Can agroecology survive without being coopted in the Global North?
Miguel A Altieri
University of California, Berkeley
The Green Revolution was a homogenous technological model for agricultural
development that originated in the breadbasket of the United States following World War
II. It turned “swords into plowshares” by “transforming the vast stocks of wartime nitrate
and poisons into fertilizer and pesticides, and by refitting materiel factories to make newer,
bigger farm machinery. Hybrid seeds were developed to respond vigorously to irrigation
and chemical inputs. Industrial agriculture boomed. However, by 1960 US farmers had
bought all of the new technology they needed. Seeds, agrochemicals and machinery began
to pile up in warehouses. The Rockefeller Foundation decided to solve this “surplus”
problem by exporting this model of production to a very different set of geographical,
cultural and social environments in the Global South.
Carl Sauer, a highly respected Professor of Geography at University of California, Berkeley
with vast experience in Latin American agriculture was originally contracted by the
Rockefeller Foundation to investigate the possibility of starting the Green Revolution in
Mexico—ostensibly to help poor Mexican farmers increase their productivity. But when he
filed his report, Sauer warned Rockefeller about the potential socio-cultural consequences
of such approach (Jennings 1988):
“A good agressive bunch of American agronomists and plant breeders could ruin native
resources for good and all by pushing their American stocks…and Mexico cannot be
pointed toward standarization on a few comercial types without upsetting native economy
and culture hopelessly. Unless the Americans understand that, they better keeop out of
this country entirely. This must be approached from an appreciation of native economies
as basically sound.”
The Green Revolution was spread with loans, projects and government programs to
millions of farmers in the Global South. With massive investment, food production
increased dramatically. But, Carl Sauer’s predictions came true. Because the technology
required capital and well endowed lands, it favored larger farmers. Smallholders were
driven off the high quality land and pushed to the fragile hillsides and into the rainforests.
When they were offered cheap credit to buy Green Revolution seeds and chemicals, these
inputs quickly deployed the fertility of their soils and eroded their local genetic diversity.
Yields fell, millions of small farmers were economically ruined, and forest cover and
topsoil was lost on a massive scale.
The Green Revolution proved to be a disastous mismatch for the majority of the food
producers in the Global South. In its aftermath, peasant farmers struggled to stay on the
land and restore the ecological integrity of their farming systems. They found a way with
Although many northern academics claim that the term Agroecology was first coined by
European scientists such as Bensin, Henin, Tischler and Azzi at the beginning of the 20th
century (Wezel et al 2009), the roots of agroecology lie in the ecological rationale of
indigenous and peasant agriculture still prevalent in many parts of the developing world
Thirty years ago, Latin American agroecologists argued that a starting point for new, pro-
poor agricultural development strategies were the very systems that traditional farmers had
developed over centuries. From the early 1980s, hundreds of agroecologically-based
projects have been promoted throughout Latin America and other parts of the developing
world that incorporate elements of both traditional knowledge and modern agricultural
science. A variety of projects emerged showing that over time these agroecologically
managed systems bring benefits to rural communities by enhancing food security with
healthy local food, strengthening their resource base (soils, biodiversity, etc.), preserving
cultural heritage and the peasant or family farm way of life, and promoting resilience to
climate change (Altieri and Nicholls 2008).
Agroecology contributes towards the process of “re-peasantization” in which, contrary to
the general tendency of migration from the countryside to the city, smallholders are
returning to the land. For peasant organizations agroecology has proven vital in their
struggle for autonomy by reducing their dependence on external inputs, credit and
indebtedness and also by recovering their territories (van der Ploeg 2009).
Because they are often developed and shared through extensive Campesino a Campesino
(farmer-to-farmer) social networks, peasant-based agroecological approaches are an
integral part of many agrarian struggles for land and market reforms as well as peasant
movements against land grabs and extractive industries. For them agroecology is not just a
scientific or technological project, but a political project of resistance and survival.
Historically, Agroecology in Latin America has been viewed as an applied science
embedded in a social context that challenges capitalist relations of production and is allied
with agrarian social movements. Strongly engaged with ongoing agrarian debates,
agroecologists in Latin America have typically embraced the critiques of top-down rural
development and supported peasant resistance against the corporate food regime, industrial
agriculture and neoliberal policies.
There is growing interest in adopting and spreading agroecology in the USA and Europe.
This is good news. But similar to the southward spread of the Green Revolution, the
northward spread of agroecology has encountered—a political—mismatch. The political
dimension of agroecology, as conceived in Latin America, is problematic for the
application of agroecology in the Global North—particularly the United States because
challenging the root causes of the environmental and social crisis of industrial agriculture,
implies challenging capitalism itself. It transcends the reformist notion that changes can be
achieved within the current system with minor adjustments or ‘industrial greening’ of the
current neoliberal economic model. It requires resituating agroecology from the political
confines of academia and non-governmental organizations, into the political arena of
progressive social movements that embrace agroecology as a pillar of food sovereignty,
local autonomy, and community control of land, water and agrobiodiversity.
Agroecology in the US and Europe is not anchored in strong social movements. The arena
of agroecological debate is an eclectic soup of largely a-political (read: avoiding the subject
of capitalism) narratives, each suggesting different pathways to sustainable agriculture.
These narratives are promoted by entitled actors (elite consumers and academics,
mainstream NGOs and big philanthropy) who embody particular values and goals that
dominate debates in academic, media and policy circles. Practitioners of agroecology
remain marginal or even hidden from view (Afro-American, Latino, Indigenous and Asian
voices, poor consumers, progressive academics and NGOs critical of capitalism). This
institutional camp, using a variety of names (sustainable intensification, climate smart
agriculture, diversified farming systems, etc.) promote a lukewarm definition of
agroecology and see it essentially as a set of additional tools to improve industrial
agriculture’s tool box. In other words, they see agroecological tools as ways to make this
"dominant model" a little bit more sustainable, without challenging underlying relations of
power, nor the structure of large-scale monocultures—nor the ways in which the industrial
model undermines the very farmers who are practicing agroecology.
Agroecology—as a countermovement to the Green Revolution—is at a crossroads,
struggling against cooptation, subordination, and revisionist projects that erase its history
and strip it of its political meaning (e.g., Tomich et al. 2011, Roland and Adamchak
2009). If de-politicized, the term agroecology is rendered meaningless, divorced from the
realities of smallholders and family farmers, and politically powerless in the face of the
corporate food regime and the urgent social and environmental challenges of our food
Agroecology does have a pivotal role to play in the future of our food systems. If
agroecology is co-opted by reformist trends in the Green Revolution, the countermovement
will be weakened, the corporate food regime will likely be strengthened, and substantive
reforms to our food systems will be highly unlikely. However, if agroecologists build
strategic alliances with radical food sovereignty struggles, the countermovement could be
strengthened. A strong countermovement could generate considerable political will for the
transformation of our food systems. (Holt-Gimenez and Altieri 2013).
Whether one recognizes the politics of agroecology—or tries to hide it—it is precisely
these politics that will determine our agricultural future.
Altieri, M.A. 2002. Agroecology: the science of natural resource management for poor
farmers in marginal environments. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 93:
Altieri, M.A. and C.I Nicholls. 2008. Scaling up agroecological approaches for food
sovereignty in Latin America. Development, 51(4): 472–80. URL:
Holt-Gimenez, E and M.A. Altieri 2013 Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and the New
Green Revolution. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 37: 90-102
Jennings, B. 1988 Foundations of International Agricultural Research: Science and Politics
in Mexican Agriculture. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 196 pp.
Roland, P. C, and R. W. Adamchak. 2009. Tomorrow’s table: Organic farming, genetics
and the future of food. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Rosset, P.M. & Martinez-Torres, M.E. 2012. Rural Social Movements and Agroecology:
context, theory and process. Ecology and Society, 17: 17-26
Tomich, T., S. Brodt, F. Ferris, R. Galt, W. Horwath, E. Kebreab, J. Leveau, et al. 2011.
Agroecology: A review from a global-change perspective. Annual Review of
Environment and Resources 36(15): 1–30.
Van der Ploeg, J.D. 2009. The new peasantries: new struggles for autonomy and
sustainability in an era of empire and globalization. Earthscan, London, 356 p.
Wezel, A., S. Bellon, T. Doré, C. Francis, D. Vallod and C. David. (2009) Agroecology as a
science, a movement, and a practice. Agronomy for Sustainable Development,