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Critical Domains of Agroecological Transformation

Agroecology can address multiple crises in the food system while addressing climate change and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. It is based on an aspiration towards autonomy or the agency of networks of producers and citizens to self-organize for sustainability and social justice. A recently published paper focuses on the notion of systems transformation in food and agriculture, identifying agroecology as a transformative paradigm.

The researchers reviewed the emerging literature on agroecology using (and contributing to) the multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions to better understand how agroecology can be advanced through processes of community self-organization rather than top-down elite-driven development. They conclude that it is essential that intentional processes of agroecological transformations not reduce action to singular domains—such as creating new markets—but to consider and support transformations at the intersection of multiple ‘domains of transformation’.  Six critical domains are identified as: access to natural ecosystems; knowledge and culture; systems of exchange; networks; discourse; and gender and equity.

Governance—and particularly power imbalances and deficits in democracy—is identified as the key determining factor for transformation across these domains. While agroecology can be advanced through technical means, that would lend itself towards transition processes that leave existing (uneven) power relations intact. The researchers’ approach concentrates on transformative approaches that put inclusive community-led governance processes at the centre.

Furthermore, policy to support agroecology should focus on enhancing endogenous steering of agroecology transformations, or steering from within. Such steering should involve participatory governance processes. The formulation of agroecological transformation reflects not one grand theory of change, but a recognition of a co-evolutionary and adaptive approach which will require collective action, social movements, and solidarity networks as a means of building and amplifying political power and community agency to advance agroecology transformations.

We reproduce below the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusions of the paper.

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FROM TRANSITION TO DOMAINS OF TRANSFORMATION: GETTING TO SUSTAINABLE AND JUST FOOD SYSTEMS THROUGH AGROECOLOGY 

Colin Ray Anderson et al.
Sustainability 2019, 11(19), 5272;
DOI:
https://doi.org/10.3390/su11195272
25 September 2019
https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/11/19/5272

Abstract

The acceleration of ecological crises has driven a growing body of thinking on sustainability transitions. Agroecology is being promoted as an approach that can address multiple crises in the food system while addressing climate change and contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. Beyond the more technical definition as, “the ecology of food systems”, agroecology has a fundamentally political dimension. It is based on an aspiration towards autonomy or the agency of networks of producers and citizens to self-organize for sustainability and social justice. In this article, we use the multi-level perspective (MLP) to examine agroecology transformations. Although the MLP has been helpful in conceptualizing historic transitions, there is a need to better understand: (a) the role of and potential to self-organize in the context of power in the dominant regime, and (b) how to shift to bottom-up forms of governance—a weak point in the literature. Our review analyzes the enabling and disabling conditions that shape agroecology transformations and the ability of communities to self-organize. We develop the notion of ‘domains of transformation’ as overlapping and interconnected interfaces between agroecology and the incumbent dominant regime. We present six critical domains that are important in agroecological transformations: access to natural ecosystems; knowledge and culture; systems of exchange; networks; discourse; and gender and equity. The article focuses on the dynamics of power and governance, arguing that a shift from top down technocratic approaches to bottom up forms of governance based on community-self organization across these domains has the most potential for enabling transformation for sustainability and social justice.

[EXCERPTS BELOW]

1.0 Introduction

There is growing urgency over the ecological crisis and increasing evidence that our socio-economic systems are fundamentally undermining the functioning of the natural world in catastrophic ways. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report [1] paints a dire picture of the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Other major reports have drawn attention to other convergent crises, including the accelerating extinction rate of species [2,3,4], looming water shortages for 5 billion people [5], dangerous degradation and pollution of land and soil and accelerating resource throughputs, and the increasing levels of air pollution and resulting health-related death and disease [6]. Yet, questions of the nature of these changes and how to achieve them require urgent attention.

In this article, we focus on the notion of systems transformation in food and agriculture, and in particular on agroecology as a transformative paradigm. On the one hand, there have been calls for societal transformation based on large scale interventions (e.g., geoengineering), new technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence and blockchain), and expert-led and corporate-led solutions to drive sustainability transitions [7,8]. On the other, there has also been an articulation of the need for bottom up, civil society-led processes of self-organization like agroecology [9,10]. These bottom up transformations mark a departure from transitions driven from the top-down by actors already empowered within the existing political-economic regime.

Over the past five years, agroecology has emerged in the international policy arena as an alternative paradigm for food and farming that can address multiple crises in the food system, contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals and enable a just transition [9,10,11]. Altieri’s commonly used definition of agroecology has been a key reference point as “the application of ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems” [12]. In the late 1990s, agroecology broadened its framing, moving beyond the farm towards the study of food production, distribution, and consumption. This led to a new and more comprehensive definition of agroecology as “the ecology of food systems” [13]. Agroecology entails a process of continuous transition that does not follow prescriptive rules, but is based on core principles [12,14], values [10], or elements [15] that inform agroecology in the cultural, ecological, and social specificities of place.

Agroecology represents a transformative vision and practice, which puts governance, power, and democracy at the center [16]. Indeed, like other alternative paradigms, agroecology goes far beyond demands for technical change and acknowledges that a range of ‘lock ins’ to unsustainable regimes will only be addressed by shifts in political-economic power. Agroecology thus emphasizes social and political aspects including autonomy, community-self organization, and bottom-up place-based organizing. Yet many questions remain about alternative paradigms for sustainability, which are contingent on the ability of communities to claim agency and power in transformation processes.

This paper begins by elaborating on agroecology as a transformative paradigm for food and farming. We then introduce the multi-level perspective—an influential framework for analyzing sustainability transitions [17,18]. Next, we describe our study methodology and introduce the notion of ‘domains of transformation’ as important sites to enable and pursue transformation. These domains are overlapping and interconnected interfaces between two levels in the multi-level perspective—the niche and regime. Synthesizing the literature on agroecology transitions, we present six critical domains of transformation. Our analysis reveals how each domain is primarily determined by governance (especially power), rather than the predominant focus on the technical dimensions of sustainability transitions. We conclude by arguing that shifts in governance away from top down technocratic approaches towards bottom up distributed ones—across these domains of transformation—has the most potential for enabling just sustainability.

1.1. The Increasing Global Prominence of Agroecology as an Alternative to the Dominant Food System Regime

As agroecology has gained prominence in debates over the future of food and farming, it has become increasingly framed in different ways. In some instances, agroecology is being framed more narrowly as a technical approach centered around specific ecological production practices. However, it is becoming increasingly recognized, that the social, cultural, and political dimensions which emphasize community-led governance of transformations are as important as the practices, principles, and science of agroecology [15]. Indeed, these dimensions are articulated by many as the distinguishing feature of agroecology [10]. To make this explicit, the concept of a “peasant agroecology” or a “political agroecology” has been developed. This reflects a paradigm shift that fundamentally challenges the existing cultural and structural power dynamics that underpin the current unjust and unsustainable food system and that puts the self-organization of food producers and food eaters as a means and end for agroecology [16]. In this article, when we use agroecology, we are referring to this political definition.

Agroecology, in its most transformative and political presentation, represents a framework that is centered on the synergistic relationship between people and nature, the agency, knowledge and rights of food producers and other food system actors, and the de-centering of profit, “the” (singular, reified) market, technology transfer and similar elements of “mainstream development” (such as the neologism “climate smart agriculture”), and elite systems of governance. Social movements, scientists, and governments are thus linking agroecology to the notion of food sovereignty, just transitions and other transformative political economy frameworks. In this view, agroecology will only be possible when based on the affirmation of the right to food, the rights of peasants, eaters, and food producers, their cultures and their control over food practice and policy.

Many aspects of what is now referred to as agroecology have been occurring for millennia in traditional and indigenous communities, and have been intentionally advanced more recently through grassroots organizing, science, legislation, policy, and programs. However, only in the last few years has there been a growing emphasis on how to scale-up agroecology to move beyond its marginal-but-widespread existence in the interstices of industrial farming, yet still retain its basis in community self-organization. Initially, there has been a strong focus on how to transition individual farms (e.g., [19]). Gliessman [20] proposed 5 different levels of transitions, which has been widely adopted. However, others have conceptualized the process of scaling agroecology as a rather messy and chaotic, but steady, process that sees agroecology grow from “islands of success” to greater territorial or national spread as well as receiving institutional recognition and support (e.g., [9,21]). These studies have drawn on case-study or multi-case study approaches to articulate different aspects, drivers, dimensions, and qualities that need to be in place in a particular territory in order for agroecology to be nurtured, to grow, to massify, to scale, and to become strengthened on-farm, across and between territories, and throughout the food system. Our study reviewed these different emerging perspectives to develop a framework for conceptualizing agroecology transformations.

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4. Conclusions

This paper reviewed the emerging literature on agroecology using (and contributing to) the multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions to better understand how agroecology can be advanced, amplified, scaled up and out through processes of community self-organization rather than top-down elite-driven development. Other studies have largely focused on either the enabling factors/drivers [21] of agroecology or on the disabling factors. Our approach sought to present a framework that is suited for considering these simultaneously in the interface between niche and regime. Further, there have been previous attempts to examine these dynamics within a particular area—for example, Ingram [29] focuses on niche-regime dynamics particularly related to knowledge in agroecology. In contrast, our approach emphasized the simultaneous and synergistic transformations in and across multiple domains. In this way, we conclude that it is essential that intentional processes of agroecological transformations not reduce action to singular domains—such as, for example, creating new markets (a common refrain)—but to consider and support transformations at the intersection of these multiple domains.

Our analysis presents governance—and particularly power imbalances and deficits in democracy—as the key determining factor for transformation across these domains. While agroecology can be advanced through technical means, that would lend itself towards transition processes that leave existing (uneven) power relations intact. Our approach rather concentrates on transformative approaches that put inclusive community-led governance processes at the center. Indeed, where agroecology has gained traction, it has been in territories where food producers and citizens were able to gain agency in governance across many of these domains [106].

Indeed, as we have seen as agroecology transformations emerge through processes of community self-organization in territories and through the collective agency of food producers and their allies. Thus policy to support agroecology should focus on enhancing endogenous steering of agroecology transformations, or steering from within. Such steering should involve participatory governance processes and can mean a range of actions by agroecological networks, including, for example, adding a new actor, a specific learning process, new linkages, policy-work, or a set of experiments [170]. These actions can take place at multiple scales (e.g., local, territorial, national) and should align with the particularities of place and scale. To support the realization of the transformative vision of agroecology, governments cannot create, insert, control, or manage “niches” in a top–down fashion, as is sometimes assumed, but they can help to open space for experimentation and consider the different roles that policy can play in enabling (or disabling) agroecology.

Our formulation of agroecological transformation reflects not one grand theory of change, but a recognition of a co-evolutionary and adaptive approach that involves, “multiple transformations that will intersect, overlap, and conflict in unpredictable ways” [171] (p. 21). Efforts for agroecological transformation will most likely be met with systemic inertia and intentional, even violent, resistance from regime actors [35]. This underpins the importance of collective action, social movements, and solidarity networks as a means of building and amplifying political power and community agency to advance agroecology transformations. This is easier said than done. But, given the threat of climate change and biodiversity loss, ongoing disempowering dynamics, and continued widespread challenges to food and nutrition security, it appears to be the most viable pathway to agroecological transformation for sustainable and just food systems.

 


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