Agroecology and Ecological Modernization Perspectives

A particularly forceful oppositional response to the conventionalizing and entropy maximizing features of the agri industrial system has been the growth and salience of agroecological approaches. Agroecology emerged in the 1980s as an important attempt to establish a natural and social scientific basis for alternatives to industrialized agriculture which attempted to avoid its resource degrading tendencies.

Agroecological frameworks draw upon different intellectual traditions and disciplines, including peasant studies, ecology, environmentalism, and development theory. Originating in developing countries it has quickly spread to the North American and European intellectual traditions. It provides some key conceptual building blocks for a much more normative direction to the analysis of human–nature relations and rural development, and potentially links more broadly to the (mainly European) policy debates surrounding ecological modernization. Several writers have attempted to synthesize some of its key principles and features. Here we can begin to summarize and build upon these within the contemporary context:

1. Alternative definitions of modernity. Here, the process of emancipation from the strictly economic sphere, and the gradual re embedding of ecology in the institutions of economy, is a central aspect across different spatial scales (e.g., local, regional, national, and international); creating the spaces for a socioecological, as well as economic rationality. This in volves aspects of co evolution which incorporates the autonomous development of socioecological practices and principles within wider political and institutional structures.

2. Co evolution. Agroecology also refers to the reliant co development or coevolution of society and natural factors. It is recognized that farming systems essentially result out of co production, that is, the ongoing interaction, mutual transformation, and dependency between humans, animals, and nature; and that the agri industrial model has created a biotic, biological, and metabolic rift between these elements. The question then becomes how reversible processes can be put in place to regenerate interdependency over time, for instance, in recreating natural manuring, rearing, and feeding techniques. Also, more recently, co evolution also represents the new reconnections that groups of consumers are now making with coproduction at the farm level.

3. Local farmers' knowledge and innovation systems. Local peasant or indigenous knowledge needs to be seen (both in the North and the South) as significantly different from standard scientific knowledge in that it is embedded in local ecologies and is encoded in local and regional cultures rather than more abstract, universalizing, and reductionist notions. Dominant notions of science tend to be independent of social and local contexts, yet agriculture is actually defined both by its biophysical context and its localized sociopolitical elements. It is based upon the interdependent accumulation of local, natural, and social knowledge resources and practices. These are not just about maintaining 'old cultures', but they involve the reshaping of knowledge systems around, for instance, new embedded entrepreneurial and social networking and marketing skills.

4. Endogenous potentialities. While all agroecological systems have their own endogenous potential, a major factor concerns how these potentialities can become articulated and valorized/commodified through social and political mechanisms. For instance, the role of the cooperative Chianti wine consortium in Tuscany serves as a major social and economic mechanism for over 30 key producers of Chianti wines, simultaneously protecting, regulating, promoting, and articulating the endogenous potential of the local producers. These potentialities and their realization are often social struggles involving local groups who attempt to resist, oppose, and actively construct alternatives to industrial standardization and modernization. Many examples in the South (in Kenya, for instance) involve local groups of farmers who are attempting to protect their rights and practices concerning the production of local seed varieties in the face of their appropriation by corporate seed firms. Creating and sustaining these endogenous potentialities becomes a key feature of agroecology, and it relies upon the development of levels of cooperation and collaboration within farming and rural communities.

5. Collective forms of social action. Agroecology, therefore, also relies upon new or recreated collective forms of social action, not only between producers, but also producers and consumers, and producers and other key actors in the supply chains (such as processors and retailers). New associations are forged which enable reconnections between production and consumption, not only of foods but of amenity and rural experience.

6. Systemic strategies. New and more holistic understandings between the broad range of biophysical factors, such as water, soil, solar energy, and plant and animal species, must be conceived in ways in which they interact not only among themselves but also with social actions and practices. This involves an understanding, for instance, of energy, material, cash, and knowledge flows generated in the processes of production and exchange of goods and services associated with the farm. Moreover, ethical decisions, for instance, concerning animal welfare, human diets, are at the heart of progressing more systemic sustainable systems.

7. Ecological, cultural diversity, and agricultural multifunctionality. Agroecology aims not only to celebrate cultural and natural diversity, but also to progress and materialize it in new co evolutionary ways. It accepts that there are diverse pathways of agroecological development; and that this is based upon both local and regional forms of embeddedness, on the one hand, but complex social–natural relations and producer–consumer linkages, on the other. This places an emphasis upon both the multifunctionality of farming and related practices on the farm, at the same time as recreating multifunctional linkages between farms and the wider rural and urban communities. Such diversity and multifunctionality is seen as a central plank of moving toward a more sustainable society more generally. Moreover, taking much evidence from the South, it demonstrates the food security, ecological and social benefits of a much more diverse agriculture. It is now more easily accepted that agroecological methods do not necessarily result in lower yields. While global industrial agriculture serves the worlds population with 90% of its calories from a mere 15 species of crops, organic and agroecological farmers are providing a vital service in maintaining genetic diversity for the future. For instance, indigenous farmers in Peru cultivate more than 3000 different types of potatoes, and there are more than 5000 varieties of sweet potatoes cultivated in Papua New Guinea. In West Java, researchers have identified more than 230 species of plants within a dual cropping system, which includes 'agroforestry', home gardens, and outfields. In Mexico, the Huastec Indians manage a number of plots in which up to 300 species are cultivated. Areas around the farmhouses may contain between 80 and 125 useful species, many with medicinal properties.

8. Encompassing the social ecology component. While agroecology embraces both de facto and certified organic, both of which are now rapidly growing in terms of both production systems and markets (globally there are more than 100 different organic certification systems in place, but this is only the 'tip of the iceberg' with regard to de facto organic and agroecological farming systems, especially in the South); it contains a more explicit social component than the strictly organic approach, where the focus is often more strictly tied to verifiable technical standards. Many agroecological movements do not provide internationally recognized standards and are culturally and locally more specific; often tied to a more 'farmer first' approach. Nevertheless, it is important to view agroecological developments as complimentary systems with the more rules based organic approaches, as both form significant components of the widening vector of sustainable agriculture and agri food. The systems share common methodological and theoretical ground also in their use of participative approaches to agricultural and rural research and development.

While agroecological and multifunctional principles and practices have burgeoned in most advanced countries, including the US, it has been in Europe, over the past two decades where such principles have become more embedded into the formal institutional fabric and agricultural and environmental policy frameworks. It has been here that the benefits of a more diversified and 'green' agriculture have been articulated in agricultural reform, and where more of a resistance through, for instance, the 'green box' discussions in World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations has been at least articulated on the global stage. However, as will be shown below, these European ecologically modernizing trends have been associated more with the growing consumer/citizen concerns regarding the quality and provenance of food and a reconnected green amenity, as they have with a more positive and coherent farmer movement. Moreover, as we shall see, the particular expression of agricultural sustainability in a grounded and contemporary European context is much more embedded in reconnecting its agricultures back into a wider and more holistic notion of rural sustainable development more generally.