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Want sustainable food? It will take a new normal for farming

Innovative food systems such as agroecology can become the norm if we weave a web of legitimacy from science, politics, society and values.

This story originally appeared at Ensia. Editor’s note: This piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on "Toward thick legitimacy: Creating a web of legitimacy for agroecology," a peer-reviewed article published July 20 as part of Elementa’s New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum.

The industrialized food system, studies have shown, is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, algal blooms, pesticide pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss, to name a few ecological troubles. Add to this a long list of social ills, from escalating rates of obesity to the demise of the family farmer and deadening of rural landscapes and rural economies across much of the U.S.

In 2010, the National Academies of Science updated its seminal 1989 publication "Alternative Agriculture" with a fresh look at the state of food and farming in America. Its expert panel concluded, "Growing awareness of unintended impacts associated with some agricultural production practices has led to heightened societal expectations for improved environmental, community, labor, and animal welfare standards in agriculture."

Yet that growing awareness and those heightened expectations haven’t led to alternative agricultural systems becoming the norm in the U.S.

Organic has made some headway, but many organic growers have been forced to imitate industrial farming: grow bigger; resort to monocultures instead of truly diversified fields; and sell to large supermarkets — forgoing many benefits alternative agricultural systems offer, such as natural pest control, pollination from native bees and a smaller production scale conducive to family farmers and local food economies.

So, what gives industrialized agriculture such staying power despite its adverse impacts, even as alternatives offer such benefits? And how can more wholesome food production methods such as agroecology become conventional instead of alternative?

To achieve real change in how food is produced and eaten, we need to change people’s expectations of what "normal" agriculture should look like.

What is normal?

The industrial food system is considered “normal” and remains intractable for many reasons, including consumer habits (demanding perfectly shaped, vine-ripe tomatoes year-round), political and economic interests (agribusinesses wielding influence through election donations and lobbying) and priorities of government departments and universities (research programs favoring biotechnology over agroecology and classical plant breeding).

(To hear experts discuss the transformation of food and agriculture systems, attend VERGE 16 Sept. 19 to 22 in Santa Clara, California)

International trade plays an outsize role, too: Partnerships among U.S. government negotiators, multinational food companies and groups such as the Biotechnology Innovation Organization help shape deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership to smooth the way for corporate-friendly trade agreements.

But beneath the global tomatoes, research budgets and trade pacts, something less visible makes the industrial food system powerful: something called legitimacy.

Legitimacy is what makes one food system more credible and "normal" than another. Legitimacy is what makes it commonsensical for consumers to buy soda in Big Gulps and for companies such as Walmart to advertise everyday low prices as a good thing, ignoring the hidden costs behind the cheapness. Legitimacy can be tricky to define because, while it is obvious once something has it, how to get it is not so clear.

To achieve real change in how food is produced and eaten, we need to change people’s expectations of what 'normal' agriculture should look like.

Like a spider’s web, thick legitimacy is created by multiple strands that reinforce one another.That’s partly because legitimacy isn’t even a single thing, but depends on multiple bases. Something can be scientifically legitimate if it meets the standards of research. It might become politically legitimate through legislative backing or government grants. Legitimacy might also result from the civic legitimacy of social trust, or the practical legitimacy of a proven practice. And people can accept something as ethically legitimate — agreeing it’s fair and right.

Industrial farming is supported by all of these types of legitimacy at once, giving it what we call "thick legitimacy." Like a spider’s web, thick legitimacy is created by multiple strands that reinforce one another.

How can truly alternative alternatives — those that support localized food economies, biologically diverse production and just distribution of land, water, seed and knowledge resources — gather thick legitimacy? As a start, they must not simply criticize industrial agriculture. They also need a proactive strategy for reshaping people’s expectations about what agriculture should look like and do.

Three steps to thick legitimacy

Here, we’ll focus on agroecology, but what we sketch below also applies to diversified organic, biodynamic, permaculture, local, slow and other forms of alternative agri-food systems.

Agroecology can attain thick legitimacy through three interconnected pathways: build on and revise existing research practices, developing scientific legitimacy; garner legitimacy in policy, practical and civic arenas; and focus attention on the ethics and values of food systems themselves, which will feed back and affect all other forms of legitimacy.

1. Scientific legitimacy

Agroecology is already a thriving science. Universities with agroecology departments and training programs, journals dedicated to agroecology research and international societies such as the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology show that agroecology science is increasingly accepted around the world, at least within research communities. Still, a criticism sometimes levied at agroecologists is that their science is more ideological than empirical, more aspirational than applicable.

Agroecologists can bolster the empirical basis of their science. A long-running criticism of agroecological farming is that it cannot possibly "feed the world." However, research is still only beginning to establish "agroecological yield."

University of California, Berkeley scientists are showing that organic systems can lag behind conventional systems by just 19 percent when it comes to productivity, and just 8 or 9 percent when farmers alternate crops year-to-year or grow several crops together in their fields.

In other words, adding more agroecological practices results in yields that are significantly better than "bare-bones" organic. And this is the case even though organic and agroecological research has been systematically underfunded. With further research into agroecology on tap, industrial food supporters will find it harder to refute evidence that agroecology is yield competitive.

While we can joust on the productivity battleground, thereby strengthening agroecology’s credibility in agricultural science and policy, we don’t have to copy the same logic that supports industrial food. Many inventions of agribusiness, such as large-scale monoculture, are the outcome of what is known as a "productionist" mentality: the philosophy that food output should be prioritized at the expense of other agricultural values.

This productionist science apparently has accomplished a great deal (supplying pesticides, mechanized harvesters and genetically modified organisms), and it now promises to provide solutions for climate change (efficient irrigation, crop-sensing drones and GPS-driven harvesters). Such effectiveness makes industrial agriculture highly legitimate — for now.

While an output-first ideology seems on its face legitimate, it disregards the fact that agricultural landscapes are complex human-nature ecosystems. However, it neglects a critical part of the equation: While an output-first ideology seems on its face legitimate, it disregards the fact that agricultural landscapes are complex human-nature ecosystems. Farms that ignore or discount the connections among abiotic (minerals, nutrients, wind, precipitation, energy), biotic (living) and social (needs of farmers, habits of eaters, political economies of local and global markets) components are less resilient to unpredictable changes such as California’s frequently recurring drought.

By moving beyond the simplistic science of industrial farming to a science that embraces this complexity, we create systems that produce not just food but also resilience, stability and sustainability — in the long run a far more valuable output than the one-dimensional yield of industrial agriculture.

A final strategy to increase the scientific legitimacy of agroecology is to capitalize on the broader trend of science embracing multiple ways of knowing. The National Science Foundation has begun awarding grants to researchers who want to pursue "transdisciplinary" science — research that combines social sciences such as ethnobotany, sociology and philosophy with natural sciences such as agronomy and ecology, and puts them into conversation with the traditional and indigenous expertise of farming communities — and other funding organizations likely will follow suit. Agroecology is already well poised to gain traction and scientific legitimacy in these emerging programs.

2. Policy, civic and practical legitimacy

To achieve political, policy, civic and practical legitimacy, we must learn to discuss agroecology in a way that diverse people will understand. This means putting agroecology into the frames and language of legislatures, government departments, corporations and the public at large.

Right now, for example, a particularly powerful language that government officials use is "cost-benefit." When deciding whether to control a pesticide or whether farmers should house pregnant pigs in bigger boxes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency often employ cost-benefit analysis, a method that quantitatively compares the monetary costs and benefits of a given thing.

We could start using the language of CBA to push for more support of agroecology. For instance, if even a few million dollars more were invested in agroecology research and development, there may be ripple effects in credibility. Long-term studies, such as those of the Rodale Institute (PDF) that show that ecological farming yields can match — and, in drought years, exceed — conventional yields across a period of 30 years, could persuade skeptical scientists, the media, legislators and consumers to take agroecology more seriously.

To disrupt the locked-in systems of technology, capital, policy and science, we must rethink the very criteria societies use to evaluate agricultural outcomes. But this strategy of speaking to power is successful, in part, because of the structures of power and knowledge that exist. In fact, most agroecologists would say using CBA is the wrong approach. To disrupt the locked-in systems of technology, capital, policy and science, we must rethink the very criteria societies use to evaluate agricultural outcomes.

Currently, these criteria emphasize ever-growing crop and animal yields, turning fossil fuel inputs into highly productive "labor," maximizing profit and feeding large populations at a low cost. By these standards, industrial food is highly efficient.

Evaluated according to different criteria, however, our current food system, led by industrial farming, becomes terribly inefficient on almost all counts. In the U.S. alone, up to 40 percent of food produced (PDF) is wasted somewhere from on the farm field to the household refrigerator. Much of the food thrown away on farms is rejected because of supermarket specifications or consumer preferences.

Globally, it’s thought that around a third of the food produced for human consumption every year — some 1.4 billion tons — is lost or wasted. We also do not count the "externalities" of industrial food — that is, the hidden economic costs of current production and consumption. According to researchers at the Universidade Estadual de Londrina, for example, the cost of soil erosion in Brazil is $242 million per year in the state of Paraná and $212 million per year in the state of São Paulo. Meanwhile, researchers from the McKinsey Global Institute estimate that excess weight and obesity comes at a price tag of $2 trillion in global health care costs.

Prominent international initiatives such as the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity and conferences such as the True Costs of American Food have begun to make headway in exploring and tallying these externalized costs. But we need more creative and more comprehensive criteria with which to size up our food systems.

These could include: Do farmers have food security and stable livelihoods? Are rural economies systematically replenished rather than siphoned dry of people, capital and biodiversity? Does a farm treat its workers fairly and recycle its natural resources? Do urban and rural populations have access to affordable, culturally appropriate and nourishing food?

Although there is certainly room for improvement, agroecology is already much more likely than industrial agriculture to perform well according to these whole-systems criteria.

3. Ethical legitimacy

Historian Taylor Branch’s trilogy about the evolution of the Civil Rights movement offers insights into how focusing attention on the ethics and values of food systems can begin to pare away the thick legitimacy of industrial food and build up new thick legitimacy for agroecology.

Accustomed to a culture of racist oppression, blacks didn’t believe they could vote, ride undisturbed in the front sections of public buses or sit on city councils. Only when they began rejecting the normalcy of this culture — a painful process that included watching their own children beaten while they stood by — did they start exercising their moral power.

An ethic of renewal could help societies pivot toward a new, sustainable normal. Similarly, we can withdraw our tacit consent to industrial agriculture as something normal, weakening its moral legitimacy. We simultaneously can accept agroecology and other alternative agricultures as "conventional" — indeed, ethically better — food systems.

We can say that while we like the cheapness and availability of industrially produced food, we don’t want the pervasive labor abuses, obesity and hunger crises, environmental pollution and resource extraction that come with this way of eating. We can say we want something that truly will persist over time, instead of contributing to Earth’s growing burden of overstressed ecosystems and people who are unevenly stuffed and starved.

By contrast to the extractive focus of industrial farming, an ethic of renewal urges that societies revive and mend the environmental cycles on which they depend.

An ethic of renewal could help societies pivot toward a new, sustainable normal. Rejecting human dominion over nature, renewal insists upon the interdependency of all living things. Renewal means moving away from systems of input and output that equate with extraction and pollution. It means recycling biomass, nutrients and biological resources, and regenerating cultural and ecological knowledge among communities and from one generation to the next. It means treating humans and nature as co-evolving rather than as discrete parts.

This ethic can be backed up legally and politically, enshrined as an environmental right. One example is Bolivia’s proposal in 2009 that the United Nations General Assembly enact the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth ("Pachamama"). The declaration would oblige governments to "respect, protect, conserve and where necessary, restore the integrity, of the vital ecological cycles, processes and balances of Mother Earth." While the U.N. hasn’t yet passed this declaration, Bolivia, Ecuador and other Latin American countries have taken the lead on inserting similar clauses into their constitutions and laws.

The human right to food is another way to strengthen a regenerative ethic. Olivier De Schutter, former U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, said that agroecology is an essential part of achieving the right to food globally. Agroecology can enable societies around the world to make rapid progress in meeting the needs of many vulnerable peoples while maintaining the ecological and social foundations of food systems. Many governments are beginning to introduce anti-poverty programs aimed at those without sufficient food, such as Brazil’s Zero Hunger policy (PDF), which connects family farms with schools in some regions.

Meanwhile, La Via Campesina, a global peasant coalition, is demonstrating the practical, civic and political legitimacy of a new moral moment for agroecology. Formed in 1993 in response to free trade and globalization, LVC has grown into the largest social movement on the planet with an estimated 250 million smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fishers and indigenous peoples in 164 organizations from 73 countries.

Agroecology has become an important tenet of the LVC movement, which says, "Agroecology is the answer to how to transform and repair our material reality in a food system and rural world that has been devastated by industrial food production and its so-called Green and Blue Revolutions. We see Agroecology as a key form of resistance to an economic system that puts profit before life."

Gathering momentum

The good news is, agroecology is already beginning to make headway toward thick legitimacy across the U.S.

In Ohio, David Brandt is showing skeptical neighbors that cover crops — plants such as rye, radishes and hairy vetch — can feed the soil during the corn off-season and save on fertilizer and land erosion costs. In West Oahu, the Mala Ai Opio Organic Farm is growing rows of lettuce, collard greens, oriental cabbages, beets, radishes, kale, chard and eggplants next to fruit trees.

Its student farmers are convincing other farmers across Hawaii that this indigenous intercropping technique can control the island’s plentiful pests. In public libraries around the country, citizens are saving and exchanging seed, while gardeners are learning to remove toxic metals from urban soils. Indigenous elders and university students are practicing subtle acts of resistance with participatory research that envisions reclaiming land for public agriculture.

Very importantly, the transformers are not only or even primarily those of the white elite. Many agroecologists are black, Latino and Asian farmers reclaiming their heritage in places from the Southern plantation states to the South Bronx. A number are indigenous communities restoring seed and knowledge diversity. Some are formerly incarcerated individuals making new futures for themselves in urban tilth; others are entrepreneurs, busily connecting agroecological farms with food deserts, from Baltimore to Dallas.

At the moment, most Americans still accept industrial food practices as credible and authoritative, and in doing so consent to the use and existence of such practices. But movements are underway to change that. With a focus on what’s right about agroecology, not just what’s wrong with industrial agriculture, we can turn the alternative into the everyday and the undervalued into the legitimate — and give agroecology the credibility and authority it well deserves. 

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