of Coventry University and the Institute for Agroecology at the University of Vermont. We work in close collaboration with LEISA Revista de Agroecología and AS-PTA’s Revista AgriCulturas.We proudly carry forward the long legacy of Farming Matters magazine.
The Time for Agroecology is Now: Weaving a Research Agenda to Support Transformative Agroecology in the U.S.A.
This blog shares some reflections from the Institute for Agroecology on the upcoming U.S. Agroecology Summit in Kansas City which focuses on developing a roadmap for agroecology research. In the run up to the conference, there have been some important discussions on how to best advance a research program that can support agroecology transitions. We have been reflecting on these discussions and are sharing some of our thinking here in the run up to the conference.
Written by Institute for Agroecology (IFA) team members: Colin Anderson, Martha Caswell, Katie Horner, Ernesto Méndez and guest: Antonio Roman-Alcalá
When we’re out spending time with collaborators in international networks and movements, we are often urged to push for agroecology in the U.S. given its outsized influence on the world stage. They ask, why aren’t we doing more to build out agroecology here at home – in the U.S., the so-called “belly of the beast” – and how can we act, from the U.S., to support the growth of agroecology in other places.
It is true that the U.S. lags behind relative to other places in terms of social movements pushing for agroecology. While there are powerful voices making the case for agroecology in the U.S., it is significantly underdeveloped in policy and in practice, and deeply undermined by disabling factors related to our national political economy.
The participants are diverse but have one thing in common: a belief that agroecology provides the most viable pathway for transforming food systems for social justice and sustainability. Recognizing that there are other spaces where different aspects of agroecology (e.g. practice, movement base building, advocacy, etc.) are being developed, this summit focuses on research in particular. It has been organized by committed scholars who believe in a transdisciplinary approach that brings together the knowledge of social movements, practitioners and researchers.
To this end, a back-of-the-envelope tally shows a fairly balanced mix of people, including: a) ~30 civil society leaders and farmers (half of whom were nominated by organizations who were invited to participate); b) ~30 researchers who focus their work within the natural sciences and c) ~30 researchers representing the social sciences.
The Summit includes the participation of researchers, farmers, policy-makers, Indigenous people, funders, students and an intentional spread in geographical representation. Because agroecology values multiple ways of knowing and appreciates that interplay, many participants fit into more than one of the categories listed above.
Ensuring diverse participation was a priority for the Organizing Committee, who are committed to: a) bringing diverse voices and ways of knowing to the table; b) creating an agenda and process for the conference that allows these diverse participants to share their views; and c) guiding the discussions through a participatory design.
Despite these commitments, the conference cannot claim to represent the full diversity of perspectives and interests that engage in agroecological research. This is due in part to the politics of knowledge that encircle our food system, and is also reflective of the fact that the Organizing Committee convening the summit is composed primarily of researchers. Naming the biases that we carry includes recognizing that this convening may replicate the over- and under-representation of certain types of knowledge. Despite this limitation, we feel excited to be in conversation with the many that will come together in Kansas City.
From our view, initiating conversations about the change needed within research institutions is critically important for transgressing the boundaries that often lock us into static thinking and ineffective sectoral approaches. By doing our best to invite plural perspectives, make space for emergent ideas, and implement a participatory design process, we hope to also be laying the groundwork for an intense and generative process of relationship-building, co-learning, and co-production of knowledge across sectors.
Since these convenings are often planned ‘behind the curtain’, in the lead up to the conference, we want to share some of the discussions and debates we have had in our planning for the summit and our reflections on issues that have emerged in conversation with our peers, partners, and allies:
Linking to Food Sovereignty
Taking an internationalist perspective
Where is this taking us?
Any hope for agroecology needs to be rooted in the struggle for sovereignty
We know that we desperately need to study, hone and implement farming practices that improve soil health and support agrobiodiversity. These technical and scientific issues are important, yet they are insufficient for realizing socially just and resilient agrifood systems – even if they have been proven effective many times over. Our social movement partners are steadfast in the demand that any summit on agroecology needs to foreground food sovereignty – a concept that has been developed and fought for by peasant, Indigenous and other movements around the world for decades.
Our position at the UVM Institute for Agroecology (IFA) is that for agroecology to be a viable alternative to corporate-industrial agriculture, we must transform the wider political, economic, and cultural context that undermines the food sovereignty of peoples and communities. A precondition for agroecology is that people have the right to define their own food and agriculture systems – among other things this means control over seeds, ceremony and land; each of which are critical components of food sovereignty. That is to say, our efforts to build agroecology must center issues of power and agency.
Agroecology in the U.S.: An internationalist Perspective
In ongoing discussions on the implications of an agroecology summit in the U.S., we have wrestled with the tension of needing to get our own house in order, while also staying connected to international dynamics.
This includes naming how economic, cultural, and political systems of power and control in the United States have long undermined food sovereignty and dismantled agroecological food systems around the world. This continues to be the case as U.S. foreign policy, corporate NGOs (AGRA, CropLife), and development agencies expend massive resources and power to promote industrial agriculture businesses and interests, downplaying the destructive implications of these actions.
We also need to check our hubris. Those who hope to advance agroecology in the US.. have so much to learn from farmers, peasants, Indigenous communities, and researchers who have long been advancing agroecology in the Global South. We risk neglecting their experience and knowledge if efforts to build agroecology are carried out in national isolation.
The Outcomes – Where is This Going?
We come to this summit with an intention to continue this learning journey and national conversation-process. We intend to listen carefully, especially to our grassroots attendees and their views on what is needed from the domain of research in the coming years. We aim to amplify the outcomes of the conference and work with those who share a commitment to transformative agroecology that leads to direct action for addressing these needs.
We will come to the summit with an open mind and heart, in the spirit of humility, mutuality and solidarity. We will arrive prepared to listen, share, learn and be challenged through dialogue with the diversity of voices that are about to converge in Kansas City. Onwards!
Agroecology Blooms in Vermont: Announcing the UVM Institute for Agroecology
The roots of agroecology at the University of Vermont (UVM) were set over a decade ago. Since then, agroecology has grown and flourished. With today’s launch of a new Institute, agroecology has come into full bloom at UVM, marking a new cycle of research, learning and action aimed at creating more just and sustainable food systems.
We can’t wait for new seeds to be planted, and for new collaborations to grow with partners in Vermont, the USA, and around the world. Together we will mobilize knowledge for agroecology and food sovereignty to transform food systems and address the multiple crises that stem from industrial food systems: Inequity, the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, diet-related disease, food insecurity, and the degradation of the environment.
Our approach to agroecology focuses on understanding and designing food systems to regenerate the environment, cool the planet, and provide good, healthy food for all. Agroecology is rooted in indigenous practices and ancestral knowledge, which are combined with scientific approaches to reimagine how our food systems can and should function. Our approach to agroecology is not only about changing farming techniques, but is also about transforming policy, science, cultures, and economies to bring about more just food systems.
The institute for Agroecology works with and for farmers, Indigenous people, social movements, and communities who are driving change in Vermont and around the world. Through research, learning, and action, we mobilize knowledge to nurture agroecology research, practice, and movements.
We are committed to co-creating more just and sustainable food systems and know that this work must be done in collaboration with those who are most impacted.
The IFA will support the transition towards agroecology through five strategies:
Research: undertake critical, transdisciplinary, and participatory action research to uncover new ideas on strategies for redesigning food systems
Convene: bring together collaborators within and outside of academia to cross pollinate ideas and relationships across local, national, and international networks.
Amplify: develop creative communication and advocacy strategies to influence policy, narratives, hearts, and minds.
Cultivate: prepare the next generation of agroecologists through undergraduate, graduate, community-based, and professional learning programs.
Activate: support local economic, ecological, social and cultural processes to grow agroecology on the ground in Vermont and around the globe.
Our work is powered by partnerships with farmers, collaborators, communities, and other people who make generous contributions to the Institute and to wider efforts to create a more just and sustainable food system. This support and partnership is critical for our work, both today and into the future. We are grateful to the University of Vermont for administrative and financial support, and for our generous financial sponsors, including from the McKnight foundation’s Global Collaboration for Resilient Food Systems (CRFS) program and a major gift from Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project, announced today.
This Fall, the UVM Institute for Agroecology 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 fall (September-December 2023).
Class meeting times and location: Fall Semester 2023: August 29th – December 12th. 2 hour Weekly online meetings on Thursdays from 12-2pm EST.
Registration: To register for credit as a for-credit UVM student, click here. To register through continuing education as a non-credit student click here.
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.
Class meeting times and location:Fall Semester 2023: August 29th – December 12th. Weekly interactive synchronous sessions by zoom – Tuesdays from 12-2pm EST
Registration: To register for credit as a for-credit UVM student, click here. To register through continuing education as a non-credit student click here.
This 15-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 our local Vermont partners and their farms.
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.
Fue hace diecinueve años que pisé por primera vez el hermoso patio histórico de la Sede Antonio Machado de la Universidad Internacional de Andalucía (UNIA), ubicada en la localidad de Baeza. La UNIA es un consorcio de ocho universidades de la región de Andalucía, en el sur de España, que ofrece cursos continuos y a distancia, generalmente desarrollados a través de colaboraciones entre las 8 instituciones. En el momento de mi primera visita, yo era un candidato doctoral que estaba terminando mi grado en agroecología en la Universidad de California, Santa Cruz, trabajando con mi mentor Stephen R. Gliessman. Steve había logrado traer a media docena de sus estudiantes doctorales para que lo ayudaran a enseñar y co-aprender con los profesores y participantes del programa de maestría en Agroecología: Un Enfoque para la Sustentabilidad Rural. Estaba muy agradecido por la oportunidad y profundamente impresionado con el plan de estudios transdisciplinario y la amplia variedad de personas representadas en el alumnado. Fue una muy profunda experiencia de aprendizaje para mí.
Unos años más tarde, cuando empezaba como un nuevo profesor de agroecología en la Universidad de Vermont, Estados Unidos, nuestros colaboradores, los profesores Manuel González de Molina (Manolo) y Gloria Guzmán Casado, de la Universidad Pablo de Olavide, en Sevilla, me invitaron a unirme a ellos para enseñar un módulo similar. Desde entonces, la invitación está abierta todos los años, y voy tanto como puedo. Obtengo mucho al participar en esta colaboración a largo plazo. Interactúo con estudiantes latinoamericanos y europeos de una amplia diversidad de orígenes, desde activistas de movimientos sociales hasta legisladores y jóvenes académicos. También me permite afinar mi enseñanza en español y aprender de diversas experiencias y perspectivas. Este año tuvimos estudiantes de Brasil, Colombia, Argentina, México, Austria, Chile, Ecuador, Alemania, Guinea Ecuatorial y España. También pude interactuar con cuatro iniciativas agroecológicas en Andalucía, como parte de un viaje de campo dirigido por mi colega Gloria.
Este año tuvimos estudiantes de Brasil, Colombia, Argentina, México, Austria, Chile, Ecuador, Alemania, Guinea Ecuatorial y España. También pude interactuar con cuatro iniciativas agroecológicas en Andalucía, como parte de un viaje de campo dirigido por mi colega Gloria. Para el módulo de este año, los estudiantes usaron un marco de principios de agroecología para caracterizar cualitativamente las iniciativas que visitamos, las que incluyeron El Cortijo del Pino, una operación de turismo agrícola y rural; Valle y Vega, una cooperativa agroecológica en la ciudad de Granada; La Retornable, una industria agroecológica centrada en bebidas vegetales locales, y servidas en contenedores reutilizables; y “Salvemos la Vega”, un grupo de defensa ciudadana para salvar el patrimonio agrícola de la Vega de Granada.
Aquí discutimos con agricultores, consumidores y ciudadanos preocupados por los desafíos que se han convertido en condiciones cotidianas de nuestro mundo: impactos del cambio climático; barreras para cadenas de suministro de alimentos más cortas; y la invasión del desarrollo urbano en tierras agrícolas, que a su vez limita el acceso a la tierra para aquellos que aspiran a convertirse en nuevos agricultores y agricultoras.
De gran importancia en este viaje fue poder conversar con mi compañero Manolo y mi compañera Gloria. Ellos me compartieron sobre Alimentta, el nuevo tanque de pensamiento que ha surgido recientemente, y que tiene una agenda de acción para la transformación hacia sistemas alimentarios sostenibles en España. Además, y de gran relevancia para nuestro nuevo Instituto de Agroecología (IFA, por sus siglas en Inglés) en la Universidad de Vermont, fueron las conversaciones sobre la necesidad de construir un “frente unido” de instituciones académicas afines que buscan institucionalizar y promover una agroecología transformadora, basada en la equidad, la investigación transdisciplinaria y participativa, y el análisis de factores políticos y estructurales. Además del Laboratorio de Historia de los Agroecosistemas, en la Universidad Pablo de Olavide y Alimentta en España, el Instituto de Agroecología ha establecido colaboraciones con socios de todo el mundo, incluyendo al Centro de Agroecología, Agua y Resiliencia (CAWR) de la Universidad de Coventry, en el Reino Unido, y El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), en Chiapas, México.
It was nineteen years ago when I first stepped into the beautiful historical courtyard of International University of Andalucía’s (UNIA) Antonio Machado campus, located in the town of Baeza. The UNIA is a consortium of eight universities from the Andalucía region in southern Spain, which runs continuing and distance courses, usually developed through collaborations among the 8 institutions. At the time of my first visit, I was a graduate candidate finishing up my doctoral degree in agroecology, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, working with my mentor Stephen R. Gliessman. Steve had managed to bring half a dozen of his graduate students to help him teach and co-learn with the professors and participants of the master’s program in Agroecology: An approach for Rural Sustainability. I was very grateful for the opportunity and deeply impressed with the transdisciplinary curriculum and wide variety of backgrounds represented in the student body. It was a deep learning experience for me.
A few years later, as I was establishing myself as a new professor of agroecology at the University of Vermont, our collaborators, professors Manuel González de Molina (Manolo) and Gloria Guzmán Casado, from Universidad Pablo de Olavide, in Sevilla, invited me to join them to teach a similar module. Since then, the invitation is open for me to come every year, and I go as much as I can. I get a lot from engaging in this long-term collaboration. I interact with Latin American and European students from a wide diversity of backgrounds, ranging from social movement organizers and activists to policy makers and young academics. I also hone in on my teaching in Spanish and learn from diverse experiences and perspectives. This year we had students from Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Austria, Chile, Ecuador, Germany, Equatorial Guinea, and Spain. In addition, I interacted with four agroecological initiatives in Andalucía, as part of a field trip led by my colleague Gloria.
For this year’s module I had students use an agroecology principles framework to qualitatively characterize the initiatives we visited, which included El Cortijo del Pino, a farm and rural tourism operation; Valle y Vega, an agroecological cooperative, in the city of Granada; La Retornable, an agroecological industry focusing on local vegetable drinks served in reusable containers; and “Salvemos la Vega” a citizens advocacy group to save the agricultural heritage of la Vega de Granada. Each student group assessed the strengths and weaknesses of one of the initiatives, using agroecology principles, and presented their analysis to the rest of the class. We visited the “Vega de Granada”, a rich, fertile valley where agricultural activities increasingly compete with the urban sprawl of the nearby city of Granada, home to the famous Alhambra palace.
With farmers, consumers and concerned citizens, we discussed the challenges that have now become a staple of our world- impacts of climate change; barriers to shorter food supply chains; and the encroachment of development on agricultural land, which in turn limits the access to farmland for young aspiring growers.
One of the most exciting things that happened on this this trip was to catch up with my colleagues Manolo and Gloria. They were able to share about Alimentta, a new think tank that has recently emerged with an action agenda for sustainable food systems in Spain. In addition, and, of great relevance to our new Institute for Agroecology, were conversations about building a strong united front of like-minded academic institutions seeking to institutionalize and advance a transformative agroecology- one grounded in equity, transdisciplinary and participatory research, as well as engagement with political and structural factors.
In addition to the Laboratory of the History of Agroecosystems at Universidad Pablo de Olavide and Alimentta in Spain, the IFA is discussing collaborations with partners from around the globe, including the Center for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), in Chiapas, Mexico.
We’ve added a new update about our work on soil health with coffee farmers to our project blog that tracks our Participatory Action Research process with producer organizations in Mexico and Central America. To read the new field update, please click here.
Two months ago, our tenacious project teams in Mexico and Guatemala visited more than 50 smallholder coffee farms as part of what we’ve come to call the Suelos project (“suelo” is Spanish for soil). These activities are officially supported under a project called “Towards a regional vision for agroecological soil management in the coffee landscapes of Mesoamerica” with funding through a Gund InstituteCatalyst Award.
The objective of the project, in short, is to co-produce knowledge about the relationships between the structure of coffee agroecosystems, indicators of soil health, coffee productivity and coffee cup quality. This knowledge will be the basis for articulating a local plan of action for protecting soil health in coffee-producing landscapes.
To read more about our recent visits to the coffee plots (and about our Participatory Action Research process in general), head over to our project blog.
Written by Colin Anderson, Ernesto Mendez, Patrick Mulvany and Faris Ahmed
As mentioned in our previous blog post, representatives from the world’s nations are currently gathering in Montreal for the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The goal of the meeting is to adopt a “Global Biodiversity Framework” which will guide international collaboration to reverse dramatic losses of global biodiversity for the next 30 years. Yet, to our peril, agroecology and agrobiodiversity have been marginalized in these debates.
I (Colin) grew up on a farm in the Canadian Prairies and am still charmed by the region’s big skies and agricultural landscape. Seas of yellow canola flowers blossoming as far as the eye can see. Wheat fields, gently swaying in the wind, stretching from fencerow to fencerow. Beautiful blankets of color, pleasing to the eye.
These simplified agricultural systems have an alluring beauty on the surface, but they are devoid of the potential diversity of crops and livestock that, when integrated, allow for a more efficient and synergistic use of resources. What’s more, they are hostile towards wild biodiversity through the elimination of habitat, the application of herbicides and pesticides and the degradation of soil health.
Nevertheless, the intensification of industrial agriculture in this image remains the dominant model being promoted globally – a model of agriculture that must be transformed if we are to reverse global biodiversity losses and sustain life on Earth for our grandchildren. That is why the United Nations set up the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in 1992, and why, 30 years later, with biodiversity losses still accelerating, decisive action by governments is vitally urgent.
Where is agricultural biodiversity in global decision-making about biodiversity conservation?
The COP15 meeting comes during a mass extinction event. A high percentage of global biodiversity, and biosphere integrity, is at risk, and threatened especially by the dominant economic and social drivers of industrial food systems. In short, the stakes for this CBD meeting are unfathomably high.
Notoriously sidelined in UN negotiations, however, is a focus on highly threatened ‘agricultural biodiversity’ – the major sub-set of biodiversity in the areas where people live and work. It includes all the biodiversity, above and below ground and in waters, which supports our food and agricultural systems, provides food, fiber, shelter, clean water, medicine and underpins vital ecosystem functions.
Without deeply transforming industrial food systems towards ones that will prioritize agroecological systems of production, the losses of agricultural biodiversity will proceed unabated, placing the very basis of human existence in peril.
Instead, CBD debates on biodiversity have come to focus on proposals for setting aside large areas of land to conserve pristine nature. The touted 30×30 campaign, for example, proposes setting aside 30% of territories in Protected Areas by 2030. These types of programs, however, often harm and displace millions of knowledgeable, biodiversity-conserving Indigenous Peoples and local communities from their traditional territories.
Such a focus distracts attention from what is happening on the other 70% of land, where there’s a drive to intensify agricultural production using biodiversity- and habitat-reducing homogeneous monocultures. This aligns with the power structures of the industrial agrifood system. It intentionally marginalizes and displaces the people who have the greatest history, sophisticated knowledge, and potential to protect, restore, and enhance highly heterogeneous agricultural biodiversity.
Biodiverse agroecology – a compelling alternative paradigm to build back agricultural biodiversity and confront our intersecting crises
Biodiverse agroecology involves the application of ecological principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems, drawing from Indigenous and local knowledge, and directly addressing the political changes needed to transform food systems. It focuses on redesigning agricultural practices, policies, networks and governance, based on a set of principles that emphasize biodiversity, resilience, people’s knowledge, the fundamental role of women and the importance of food sovereignty.
While industrial food systems are destroying biodiversity, smaller-scale agroecological farms are at the forefront of conserving and enhancing agricultural biodiversity, and improving ecosystem functioning, while producing the majority of the world’s food. Peasant, indigenous and territorially rooted agroecology is vital to maintaining agricultural biodiversity, within farm plots and across rural landscapes. These agroecosystems conserve the heterogeneity and variety within species and among species at community and ecosystem levels.
There are countless examples of agroecology emerging around the world. Agroforestry systems enhance biodiversity through incorporating trees and shrubs into cropping or livestock lands, providing resiliency against climate change and improved rural livelihoods. The adoption of intercropping, such as in the Mesoamerican milpa systems, where corn is planted alongside beans, pumpkin, chili, and other vegetables create rich mosaics of biodiversity in farms and landscapes. In India, Amrita Bhoomi trains farmers on Zero Budget Natural Farming – a local agroecological method that needs no external inputs, very little water, and relies on natural processes. These agroecological approaches not only enhance agricultural biodiversity in farmers’ fields but also provides habitat for the biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystems, to the wider benefit of people and the environment (see infographic below).
To build up biodiverse agroecology, it is important to transform the enabling environment and confront the power of corporations and agribusiness in maintaining the status quo. This requires prioritizing, in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, the inclusion of the implementation of already agreed upon actions that sustain agricultural biodiversity. Specifically, we need to scale out peasants’ dynamic management of biodiverse agroecology while respecting indigenous peoples’ and peasants’ collective rights to seeds, livestock breeds, territories and forms of production.
Regardless of the outcomes of this year’s CBD /COP15, civil society actors should engage in broad, coordinated actions and movement building to continue to strengthen agricultural biodiversity in communities and policies. Only in this way can we truly transform food systems, stem the loss of agricultural biodiversity and address the intersecting crises of inequality, diet-related illness, climate change, and hunger.