Agroecology and agribusiness: two conflicting models
There will be no social, economic and environmental justice without food sovereignty, and agroecology is key for that. It’s crucial the implementation of public policies in its support and to dismantle the agribusiness.
Reflecting on and analyzing agroecology in the framework of food sovereignty prompts us to think about and analyze the conditions and restrictions it faces, requiring therefore to debate its main obstacle: agribusiness. Viewing agroecology and agribusiness as conflicting models allows to understand both that coexistence is not possible, as well as the fact that the development and consolidation of agroecology requires dismantling the elements that make up agribusiness.
In addition, analyzing them as models enables viewing them in their real dimension and thus explaining their potential and real impacts in terms of social, economic and environmental justice, as well as on the construction of peoples’ food sovereignty.
Agribusiness, corporates and capitalism
The basis on which the capitalist system is grounded in its neoliberal phase have managed to assign values to actors, resources and processes. According to this view, agriculture has become a space for highly profitable economic investments, leading finance to view this sector as a destination for investments, developing ways in which these investments can yield high profits, and generating a diversity of actors and instruments that feed into and reproduce the system. This perspective is the one that begins to link agriculture with agribusiness.
Also, some phenomena were crucial in the advent of agribusiness as a model. The so-called Green Revolution and the liberalization of trade and investments established the conceptual, technical and ideological bases for the encroachment of capital and its logic into agriculture and food production. Based on the dissemination of “false problems” , certain premises were imposed on developing countries that allowed transnational corporations (TNC’s) to dominate the agrifood system.
Meanwhile, agroecology is not something new or a recent invention, but an age-old indigenous-peasant development, where women have played a key role.
Agroecology is the way of life of millions of men and women, especially as a means for small-scale food farmers to build a dignified way of living in their territories. It is also a set of production practices and exchanges of knowledge and learning processes among peers and generations, that respect and includes cultural and biological diversity. And it is a social and peoples´ movement for the construction of food sovereignty, which entails the need for a change in consumption patterns.
Agroecology versus agribusiness as a solution
Currently, challenges such as the eradication of hunger and malnutrition, as well as adaptation to climate change impacts, are being regularly discussed in global governance spaces. Both models – agribusiness and agroecology – propose opposing solutions to these real and complex problems.
Agribusiness promotes false solutions that not only fail to tackle structural issues, such as the production and consumption model, but which also entail further entrenching the very same system. A system where crises are seen as business opportunities that in turn are responsible for generating the problems they claim to want to solve. It is important to highlight that the industrial agrifood system is responsible for between 43 and 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions .
Agroecology, in turn, has different experiences that offer real solutions to these problems, placing the focus on the interests and rights of peoples, not the private interest of transnational corporations.
How does agroecology view and address territories? What are the policies that benefit agroecology? Who are the main beneficiaries of agroecology? Which rights does agroecology ensure?
Agroecology brings together two key elements as part of its perspective: A rights-based approach, and the subjects of those rights. Small-scale food farmers account for 80 per cent of the food produced in the world, while being part of the population most affected by hunger, malnutrition and obstacles to the realization of their human rights . Even being part of the solution to the problems addressed by global governance, small-scale food farmers are the ones who suffer the most from the impacts of an agrifood system dominated by agribusiness.
Small scale food farming is carried out by households that obtain most of their income from this activity, whose workforce is mostly or entirely family-based, and which are often led by women, who play an important role in farming, processing and selling the produce.
Addressing systemic competition between these two alternatives
Access to resources, in particular to economic and financial resources, is often a determining factor for small-scale food farmers. It represents one of the major asymmetries they face in contrast to the agroindustrial production processes of agribusiness. Two factors need to be highlighted on this regard: The lack of adequate public policies for agroecology on one hand, and on the other, the huge amount of economic resources targeted for agribusiness, whether directly by means of fiscal incentives or indirectly through the promotion of their technology packages.
In terms of economic justice, agroecology entails rebalancing the interests of transnational capital and the national elites linked to it, on one side, and people’s interests on the other, through adequate investment policies that allow safeguarding state sovereignty in the implementation of public policies. It also implies an appropriate redistribution of resources in order to promote and implement targeted public investment policies for small-scale food farmers, while taking into account important aspects regarding fiscal justice and the state´s capacity to distribute public funds.
From a social justice perspective, it is imperative to redistribute the roles and policies for the re-valuing of the social relations (both productive and reproductive) which take place in our societies. It is essential to compile and highlight best practices regarding resource allocation policies to shed light on reproductive labor and make it more visible, and to adapt them to the different territorial and local realities, in order to reestablish the balances that the capitalist system has broken: gender equality, visibility of the fundamental role of reproductive labor, the rights of women, among others.
Agroecology offers important lessons for environmental justice. Its production systems are a real alternative to mitigate climate change effects, as well as for peoples’ adaptation and resilience to it. La Vía Campesina asserts that agroecology can compensate between 24 and 30 per cent  of all greenhouse gas emissions.
The obstacles that prevent agroecology from becoming a reality in terms of a profound transformation of the agrifood system are to be found largely in the basic elements and structural frameworks that sustain agribusiness. Modifying these foundations requires the development of new public policies on trade and investment, based on cooperation and complementation between countries, rather than on competition. It implies changing the consumption patterns that feed the system, and real targeted public investments for small-scale food farmers.
The state, at all levels and in close collaboration with social organizations, should serve agroecology and its consolidation.
Natalia Carrau is Member of the Economic Justice Team of REDES – Friends of the Earth Uruguay and Martin Drago is co-coordinator of Friends of the Earth International´s food sovereignty Program.
1. Population growth and the issue of hunger at global level were two arguments strongly used as problems in order to promote the use of techniques and technologies adapted to the needs of industrial agriculture, to increase productivity in agriculture.
2. According to Grain, the estimation of between 43 and 57 percent of greenhouse gas emissions was developed by UNCTAD´s 2013 Trade and Environment Review. In this report, the data of approximately 15 percent that came from the US Environmental Protection Agency is disregarded, since it only takes into account emissions from cultivated land, fertilizers, mechanical equipment, land management and fermentation. These estimation does not take into account the emissions that result from land use changes and deforestation, as well as from other links in the chain such as the processing, packaging, transportation and sales of agricultural products. These links are becoming more and more important in the current production and consumption models. Molla, R., “How much of world’s Greenhouse-gas Emissions come from Agriculture?”, September 2014. Available at: https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5272-how-much-of-world-s-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from-agriculture
3. FAO, “Putting family farmers first to eradicate hunger”, October, 2014. Available at: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/260535/icode/
4. La Via Campesina, GRAIN, “food sovereignty: five steps to cool the planet and feed its people”, December, 2014. Available at: https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5102-food-sovereignty-five-steps-to-cool-the-planet-and-feed-its-people