Eric Holt-Gimenez and Miguel Altieri on The Dangers of a Depoliticized Agroecology

Agroecology “Lite:” Cooptation and Resistance in the Global North

Eric Holt-Giménez and Miguel Altieri


The Green Revolution is a one-size-fits-all technological model for global agricultural development that originated in the breadbasket of the United States. Following World War II, the US turned “swords into plowshares” by transforming the vast stocks of wartime nitrate and poisons into fertilizer and pesticides, and by refitting arms factories to make newer, bigger farm machinery. Hybrid seeds were bred to respond to irrigation and chemical inputs. Industrial agriculture boomed.

However, US farmers soon bought all of the new technology they needed. Seeds, agrochemicals and machinery began to pile up in warehouses. The solution to the problem of industrial surplus was to export the uniform model of production to very different and diverse geographical, cultural and social environments in the Global South.

Carl Sauer, a highly respected Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley with vast experience in Latin American agriculture, was originally contracted by the Rockefeller Foundation as a consultant to the US Mexican Agricultural Program regarding the possibility of exporting US agricultural technology to Mexico—ostensibly to help Mexico increase their food security. But Sauer strongly advised Rockefeller against the approach:

A good aggressive bunch of American agronomists and plant breeders could ruin native resources for good and all by pushing their American stocks…and Mexico cannot be pointed toward standardization on a few commercial types without upsetting native economy and culture hopelessly. Unless the Americans understand that, they better keep out of this country entirely. This must be approached from an appreciation of native economies as basically sound.

The Rockefeller Foundation dismissed Sauer’s concerns and, despite internal opposition, went forward with the project—which became a 50-year global campaign—later known as the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution was spread with subsidized credit, international institutions and government programs, to millions of farmers in the Global South. With massive investment, global food production increased dramatically. But, Carl Sauer’s predictions came true: because the technology required capital, it concentrated production on large farms and in fewer and fewer hands—the best agricultural land. Smallholders were driven to the fragile hillsides and into the rain forests. When they were offered cheap credit to buy Green Revolution seeds and chemicals, these inputs quickly destroyed the fertility of their soils and eroded their local genetic diversity. Yields fell, millions of small farmers were economically ruined, and millions of acres of forests and topsoil were lost.

The Green Revolution proved to be a disastrous mismatch for the Global South.  In its aftermath, peasant farmers struggled to stay on the land and restore the ecological integrity of their farming systems. They found a way with Agroecology.

Although many northern academics claim that the term Agroecology was first coined by European scientists at the beginning of the 20th century, the roots of agroecology lie in the ecological rationale of indigenous and peasant agriculture still prevalent in many parts of the developing world today.

Thirty years ago, Latin American agroecologists argued that a starting point for a better, pro-poor agricultural development strategies were the systems that traditional farmers had developed over centuries. From the early1980s on, hundreds of agroecologically-based projects incorporating elements of both traditional knowledge and modern agricultural science have been promoted throughout Latin America and other parts of the developing world. A variety of projects emerged  showing that over time these agroecologically-managed systems bring benefits to rural communities by enhancing food security with healthy local food, strengthening their resource base (soils, biodiversity, etc.), preserving cultural heritage and the peasant or family farm way of life, and promoting resilience to climate change.

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