What do two community development professors, a business analyst for a value-added processing firm in Burlington, a saffron grower from Iran, a community supported agriculturalist from Ecuador, and a third year University of Vermont student have in common? A place at the table.
At this year’s Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology Conference, hosted by Groundswell International and UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), I was given the opportunity to meet with a variety of stakeholders for a discussion about what integrative agroecology frameworks actually look like. The conference, held at the UVM Alumni House, celebrated the work different agroecologists from around the world are doing to promote sustainable, bio-regenerative agriculture, and improve the livelihoods of all who are involved in the food system.
Representatives from Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Mali, and seven other countries shared how their programs were meeting market demand for products, advancing gender equity, improving community access to nutrition, and addressing global climate challenges. Their stories showed how agroecology, which incorporates ecological and other principles into agricultural production systems, can build more sustainable and equitable food systems from the ground up.
During an afternoon roundtable session, I had the opportunity to meet with a diverse group of individuals to reimagine and redefine what a robust agroecology framework might look like. We were tasked with answering questions about what ecological, economic, and social motivations are embedded within agroecology and how we, in our various roles, can collaborate to advance our shared values and missions.
As someone who does not come from a particularly rich background in practical agroecological applications, I at first struggled to ground myself around a table of people with decades of experience in the field. After all, what could a UVM student contribute to a technical discussion on the nuances of how to define agroecology?
In short, quite a lot. But I gained even more.
Not only did I learn about the projects that other people in my group had worked on, such as the marketing of sugarcane in Honduras to selling Peruvian potatoes to Pepsi Co., but I learned more about the importance of changing how we think about the value of food.
Our group began our discussion of why agroecology was different than traditional agricultural practices with a brief overview of the problems of a global, disconnected food system. We were relatively quick to diagnose many of the problems within our food system as the result of a disconnect between the people who grow the food and the people who consume the food. One of my fellow group members who operates a CSA in his home country commented that, “relationships are the potential.” In a time of geopolitical instability, his CSA was able to feed nearly 40 families and also bring a sense of identity back to his local food system. Instead of monetary trade, he developed a bartering system with those in his community- a value he deems as “immeasurable.”
In a world that stresses the importance of automation and economic efficiency, it is no surprise that we have lost the social capital invested in our food system. Agroecology strives to invest social capital back into food systems through meaningful interactions between community partners, organizations like Groundswell International, and academic institutions like UVM. While the traditional agricultural and economic paradigms have sought to standardize the process by which people interact with their food, agroecology seeks to exchange knowledge, stories, and relationships to optimize success for all.
It’s clear that none of us have the answers alone about how to solve the complex issues of the food system, but by cultivating collaboration and empowering local farmers, we have the potential to transform our current food system into one that is more sustainable and socially just. Within the short conversation I had at my roundtable, with people who were clearly invested in bringing relationships back into the food system, I was challenged to think more critically about what it means to be both a steward of the planet and a student interested in the agroecology field. I was able to connect with people who brought immense diversity in ideas, methodology, and training to the conference, and left with new connections and renewed commitment to the agroecology movement.
Conferences like Amplifying Agroecology offer the unique opportunity to assess the progress that has already been made to invest in the social capital of food systems, and also build a roadmap for what the next chapter will look like.
Sara Klimek is a junior environmental studies major with minors in food systems and nutrition and food science at UVM.