Agroecology in a Post-Pandemic World: Interview with Miguel Altieri

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By Nancy Moore

Chilean agronomist and entomologist Miguel Altieri has dedicated his career to researching and teaching about the environmental and social benefits of agroecology. After studying agronomy at the University of Chile and earning a PhD in entomology at the University of Florida, he went on to publish more than 250 scientific papers, 20 books, and was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley for 37 years. He is best known for promoting agroecology as a way to combat rural poverty, especially in Latin America. In 2007, he co-founded the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA), and since 2011 has been an advisor to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) program, which aims to conserve traditional farming systems around the world.

Recently retired from teaching at UC Berkeley, he now lives in Colombia where he and his wife and colleague, Clara Inés Nicholls, have an agroecological demonstration farm. In March, they co-authored a paper titled “Agroecology and the Reconstruction of Post Covid-19 Agriculture,” outlining the fragilities of the dominant agri-business food system exposed by the global pandemic and opportunities for agroecology to build much-needed resilience within our food systems. “As we work our land during these days of the COVID-19 imposed national quarantine,” says Altieri, “I am convinced more than ever that agroecology is the only option available to humanity to design and manage agricultural systems best able to withstand future crises, whether pest outbreaks, pandemics, climate disruptions, or financial meltdowns.”

From his home in Colombia, Altieri spoke with Patagon Journal about lessons from Covid-19, agroecology, and what’s needed to design resilient, sustainable agricultural systems in Patagonia, Chile, and worldwide. Excerpts:

PATAGON JOURNAL: You define agroecology as “a transformative science, practice, and movement.”  How does agroecology differ from other terms and concepts related to sustainable agriculture?
ALTIERI: What’s really interesting is that agroecology was born in Latin America, and then it caught on in Europe and the United States, but much later. The way agroecology is known today – as a science but also as a political tool for the transformation of food systems – was started in Latin America by NGOs, then jumped into the universities, and then to Via Campesina, the largest peasant movement in the world. It has some political connotations, and for that reason there are some circles that don’t use the term or if they do, they strip it of its social and political context. For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) talks about agroecology, but it doesn’t talk about land reform or food sovereignty. And then there are other groups that are coming up with new terms like climate smart agriculture or regenerative agriculture to avoid the political implications of agroecology.

Agroecologists question the structure of industrial agriculture; they want to transform the food system. Whereas other approaches try to kind of take advantage of certain cracks left in the system, like organic farming. That is a great concept, but if you look at most organic agriculture it is for export. In Chile, 80% of organic agriculture is for export and that doesn’t solve the problem of food security.Whatever is left over for the national markets goes for the middle class and up. The same is happening in the U.S. With my class [in California] I used to send students to the organic farmers’ market and do a racial profiling of the consumers there: it was always 98% white, middle class and up.

As an agroecologist, I respect the schools, for example, of Steiner with biodynamics, or the people that came up with permaculture. But I can go to a permaculture farm or a biodynamic farm or an organic farm and see from an agroecological perspective that they need to improve. For example, if you go to one of the most famous biodynamic farms in California, Benzinger, which is a vineyard, from a biodynamic perspective it works, but it has a major flaw which is that it is a monoculture. So, I worked with Mike Benzinger and we introduced cover crops and flowers into the system in order to diversify it and increase the function. 

The practice of agroecology also provides ecosystem services such as pest control, soil regeneration, and water conservation. Are such ecosystem services becoming more valued generally by society?
As Einstein once said, you cannot solve the problem with the same mentality that created it. The crisis in industrial agriculture that we’re facing today was exposed by Covid-19 but for many years we’ve been criticizing the environmental, economic and social impacts of industrial agriculture. When you use economic terms from a neoliberal perspective that were not designed to account for the services of nature, then you’re using the wrong tools.

Are you familiar with the planetary boundaries concept? [Planetary Boundaries, Stockholm Resilience Center, 2009] These people in Sweden came up with the concept that certain processes at the global level have already gone beyond their threshold. For example, climate change – it has already passed the threshold. Biodiversity extinction, we’ve passed the threshold. So, what we need to do is to try to develop an economy that is going to take into account the limits of nature. And this is not new, in 1972 there was a guy who came out with a book called The Limits to Growth that first sounded the alarm that the capitalist economy is not compatible with nature.

I’m not opposed to measuring services, but let’s not do it only in economic terms. For example, many farms in Cuba and Colombia have zero external inputs. When you realize that a farm doesn't need any input except for labor, then you know the ecological services that are working: fertility is happening, pest regulation is happening, water is abundant, and on top of that you are saving a lot of money, more than 90% of your cost of production. I can translate that into money. That’s what nature is providing, it is natural capital.



You’ve often said that eating is both an ecological act and a political act. What is our responsibility as consumers?
When I support the small farmers in my region, especially younger ones, I’m creating local resiliency and local sustainability, and that’s very important. The quality of life in small cities could be determined by what kind of agriculture surrounds your region. For example, in Brazil there was a study that found that towns surrounded by sugar cane as opposed to towns surrounded by small farmers were 10 degrees hotter because of the albedo effect.

In our current food system, here’s what’s happening: you have the producers [hand up high] and the consumers [hand down low] and then you have the big corporations that are strangling the whole system [makes hands into fists in the space between]. They determine what farmers are going to grow, how much they’re going to grow, and then through the big supermarkets they control what people eat, how much they pay, and the quality of the food. They have control of the food system. To change that food system is going to be very difficult, so what we need to create is a bypass – a bypass from producers to consumers directly, so that there is exchange between them, but it's more so ruled by an economia de la solidaridad, which is actually a term that doesn't even exist in English. The idea there is an exchange of money, but it’s governed by solidarity.

You can do it by creating this bypass, or also by pressuring the local government, or electing sympathetic mayors. Brazil, for instance, has an agroecology law that provides a framework for municipalities to promote what they call institutional markets where: a mayor can decide that all the food that is served in schools and hospitals will come from local farms. That revitalizes totally the small farm agriculture in their region. Uruguay just came out with a national law of agroecology too.  I think that the new constitution in Chile could also introduce this kind of thing. It could be a national agreement where we say how we’re going to treat nature, how we’re going to feed our people and after we agree that we’re going to feed our people ecologically, with local produce and supporting local farmers, and we put these principles in the constitution, then that would provide the elements to create laws and regulation at the local level. There is a huge opportunity in Chile right now.

Read the full interview with Miguel Altieri in Issue 23.

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