The “Divide” in the Alternative Agriculture Movement: Fueling the Debate

Miguel A. Altieri, University of California, Berkeley

July 2008

There is no doubt that we need an alternative agricultural development paradigm, one that encourages more ecologically, biodiverse, sustainable and socially just forms of agriculture. Strategies are needed which lead to the revitalization of small and medium sized farms, and point the way towards the reshaping of the entire agricultural policy and food system in ways that are economically viable to farmers and consumers. Throughout the world there are hundreds of movements that are pursuing a change toward ecologically sensitive and socially just farming systems from a variety of perspectives. Some emphasize the production of food that is safe for the consumer, in a way that is environmentally friendly and prioritizes animal welfare and the conservation of wild biodiversity. Others promote alternative marketing strategies , while others land stewardship and still others the empowerment of peasant communities. Although one may argue that most of these groups advocating a shift towards sustainable agriculture share the same goals, there are huge and at times insurmountable differences not only in objectives but in ideological perceptions of the root causes of the unsustainability and inequities of the agrarian structure and more importantly on the strategies on how to change such structure.

The majority of environmentalists and advocacy groups expect that their goals will be met solely by promoting a set of ecologically benign technological innovations (i.e. organic farming) , or by exploiting market niches available in the globalized economy. Thus, perhaps inadvertently, by working within the windows of the dominant macroeconomic system, these groups privilege those with access to capital and perpetuate an “agriculture of the poor for the rich”. The “ cibo pulito, justo e buono” that Slow Food promotes and the Fair Trade coffee, bananas, and other products are mainly enjoyed by the opulent in the North.

The "technological determinism" that the organic agriculture movement emphasizes via development and dissemination of low-input or appropriate technologies is not only naïve but dangerous, as it assumes these technologies in themselves have the capability of initiating beneficial social changes. The organic farming school that emphasizes input substitution (i.e. a toxic chemical substituted by a biological insecticide, creating farmer dependence on external inputs) but leaving the monoculture structure untouched, epitomizes those groups that have a relatively benign view of capitalist agriculture. They ignore the fact that organic products are increasingly traded as international commodities for the consumption of the rich, and that their production and distribution is slowly being taken over by the same multinational corporations that dominate conventional agriculture. Ignoring the complex issues surrounding commercial and agroexport oriented organic agriculture is undermining the original agrarian vision of organic farming which envisioned a renaissance of a diversified and small scale agriculture in order to strengthen local production– consumption circles. This narrow acceptance of the present structure of agriculture as a given condition restricts the real possibility of implementing alternatives that challenge such a structure. Merely introducing alternative agricultural technologies will do little to change the underlying forces that led to monoculture production, farm size expansion, and mechanization in the first place.

Given their interest in conserving biodiversity in the rural landscapes, many sustainable agriculture enthusiasts embrace the Ecoagriculture movement which argues that wildlife preservation can be accomplished mainly through agricultural intensification, especially in the biodiversity hotspots of the developing world where most of the poor concentrate and have little choice but to exploit wild habitats for survival. Ecoagriculture promoters claim that the best way to reduce the impact of agricultural modernization on ecosystem integrity is to intensify production with emerging technologies ( i.e. transgenic crops and plantation agriculture), in order to increase yields per hectare, and in this way spare natural forests and other wildlife habitats from further agricultural expansion. For the ecoagriculturists it makes no difference if the best results to preserve birds or other animals, are derived from large latifundia surrounded by hedgerows or a group of small farms surrounded by a matrix natural vegetation. The end goal is wildlife preservation, as long as it is achieved at a “ reasonable” environmental and social cost. True, exclusive attention to increasing yields for meeting food needs can exert a very high toll on the environment, but a sole focus on preserving nature condemns millions to hunger and poverty.

In their attempt to obtain better prices for small farmers and thus reduce poverty, Fairtrade leads a worldwide movement for ethical consumption with commodities that include coffee, cocoa, tea, bananas, and sugar. Fairtrade experienced rapid market expansion when large corporations and brands including Costco, Sam’s Club, Seattle’s Best, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and McDonalds began offering Fairtrade Certified coffee. These companies were certified with the Fairtrade seal regardless of their dismal labor or environmental records. In 2005 the Fairtrade market ballooned to $500 million, the fastest growing segment of the specialty coffee market. To reach such amounts, the Fair Trade focuses on exports and contributes little to local food security, at times creating social stratification in rural communities as relatively few families benefit from the good prices. Fair Trade companies have not joined other social movements demanding structural change—like getting agriculture out of the WTO, abolishing NAFTA and other regional free trade agreements, and instead support rural social movements and government policies for local, and sustainable food production.

A more radical transformation of agriculture is needed, one guided by the notion that ecological change in agriculture cannot be promoted without comparable changes in the social, political, cultural and economic arenas that conform and determine agriculture. The organized peasant and indigenous based agrarian movements ( i.e. the Via Campesina) consider that only by changing the export-led, free-trade based, industrial agriculture model of large farms can the downward spiral of poverty, low wages, rural-urban migration, hunger and environmental degradation be halted. These movements embrace the concept of food sovereignty which constitutes an alternative to the current mainstream thinking on food production. The concept behind food sovereignty contrasts the neo-liberal approach that believes that international trade will solve the world’s food problem. Instead, it focuses on local autonomy, local markets and community action for access and control of land, water, agrobiodiversity, etc, which are of central importance for communities to be able to produce food locally.

Implicit in the concept of food sovereignty are several requirements:

1. A shift in the role of subsidies away from supporting production, which results in food surpluses being dumped in poorer countries, towards a system of incentives offered to family farmers to keep them on the land and support vibrant rural economies, and subsidies that assist with soil conservation, the transition to sustainable farming practices, and local markets that pay fair prices to farmers.

2. The ability to prioritize national-regional-local food security above the production of exports and dependence on imports.

3. A shift away from hi-tech, intensive monoculture agriculture dependent on high levels of pesticide use, and transgenic crops.

4. The rebuilding of rural economies and infrastructure, decreasing wealth discrepancies within rural areas and between rural and urban areas.

5. Land reform and redistribution and/or enhanced access to land.

6. A shift in the balance of power over the setting of food security priorities, away from Transnational Corporations (fostered by the trade rules of the WTO, NAFTA, etc), towards national control.

It is imperative to realize that out-of-control trade liberalization is the key mechanism driving farmers off their land and the principal obstacle to local economic development and food sovereignty. It is also crucial to understand that a key enemy of farmers is low prices. And farm gate prices continue to drop even while consumer prices rise. This is because the main force dictating low prices to farmers is the same one that dictates high prices to consumers: the monopoly control that corporations like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Dreyfuss, Bunge, Nestlé, and others exert over the food system. That means that breaking up these monopolies by enforcing antitrust laws nationally and globally is a key step toward ensuring that farmers can earn a living on the land and consumers can have access to affordable, nutritious and healthy food.

There is no doubt that an alliance between farmers and consumers is of strategic importance. Consumers need to realize that their quality of life is intractably associated with the type of agriculture practiced in the urban green belts, not only because of the quality of the food produced, but also because agriculture is multifunctional producing a series of environmental services such as water quality and biodiversity conservation. But this multifunctionality can only emerge if agricultural landscapes are dotted by small, diversified farms which as studies show they can produce from 2 to 10 times more per unit area than do larger, corporate farmers. In the USA the top quarter sustainable agriculture farmers, which are mostly small-medium size, exhibit higher yields than conventional farmers, as well as a much lower negative impact on the environment. Small farms are ‘multi-functional’– more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to economic development than do large farms. Communities surrounded by populous small farms have healthier economies than do communities surrounded by depopulated large, monoculture, mechanized farms. Small farmers also take better care of natural resources, including reducing soil erosion and conserving biodiversity. Thus it should be obvious to city dwellers that eating is both an ecological and political act; that buying food at local farmers markets will support a very different model of agriculture if buying food in a supermarket.

Moving towards a more socially just, economically viable, and environmentally sound agriculture will be the result of the coordinated action of social movements in the rural sector in alliance with civil society organizations that are committed to supporting the goals of the farmers movements. Concerted action is needed so that multinational companies and government officials feel the impact of environmental, farm labor, animal rights and consumer lobbies, pressuring them to ensure that all countries retain the right to achieve food sovereignty by developing their own domestic farm and food policies, which respond to the true needs of their farmers and all consumers, especially the poor.

Given the urgency of the problems affecting agriculture, coalitions that can rapidly foster sustainable agriculture among farmers, civil society organizations as well as relevant and committed research organizations are needed. The expectation is that through constant political pressure from organized farmers and members of civil society, politicians will be more responsive to develop and launch a policies conducive to enhance food sovereignty , to preserve the natural resource base, and to ensure social equity and economic viability.The new research agenda will require institutional realignments and, if it is to be relevant to the small and medium, it must be influenced by agroecology with its emphasis on complex farming systems, labor demanding techniques, and use of organic and local resources. This means that technological solutions will have to be location specific and much more information intensive rather than capital intensive. In turn this will imply using more farmer knowledge but also providing support to farmers to increase their management skills.

Evidence emerging from dozens of studies is conclusive: new approaches and technologies spearheaded by farmers, local governments, and NGOs around the world are already making a sufficient contribution to food security at the household, national, and regional levels. A variety of agroecological and participatory approaches in many countries show very positive outcomes even under adverse conditions. Potentials include: raising cereal yields from 50 to 200 percent, increasing stability of production through diversification and soil/water management, improving diets and income with appropriate support and spread of these approaches, and contributing to national food security and to exports. Importantly, the agroecological process requires participation and enhancement of the farmer’s ecological literacy about their farms and resources, laying the foundation for empowerment and continuous innovation by rural communities.

Whether the potential and spread of these thousands of local agroecological innovations is realized depends on investments, policies, and attitude changes on the part of researchers and policymakers. Major changes must be made in institutions, research and development, and policies to make sure that agroecological alternatives are adopted, made equitably and broadly accessible, and multiplied so that their full benefit for sustainable food security can be realized. Existing subsidies and policy incentives for conventional chemical approaches must be dismantled. Corporate control over the food system must also be challenged. Governments and international public organizations must encourage and support effective partnerships between NGOs, local universities, and farmer organizations in order to assist and empower poor farmers to achieve food security, income generation, and natural resource conservation.

Equitable market opportunities must also be developed, emphasizing local commercialization and distribution schemes, fair prices and other mechanisms that link farmers and consumers more directly and in more solidarious ways. The ultimate challenge is to increase investment and research in agroecology and scale up projects that have already proven successful to thousands of other farmers. This will generate a meaningful impact on the income, food security, and environmental well being of all the population, especially small farmers who have been adversely impacted by conventional modern agricultural policy and technologyIn summary, “Greening” the green revolution will not be sufficient to reduce hunger and poverty and conserve biodiversity. If the root causes of hunger, poverty and inequity are not confronted head-on, tensions between socially equitable development and ecologically sound conservation are bound to accentuate. Organic farming systems that do not challenge the monocultural nature of plantations and rely on external inputs as well as foreign and expensive certification seals, or fair-trade systems destined only for agro-export, offer very little to small farmers that become dependent on external inputs and foreign and volatile markets. By keeping farmers dependent on an input substitution approach, fine-tuning of input use does little to move farmers towards the productive redesign of agroecosystems which would move them away from dependence on external inputs. Niche markets for the rich in the North, in addition to exhibiting the same problems of any agro-export scheme which does not prioritize food sovereignty perpetuate dependence and hunger.

There is a general belief that the alternative agriculture movement is an homogenous block and that stands united in its challenge against industrial agriculture. Analyses and criticisms of the movement tend to quiet out of fear that they may give those promoting biotechnology and biofuels a sense of weakness. However, a critical debate and dialogue is essential to moving forward with the Alternative agriculture movement, especially if the goal is to promote a truly alternative agricultural path. The purpose of this piece is to open a space for fueling that debate.