Big scale policies won't work!
Cornelia Butler Flora is a professor at the Iowa State University.
Her research interests include international and domestic development, community, and the sociology of science and technology, particularly as related to agriculture and participatory change.
As a researcher you reflect on rural development and agriculture already for years. What are the current trends?
We have some interesting counter-trends. On the one hand industrial agriculture is gaining huge strength. It is becoming more monoculture, using more inputs, and requesting more money. On the other hand there are an increasing number of alternative growers. About half of those alternative practices come from people who were once industrial farmers and are trying to become more sustainable. Another half is new farmers who do not have a farming background. They have a real concern for sustainable systems and good relationship with the land and the people.
Does it mean that there is battle going on between industrial agriculture and agriculture based on agroecological approaches?
Agroecological system can lead to a non-violent revolution for serious systemic change
In the US, there is a very interesting power struggle, which is not a hand to hand combat. The industrial farmers are constantly fighting alternative farmers while, the alternative farmers are too busy creating a new system to fight the industrial agriculture.
We have a situation where the group with power tries to squash the emerging group, while the emerging group ignores them and just keeps doing their job
Is number of alternative growers increasing all over the world?
Yes, it is a happening all over the world: in the US, Latin America, China, Brazil. Interestingly, it comes from different motivations. In China the government supports alternative farmers to achieve stability. By supporting small-scale farmers it keeps people happy and on the land. In the American market-oriented economy, strong consumer-producer linkages play a role.
In the Netherlands some industrial farmers adapt methods and technologies practiced by alternative farmers. What do you think of these kind of attempts to make industrial farming more sustainable?
It is amazing how people can conform to specific requirements, yet miss the entire spirit of sustainability. Agroecology means systemic change. Yet, there are many farmers who take one or two pieces of sustainability but do not change the system much. I call it greenwashing.
In my last paper I looked at implications of sustainability standards for agriculture. It is interesting: on one hand we have sustainability standards to move the whole production system forward, to become more ecologically sound. On the other hand we have people paying a lot of money trying to figure out how to keep on earning a lot of money and appear to be doing sustainable agriculture. It is better to have standards than not to have them, but we should not delude ourselves that this is moving towards a more sustainable system.
Why, despite its clear benefits and support of civil society organizations, agroecology remains an alternative approach to agriculture?
Agroecology requires a systems approach. The farmers need to ask ' How do I rotate my crops so I use less pesticides?' instead of applying organic rather than non-organic pesticides. The answer can be, for instance, longer crop rotations or mixing legumes with grains. But this approach does not fit the economic system that only seeks short term profit.
Where is the mismatch between agroecology and the dominant economic system?
With the financialization of the world economy, short-term gains - often achieved through exploitation of workers and the environment, became the most important goal of business. Before Ronald Regan, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, cooperation was as important as the profit. That lead to a long-term strategy that allowed investment in productive resources, including worker and management skills, ecosystem heath, and appropriate infrastructure. This changed since stockholders rights movement.
Now CEO and people working in the companies are judged by two things: what is worth of the stock and what are the annual profits. Loyalty to the company, caring what you produce is not important anymore. That mode has created huge economical inequalities. It has also had very negative consequences for agriculture.
The agroecology movement is based on different logic, it is trying to avoid the capitalist relationships based on speculation. It is based on small, collective ownership where producers are not responsible to the stockholders who may sue them for not making enough money. Community supported agriculture, where you buy ahead of time, is not demanding that consumer-investors are able to sell their share at a profit. It is a very different economic relationship.
Another difference is that agroecology farmers are investing in productive capacity, and they see themselves producing far more than just money. They invest in making more diverse, more multifunctional operations. This is different from the traditional market economy which encourages capital accumulation and has moved away from encouraging production. It is just about making money, which is best achieved by investing in stock rather than improving the quality of the land.
In this situation, do you think that it is possible to mainstream agroecological approaches?
To what extent can something whose main aim is not a profit fit in the stockholder-driven economy? I do not know an answer to that but I am not very convinced that it can really happen. Mainstreaming agroecology may mean unmainstreaming our food system, thinking about it in an alternative manner. I do not know if it can be done on a big scale.
What about big-scale policies - could they make a difference?
I am sceptical about big scale policies. There are vested interests in keeping things as they are. Even if the policies change, large companies are going to figure out how to make it work to their benefit. We have an industrial system very well prepared to get as much government support as they can, as they have demonstrated over time. It is very unlikely that we could devise something so clever that industrial agriculture will not figure out how to make that rule profitable for their stakeholders to accumulate a large proportion of the policy change..
Let's take US as an example. Soon we are no longer going to give traditional subsidies to agriculture. Instead we set up a crop insurance programme. But it will do exactly the same thing: all that money will go to the conventional farmers. You will be able to claim payments based on your past production, locking in the current system. Crop insurance is only one way to deal with risk. Agroecology systems are diverse, flexible and adaptive. It is industrial farming that works against the nature and therefore needs insurance.
Maybe change of big scale policies could bring more funds for agroecology research and extensions?
I would like to see that big scale policies are going to bring more funds for research and knowledge extension in agroecology. But I am sceptical about it. In my country I was part of three proposals to the National Institute for Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture. One of them had to do with soil security, another with agroecosystems. However the one that was funded was turning canola into jet fuel for US Navy. It includes agroecological aspects, but not to the degree of the other two proposals.
So lobbying for agroecology in Rio does not make sense?
It is important to have a voice there. It is important to keep the vision forward, but I do not think that changing policies will change much. The neoliberal system has shrunk government so much. In my country even though we have laws to protect the environment, the Congress is cutting environmental protection agencies so much that they cannot enforce those laws. We cannot count on governments to solve the problem.
If you are sceptical about big-scale policies, what do you think could make a difference?
It is much better to work on things that are smaller. Our efforts could identify the processes, rules and regulations that prevent us from doing what we need to do as opposed to lobbying for big government support for ecological agriculture I believe that the change is going to occur addressing small level policies. In Iowa we are trying to get local food in schools and semi-rural areas. What really stop us are tiny rules that have been set up by industrial agriculture around food safety. But we figured out the ways to change those rules.
I am convinced that the agroecology is very revolutionary. It is a huge social movement with lots of networks and lots of people who are very different. It has a potential to create alternatives. The failure of the neo-liberal state, as indicated by increasing levels of inequality, allows the substitution for agroecology approaches and increased economic democracy. That is why the mixture of movements that focus on creating alternatives, rather than trying to get a piece of a failed pie through government action, are so important. Agroecological systems can lead to a non-violent revolution for serious systemic change.
Interview: Marta Dabrowska