If Agroecology Is So Great, Why Aren't All Farmers Doing It?

07/08/2016 07:16 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2017

After a half century of pioneering work by farmers and scientists, agroecology has finally penetrated international policy circles. This is due to agroecology's widespread success on the ground and the tireless efforts of agroecologists, food activists and policy advocates determined to break corporate agriculture's chokehold on the politics and the purse strings of our food system.

Last month, Friends of the Earth (FoE) published Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions to Feed the World - which was released on the heels of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems' (IPES) report, From Uniformity to Diversity: A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems.

The two publications reflect a widespread push by civil society to advance agroecology as a solution to the rural poverty, hunger, erosion, agricultural pollution and greenhouse gas emissions attributed to industrial agriculture. Extensively referenced, the reports highlight agroecology's many benefits, including comparable yields to conventional systems, the production of nutrient-dense foods, resilience to climate change, increased farmers' incomes, and more.

We're left wondering, if agroecology is so great, why aren't all farmers doing it? What's holding it back?

Friends of the Earth claims it is largely due to agricultural subsidies that expend "billions of dollars... for the ecologically destructive industrial production of commodity crops," suggesting that ending them would act as a disincentive to industrial production and thus usher in agroecological change.

But farmers don't grow environmentally destructive commodities simply because they receive subsidies. Farmers farm commodities because that is what the market demands. They get hooked on subsidies because capitalist agriculture has an innate tendency to overproduce--thus dropping prices. Because they have high fixed and "up front" costs, when commodity prices drop, farmers increase their production to make ends meet. This only leads to greater consumption of chemical inputs, larger (and fewer) farms, and of course, more overproduction. Subsidies don't cause overproduction, they support the incomes of farmers who are caught in a system of capitalist overproduction and low prices.

The agrifood industry thrives on these low prices--especially processors and supermarkets that like to buy on the cheap. Seed, chemical and machinery companies like low prices too, because it drives farmers to produce more, and buy newer and bigger technologies. Overall, this system keeps prices low for grain companies, processors, supermarkets, and input companies - which is where money and power disproportionately resides. The wealth of public subsidies eventually accumulates in these sectors--not with the farmers. Cutting off farm subsidies would be like cutting off SNAP benefits for low-income consumers to spite Walmart-- ultimately hurting those struggling at the bottom of a capitalist system without changing the market rules that keep the industrial agrifoods corporations in power.

The IPES report recognizes that "Industrial agriculture and the 'industrial food systems' that have developed around it are locked in place by a series of vicious cycles [that] allows value to accrue to a limited number of actors, reinforcing their economic and political power, and thus their ability to influence the governance of food systems."

Both IPEs and FoE call for broad reforms--from shifting public support to agroecological agriculture, developing short supply chains and mainstreaming agroecology in research agendas, to developing new metrics and supporting broad based social movements for agroecology and local food. The IPES report concludes that, "Political incentives must be shifted in order for these alternatives to emerge beyond the margins. A series of modest steps can collectively shift the centre of gravity in food systems."

So true, but IPES falls short of identifying capitalist agriculture as the system and overproduction as the mechanism locking industrial agriculture in and keeping agroecology out.

Agroecology must indeed advance beyond the margins to become the norm rather than the alternative. The FoE's and IPES' recommendations are urgently needed. However, all of these recommendations fly directly in the face of capitalist agriculture, in which the tendency is towards massive and mechanized plantations, global supply chains and the disappearance of the public sector entirely. Further, agroecology requires extensive human labor coupled with place-specific knowledges - both of which are incompatible with the current system's need for vast, cheap inputs.

When we discuss what's holding agroecology back, we also need to discuss how we can roll back the accumulation of money and power locking in the conventional industrial agricultural system. The question is not just, "how can we scale up agroecology," or even "how can we use agroecology to change the food system," but "how can agroecology help us transform capitalism itself?"