Unjust rural social structures have been going on for centuries, but it was mainly in the US and Latin America, during the 1990s, that the term “agroecology” emerged as a social movement

Part I | Introduction

Much has been studied about the different meanings of agroecology and its history from the early 20th century. According to the studies carried by Wezel et al (2009), the evolution of its definitions and spectrum of influence has been an evolving process: from a science to a practice to a social movement. This alteration corresponds to attempts to broaden the narrow approach that guided early agricultural research, which was based on short-term yields and economic returns without considering environmental and social factors.

There’s a growing debate whether agroecology is being co-opted by dominant structures and being moved away from its original purpose; or, if it can act as a catalyser of a systematic change driven by peasant-based grassroots movements. This discussion may seem minor in the context of a much larger battle that involves redirecting the dependence on agrochemicals — that maximise yields — as well as the privatisation of seeds by big corporations towards alternative, fairer and healthier ways of producing food. In fact, this analysis is at the core of the debate as agroecological social movements advocate for access to and ownership of land, improvement of labour conditions for farmers and redistribution of earnings on the food supply chain, which implies a structural reform of markets and regimes. 

Photo: Henri Kugler

Photo: Henri Kugler

Part II | The genesis of agroecology

In the book, “Agroecology: Science and Politics. Agrarian Change & Peasant Studies”, Peter M. Rosset and Miguel A. Altieri define agroecology as “the integrative study of the ecology of entire food systems, encompassing ecological, economic and social dimensions, or more simply the ecology of food systems”. Unjust rural social structures have been going on for centuries, probably since the colonisation of America, but it was mainly in the US and Latin America during the 1990s that the term “agroecology” emerged as a social movement. Coincidentally, in the same decade there was a paradigm shift in the agricultural model turning to technological packages and genetically modified organisms — the so-called Green Revolution. Following the definition given, agroecology has certain typical characteristics. To cite the essentials:

  • Knowing and committing to the local socio-economic needs of the communities;
  • Ecological and social ethics to create a new relationship with nature and fair production systems;
  • Critical reflection of agricultural paradigm;
  • Holistic and multidisciplinary approach;
  • Long-term vision;
  • Agroecology as catalyst of farmers economic independence;
  • Treatment of land tenancy issues;
  • Recognition of ancestral, traditional and popular knowledge in addition to the use of peasant-to-peasant method which sets the sharing of knowledge as a popular dialogue instead of an imposed academic or corporate understanding;
  • The existence and recognition of ecofeminism as a central element of agroecological practices.

Social engagement can be categorised as progressive or radical considering its pursued ends. The former tends to deepen "business as usual", and the latter is the transforming peasant movement that seeks food sovereignty (Holt-giménez and Altieri 2013). My intention is to reflect on the aim of activists who, intentionally or unintentionally, may be feeding a system that is designed to address development on the path of “friendly transitions”, instead of opening spaces for multiple pathways of transformation towards sustainability. Organic certification exemplifies this dichotomy. Ostensibly, it is a practice in search of real, healthy and toxic-free food, but in reality, it is often veiled under an expensive certification that discourages everyone’s access to and production of organic food – hence, arriving at a final product devoid of any understanding of community, history or politics. On the contrary, agroecology rejects certifications by private companies, encouraging a methodological and horizontal peasant-based control and certification system. Agroecology acknowledges that behind the production of food, there are peasants-workers and livelihood conditions that must be accredited. In other words, agroecology is more than production. It is a social movement and it is political. Any attempt to depoliticise it requires an analysis of the pursued objectives. 

Sometimes, mobilisation requires oscillating between transition and transformation as it is a social and dynamic process. Simplifying these concepts, transitioning towards sustainability implies changing methods and practices without any major disruptions to dominant system-structures. On the other hand, addressing transformations requires much more profound questioning and disturbance of the main pillars of socio-technical systems. Similarly, Holt-giménez & Altieri have demonstrated that over the past 30 years, public policies have tended to advocate for a one-dimensional rural development strategy, balancing between production and the economy; whereas the environmental impact of agriculture and the social consequences are considered as externalities. Despite the fact that agroecology is fast growing as an innovative and technological alternative to agroindustry, this scaling up occurs in the context of ongoing debate within the local and international community about possible roadmaps on how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Therefore, it is worth paying attention to the moment when the alternatives offered by the grassroots movements are institutionalised, and what directionality is given to guide their scaling up. Is it one that seeks for a systematic transformation with a structural reform of markets and regimes? Or is it one which maintains the same development trajectories and power structures under a different name? 


Agroecology has the potential to be a strong solution to help redefine food systems as it is an approach that seeks to challenge the status quo that relies strongly on the privatisation of seeds, land and markets. If co-opted by the “reformist” trend, it is likely that there will be a transition towards a different way of producing food while continuing to strengthen an intrinsically unequal corporate food regime. 

Consequently, substantive reforms in the corporate food regime will lose steam, as will the transformation towards sustainable agriculture. Holt-giménez & Altier (2013) have said it well: “Agroecology is a counter-movement against the corporate food regime”. If agroecologists drift away from the fundamental concepts and realities that shape the movement, they might leave a door open for the misuse of the term, as well as for the co-option of the fight by profit-oriented patterns of development. Building strategic alliances to avoid reducing agroecology to just another practice or a “new way of producing food” will strengthen the radical fight for food sovereignty.

María Luz Casal
MSc in Sustainable Development, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex

The project Farming for the future: ecological agriculture and food security in the 21st century is a cross-border initiative aiming to document the trends, challenges and opportunities in ecological farming across the world. This project was financed by the UK Chevening Scholarship Programme.