Rowan Ireland.

Rowan Ireland reflects on the seminar Towards a clean & sustainable world: three perspectives on agriculture in developing countries, Victoria University Melbourne 23 February 2017.
Agrobusiness vs Agroecology. Pablo Peiker. flickr cc.

The seminar posed an enormous challenge, especially daunting for all those concerned with small-scale farming around the world: how to ‘develop and implement practices and policies consistent with environmental sustainability, social justice, and respect for human rights, while enhancing incomes and wellbeing in a warming world’.

The statement of challenge itself prompts a reflection. Not long ago, the array of concerns would not have been seen so integrally linked that adequate address to equity issues of social justice for small family farmers would require factoring in green issues of sustainability and climate change, among other things.

Technological fixes from ‘on high’ do not work

Now, however, myriad case studies show us that single-factor responses to rural poverty won’t work. We can’t rely on wealth to trickle down as a result of policies designed to generate wealth in the urban-industrial sector. We have lost faith in the application, from on high, of the latest technological breakthroughs alone (eg of the ‘green revolution’ kind) to resolve rural poverty.

Further, rural development literature is replete with studies which warn that universal recipes for the development of smallholder farming don’t work – especially if they fail to engage with local conditions and the small farmers who understand them. The inclusion of local knowledge is vital for rural development, and that requires, as our three speakers agreed, that development agents respect the skills, insights, and aspirations of local small farmers.

Critical role of small-scale farmers

A second line of reflection opens up about the necessity of including smallholder farmers in the development of policies adequately addressing the linked equity and green issues which bear on their wellbeing. Two of the presentations at the seminar showed us policymakers who were slow or unwilling to incorporate local experience and wisdom into their planning.

Professor Roger Jones of Victoria University showed that Australian politicians and bureaucrats committed to rural development have been slow to incorporate the experience and knowledge of local farmers into plans for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. All too often, rural development is still conceived among many policymakers as the expansion of efficient agribusiness.

Professor Bhajan Grewal of VU, the second speaker in the seminar, illustrated the same dynamic, as he outlined the marginalisation of smallholding farmers in India and Pakistan. This was associated not only with increasing rural poverty relative to other sectors of the economy, but also to environmental degradation and socioeconomic costs in both countries.

Governments in both countries  have tended to neglect the agricultural sector, and the ‘policy space’ still devoted to it is dominated by rural elites composed of very large farmers who are deaf to the needs, aspirations, and experiences of smallholders, and often resistant to ameliorative initiatives in such areas as credit access and supply chains.

The country case studies pointed to a third area of reflection – how to proceed when the barriers to sound policymaking and implementation seem so intractable. At very least, we would appear to need a road map incorporating the complex of elements involved in addressing rural development adequately.

Hugh Lacey: agroecology offers solutions

The final speaker, Professor Hugh Lacey, helped us along here. Hugh, an Australian, is Professor Emeritus of Swarthmore College and Co-director on the Working Group on Agroecology at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. That unfamiliar word ‘Agroecology’, as defined and described by Hugh, appeared to me to provide us with such a road map – and more.

Agroeconomy as a mode of production already in practice by small farmers in Brazil and other countries, seeks to ‘optimise interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment, while taking into account the social aspects which need to be addressed for sustainable and fair food systems’. That is part of the FAO definition from which Hugh set out in his contribution. He was at pains to emphasise, however, that such definitions seek only to catch up with practices already articulated by small farmers as they seek to combine the development of rural communities, the pursuit of sustainable production, and the attainment of food security for the poor.

Agroecology may be spelled out as a scientific discipline involving the study of the interaction of the components of ‘agroecological systems’ (modes of farming production linked to environmental factors). But it must also be comprehended as a set of farming practices as they are evolved by small farmers increasingly aware of the damage done to human wellbeing and the environment in farming communities. They apply what they have learned on the front line of suffering under prevailing modes of large-scale agro-industrial production. They draw on local knowledge and traditions as they experiment with alternatives.

Agroecology as described in these terms helps us, then, to see, in actual practice, the already emerging alternatives to prevailing modes of agricultural production which subvert food security and are ecologically and humanly destructive.

A final aspect of agroecology, as outlined by Hugh, also fuels hope that barriers to the incorporation of alternative agriculture into the world of policy-making may be breached. Agroecology involves not only grassroots practice and scientific discipline, but it is also a flourishing social movement, as seen in Brazil’s Movement of the Landless and the global La Via Campesina. These movements have already made their mark in policy formulation and implementation.

Relevant sites on agroecology

FAO (Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations

Rowan Ireland is an Honorary Research Fellow in Latin American studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He has been a close follower of debates about social justice and development movements. He has been a board member of the Yarra Institute for Religion & Social Policy, and is a member of Social Policy Connections.


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