Skip to content

Small is Bountiful

Agroecology vs. the agro-industrial complex

In the era of meatless Mondays, foodie TikTok, and techie biohacking fads, questions of what we eat and where our food comes from dominate certain wealthier milieus. The rising cultural currency of food and agriculture has yet to translate into substantially different food politics, however, especially in the United States. Nor have we seen notable changes in agricultural policy or aid programs that target hunger. In conversations this summer, I discussed with Dr. M. Jahi Chappell the gap between what people say they want from their food system, the harsh realities of what we have, and the possibilities of agroecology for bridging the gap.

A movement, a science, and an approach to food production, agroecology seeks ways to put human and nonhuman well-being over profits. As a scientific approach, agroecology is premised on innovation and dialogue between the practical knowledge of some and the expert knowledge of others. Farmers’ knowledge of their land and local systems is valued equally to ecologists’ knowledge of ecosystem dynamics and the bodies of research on, for example, organic pest control techniques or soil quality. There’s a focus on wider participation and local adaptability.

With eaters everywhere increasingly concerned with the impacts of climate change on diets and wallets, there’s mounting urgency to find solutions to a food system that simultaneously stuffs and starves. Chappell has dedicated his career to organizing, researching, and advocating for socio-ecological alternatives to the status quo, which are largely bubbling up in farmer movements in the Global South and in the rural peripheries of the United States.

As the former executive director of Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network, or SAAFON, Chappell supported community organizing led by Black, brown, and indigenous farmers and farmworkers promoting agroecology and food sovereignty. His first book, Beginning to End Hunger, debunks pernicious Malthusian myths around the need to produce more food for a growing population. Spotlighting agroecology-centered food programs advanced under Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first two terms, Chappell shows how farmers, policymakers, and academics can work together to improve rural livelihoods, bolster agricultural sustainability, and dramatically reduce malnutrition.

Too often, especially in the Global North, rural areas and agrarian politics are marginalized, dropped from view from both dominant climate movement strategies and even progressive leftist platforms. Feeding the world in more just and sustainable ways requires organizing across the historical divides of urban-rural and Global North–Global South. Nothing we discussed is politically easy, but there’s hope in knowing alternatives already exist and radical food systems can work if we are willing to turn toward solidarity and political-ecological innovation. What follows is an edited version of our discussion, based on two taped conversations, with some later revision in collaboration between us.


How does an agroecological approach to thinking about food production differ from the status quo?

Our current agricultural system is overly dependent on fossil fuels and has a natural tendency for overproduction and exploitation of human and nonhuman resources. And the existing trade regimes that allow the United States to ship our “cheap,” subsidized, below-the-cost-of-production food and agriculture products around the world undercut everyone else’s food sovereignty, autonomy, and ability to make a living wage. Agroecology, to me, is intimately connected with food sovereignty, and the idea that people want to have a say over various parts of their lives. Agroecology provides what people say they want regarding food grown in ways that utilize and match more natural ecosystems and have the minimum negative impact on them.

There are two kinds of agricultural visions about what makes a food system functional or successful in the larger political economy. The first one is the current dominant vision associated with larger scale, capitalistic agro-industrial systems. Under this vision, if profits for food processing and retail companies go up, and the prices farmers receive and prices consumers pay at the register go down, that’s success. It doesn’t matter if most farmers are not making a living, if the environment is being polluted, and people aren’t being fed. Under this vision we still succeeded because profit is higher and food is “cheaper.” The other vision is an agroecological one where success is defined by communities being nourished, all labor being justly compensated, the environment being cared for, and other-than-human life is considered a key factor and a respected part of the production system.

At the end of the day, the question about which food system you want centers around whether you define success as people being nourished and having control of their food system in ways that respect other-than-human life—or, if you define success as there being more commodities, more trade, more profit.


What are some successes that we can point to where the benefits of adopting principles of food sovereignty and agroecology are apparent?

Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a city of around 2.5 million people, saw not only a 40 to 60 percent reduction in infant mortality and infant malnutrition but about a 30 percent decrease in diabetes between 1991 and 2015. Making local agroecologically produced food affordable through various programs was an important step toward this achievement. And then buying from local producers directly, especially for school meals. Through various programs, the city and national government subsidized low-cost meals in what are called “people’s restaurants.” They also subsidized the Brazilian basic food basket, making all fruits and vegetables in participating stores cost the same per kilogram. They had a variety of educational programs that were woven throughout the city, and because they have universal health care, they were able to provide food education to the poorest areas. These policies encourage dietary diversity, which research is starting to show might be one of the strongest drivers for decreasing hunger in the future. These kinds of institutional purchasing programs are expanding in the United States too. So here at Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems, we have our farm-to-institution regional food systems that have really grown and thrived. Farm-to-school, farm-to-early-childhood-education, and we’re working on farm-to-hospitals.


Your first book, Beginning to End Hunger, starts by critically exploring dominant narratives that shape a lot of the agriculture and food policy worldwide and bolster the status quo. What are some of the most pernicious narratives about food systems that you struggle to debunk?

The dominant narrative that starts with producing more food drives me crazy. It seems really obvious from the research that you should start with basic access to human rights and resources!

There are 800 million to 1.2 billion people, depending on your numbers, who are not getting appropriate nourishment in the presence of excess global production. Obviously, food production shouldn’t be ignored. But there’s no reason to think that doing what we’re doing now will work even better under climate change. The plain reality is that the current systems are not feeding the world. And trying just to do more of what we’re currently doing seems foolish because we have more than enough food in many places coexisting with hunger. The decades of research from Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and many other inheritors of his work points to the fallacy of just trying to produce more, using higher production as our primary lever for fighting hunger.

In most cases around the world, we already have enough food. And there’s just very little evidence that producing more will lead to more people quickly or easily being nourished. It’s a challenging narrative to debunk because your mind goes, “There are hungry people. Oh, well, we need to produce more food to feed those hungry people.” That’s very easy to access mentally, but it just turns out in most contemporary cases that’s not why people are without enough food.

Only about 20 percent of the reduction in hunger measured over the past five decades is from increased productivity. The largest effects come from improvements in safe water access and sanitation, in girls’ and women’s education, and in women’s political rights, as well as increases in dietary diversity. Without safe drinking water, you can’t stay healthy enough to farm or produce food or work to get access to food. You can’t irrigate your crops, or use water for your crops appropriately, or absorb the nutrients from food, without safe sanitation and drinking water. You can’t stay healthy and keep your family healthy without equality for women. Gender equality is, in fact, incredibly important because it improves health outcomes, productivity, nutrition, and education.


When talking about agroecology and reducing the size, scale, and scope of the existing agro-industrial food system, the question of “how to feed the world” is inevitable. Can agroecology feed the world?

Farmers who farm under two hectares, I think, provide something like 30 to 40 percent of the world’s food . . . and if you expand the definition of small-scale farmers to be a bit more than two hectares, those are the ones who are feeding the majority of the world. Moreover, most of the world’s small farmers use agroecological practices because it makes sense when producing at smaller scales not to depend on expensive external inputs like fossil fuel-based fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. These small farmers need more support and more resources to expand their knowledge, productive capacities, and abilities to adapt to climate change, and to improve their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the large-scale farmers are producing commodity crops for cattle, for biofuel, and for processed food, none of which is really helping feed us. They haven’t solved the social problems of hunger or malnutrition, and, worse, they have exacerbated ecological problems, leaving soil depleted and water sources polluted. What has solved the social problems in the food system is organizing around political rights. Look at Kerala in India, which has had a lot of different, better human development indicators than many other states. And they’ve had a more redistributive socialist government for quite a long time. More and more research suggests that techno-optimist and technocratic solutions don’t work. And agroecology and food sovereignty are about allowing people the feedback to say what works.


Aside from scaling agroecology up and out, you’ve discussed other important aspects of the food system that need to change, like diet and food waste. What needs to change and why?

We need to change diets significantly and reduce food waste; doing both things can have complicated effects on hunger but clear positive effects on sustainability. There’s no world where it makes sense to me, either from a capitalist or eco-socialist point of view, where meat is so artificially cheap. We need to keep in mind equity considerations, but people need to eat less meat in the United States. It should be more expensive from a basic economic standpoint, and we should have higher well-being; all those things mitigate toward less meat or what my colleague Jim Kleinschmit used to say: “We want less and better meat.” There’s some overlap there with vegans who argue for a “lot less” to be zero. But all of us should be looking at eating less meat, a better quality of life for the animals we eat, and a lower environmental footprint. However, saying veganism is the only way denies a lot of important factors like the role that livestock play, especially in the Global South. Zoe Todd, a Métis anthropologist from Canada, was asked about the relationship between loving and killing animals, and the implications of European philosophies that may say that loving animals would mean not eating them. Todd responded by describing certain indigenous communities as having an eons-long relationship with animals like bison and fish, a reciprocal duty that includes respectful consumption of them as other organisms consume each other. But there’s no reason for the animals that we eat to live in torture before we eat them. There’s a huge potential overlap in rationally reducing meat consumption in many parts of the Global North.

Referring to food waste, it’s clear that for sustainability’s sake, we shouldn’t be wasting 15 to 35 percent of the food we produce. As much as a lot of mainstream actors, such as supermarkets, have committed to reducing food waste, for that to pay off in terms of greater sustainability means that not only less food has to be wasted, but that people need to buy less food because they’re wasting less of it. Show me a supermarket or major food or agriculture company explicitly looking to have people purchase less, right? Even if 95, 97, or 99 percent of us would be better off because of these changes, the interests of large companies would not be served that way.


There’s been substantial criticism of the neoliberal tilt to food politics and environmental politics in the United States, the focus on individual responsibility as a primary pathway for change, and the “don’t use plastic straws!” and “vote-with-your-fork” mentality. How do we avoid turning these questions of food waste and diet change into more of this focus on personal responsibility?

To me it is beyond a fool’s errand to focus on individual-level change as a primary driver for systems transformation rather than maybe a way to live your values. The sort of consumer focus and thinking about waste and diet and food purchases at an individual level can be a gateway to thinking more systematically and can get people involved in collective action. But the agro-industry has hundreds of millions of dollars or more of spending on advertising and lobbying, and I think this advertising element is vastly underappreciated in our political analysis. The forces behind, say, local farmers markets are not going to be able to compete with the hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising to counter this narrative. So, collective organizing is the best alternative.

Being involved with something where your identity and your interests and your community are working toward change is the only way that the change is going to stick, in spite of the mass messaging around us driving status quo consumption. People’s consciousness needs to be raised through community connection, and that community connection is what also needs to be the basis for movements for change so that we can have appropriately scaled responses to the untenable status quo, whether it’s creating farm-to-school agreements shepherded by local Food Councils or the regulation, defunding, or buying out of big food companies and agro-industry. We’re talking about creating a food system that pays people well, produces food that still tastes good, but is not made from cheap ingredients or engineered to excite the addiction centers in our brains. This most likely means a system that’s not generating multibillion-dollar profits for one company. It will certainly be profitable and sustainable for a lot of people, but not in a mega-profits-for-shareholders way.


What changes in thinking and in political organizing need to happen in order to advance agroecology and food sovereignty further in the United States?

With our relatively small farming population in the United States, we need to do a better job of creating alliances. There is a problem with so much progressive leftist thought focusing on urban dwellers. This is a problem with a long history—in fact, rereading Glenn Davis Stone’s The Agricultural Dilemma: How Not to Feed the World, he points out how one commentator called Karl Marx the consummate city boy.

Take Michigan, for example, where for the first time in many years, Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. Several people have told me that the Democrats in the legislature of Michigan were caught a little flat-footed in terms of having plans for rural areas because so many Democrats may have given up on rural communities. This is not for lack of organizers with leftist values based in rural areas. But we’re missing a huge opportunity by ignoring rural communities in political organizing strategies.

From the left, we need to propose a social compact, that if you pay your labor living wages, if you’re working on improving your farming practices toward what we think are the best practices environmentally, we will make sure that you thrive. If you’re a farmer working to shift your practices in line with agroecological principles, then we’ll find a price, a subsidy, or a market, for you. This would be a place to start in the United States, a way to encourage more producers to adopt agroecology.

People sometimes joke that the capitalists and the communists have long agreed that cheap food should be the goal. The idea that food has to cost more also goes against a century-plus of thinking on the left. But people should be paid what they deserve for the work that they do. And that costs what it costs. We can work to make that cost affordable, to adjust that cost, and to strive for thriving wages for all workers, but we can’t just ignore it.


How do you see the movements for agroecology and food sovereignty connecting to other political struggles of our time?

I know very few people who are happy with the state of things. You can pick up almost any publication from almost any political perspective these days in the United States and see this disjunct between what voters say they want and what the priorities of the political class are. People feel increasingly frustrated and disempowered. We see this clearly with frustration around the food system as well as other systems. Agroecology and food sovereignty respond to what people say they want on paper and in polls and in interviews in numerous ways, and yet they are peripheral to the current food system we have in the United States. Given the unsatisfactory status quo, we need innovation around politics and practices. We need alternative democratic technologies that can be used to integrate people’s voices into current political systems and that truly value the environment, the nonhuman.

The fact is that there are examples, innovations, and pathways to work together and participate in new and different ways to create the systems that we want. The food movement, the agroecology movement, and the international peasant constituencies represented by Via Campesina and similarly aligned actors are the closest to really thinking about and implementing these alternative participatory politics and practices that offer different socio-ecological approaches to the dominant ways of doing things. Other movements could learn a lot from them.