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Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems
ISSN: 2168-3565 (Print) 2168-3573 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/wjsa21
Bringing agroecology to scale: key drivers and
Mateo Mier y Terán Giménez Cacho, Omar Felipe Giraldo, Miriam Aldasoro,
Helda Morales, Bruce G. Ferguson, Peter Rosset, Ashlesha Khadse & Carmen
To cite this article: Mateo Mier y Terán Giménez Cacho, Omar Felipe Giraldo, Miriam Aldasoro,
Helda Morales, Bruce G. Ferguson, Peter Rosset, Ashlesha Khadse & Carmen Campos (2018):
Bringing agroecology to scale: key drivers and emblematic cases, Agroecology and Sustainable
Food Systems, DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2018.1443313
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21683565.2018.1443313
Published online: 09 Mar 2018.
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Bringing agroecology to scale: key drivers and emblematic
Mateo Mier y Terán Giménez Cacho
, Omar Felipe Giraldo
, Helda Morales
, Bruce G. Ferguson
, Peter Rosset
, and Carmen Campos
Research Group on “Masificación de la Agroecología para los sistemas alimentarios sustentables,”El Colegio
de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico;
Geography Department, Universidade
Federal de Ceará (UFC), Fortaleza, Brazil
Agroecology as a transformative movement has gained momen-
tum in many countries worldwide. In several cases, the implemen-
tation of agroecological practices has grown beyond isolated, local
experiences to be employed by ever-greater numbers of families
and communities over ever-larger territories and to engage more
people in the processing, distribution, and consumption of
agroecologically produced food. To understand the nonlinear,
multidimensional processes that have enabled and impelled the
bringing to scale of agroecology, we review and analyze emble-
matic cases that include the farmer-to-farmer movement in Central
America; the national peasant agroecology movement in Cuba; the
organic coffee boom in Chiapas, Mexico; the spread of Zero Budget
Natural Farming in Karnataka, India; and the agroecological
farmer–consumer marketing network “Rede Ecovida,”in Brazil. On
the basis of our analysis, we identify eight key drivers of the process
of taking agroecology to scale: (1) recognition of a crisis that
motivates the search for alternatives, (2) social organization, (3)
constructivist learning processes, (4) effective agroecological
practices, (5) mobilizing discourses, (6) external allies, (7) favorable
markets, and (8) favorable policies. This initial analysis shows that
organization and social fabric are the growth media on which
agroecology advances, with the help of the other drivers. A more
detailed understanding is needed on how these multiple dimen-
sions interact with, reinforce, and generate positive feedback with
each other to make agroecology’s territorial expansion possible.
agroecology; scaling out;
The science and practice of agroecology offer us the foundations for radically
transformed food systems (Gliessman 2015; Wezel et al. 2009). Increasingly,
agroecology is a key element of a growing, emancipatory movement to
increase the power and control of farmers over their own production; to
foster transformative social processes for the diffusion of agroecological
CONTACT Mateo Mier y Terán Giménez Cacho email@example.com Research Group on “Masificación
de la Agroecología para los sistemas alimentarios sustentables,”El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), San
Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS
© 2018 Taylor & Francis
practice; and to broaden access to food grown in healthy, environmentally
friendly ways (Altieri and Toledo 2011; Martínez-Torres and Rosset 2014;
Rosset and Altieri 2017; Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012). Despite the
recognition gained by agroecology in recent years (International
Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development
(IAASTD) 2008; IPES-Food 2016), few cases in which more than a few
hundred farmers in a given region have adopted agroecological practice
have been documented with depth and detail.
This paucity of documented cases is understandable in light of the massive
constellation of policies, institutions, and corporations dedicated to creating
and maintaining an ideal economic and policy environment for the industrial
agriculture model (McMichael 2013; Van Der Ploeg 2008). However, the
success of agroecology in the face of such opposition merits investigation.
Industrial agriculture has contaminated soils, water, and air; eroded soils and
biological diversity; caused pest outbreaks; led to the indebtedness of farmers;
and contributed greatly to the abandonment of the countryside (Carroll,
Vandermeer, and Rosset 1990; Lappé, Collins, and Rosset 1998).
Furthermore, industrial agriculture has failed in its promise to end hunger
(De Schutter 2010; Patel 2007). Under the neoliberal regime, industrial
agriculture is one of the many tools for –and causes of –resource grabbing
by economic elites (Borras et al. 2012). Understanding where and how
agroecology has overcome these barriers is essential for further development
of the movement.
Agroecological practice draws upon and emphasizes farmer and peasant
knowledge and is best understood not as a set of recipes, but rather as
principles applied in accordance with the unique reality of each farmer
(Altieri 1995; Gliessman 2015; Rosset and Altieri 2017). A fully agroecological
farm would be based on cultivated and not cultivated biodiversity, including
the integration of crops, trees, and livestock, at the plot, farm, and landscape
levels (Nicholls, Parrella, and Altieri 2001; Perfecto, Vandermeer, and Wright.
2009; Altieri and Rogé 2009; Gliessman 2015). On the other hand, input
substitution strategies (e.g. replacing chemical pesticides with microbial pes-
ticides or commercial compost in place of synthetic fertilizers) are sometimes
considered agroecological techniques. While such strategies may be more
ecologically and socially acceptable than those they replace, they can also
maintain the dependency of farmers upon purchased inputs and may have
unintended ecological consequences (Rosset and Altieri 1997; Gliessman 2015;
Vandermeer and Perfecto 2017). In the long run, agroecology aims to reduce
dependence upon external inputs, thereby contributing to the autonomy of
food-producing families and communities (Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012).
At its most ambitious, agroecology proposes the organization and connection
of consumers, producers, and others to form fair, environmentally responsible
2M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
food systems, as well as broader movements for social, political, and economic
justice (Gliessman 2011; Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012).
Thus, bringing agroecology to scale is situated within the pressing need to
transform agri-food systems (Altieri and Nicholls 2008,2012; Parmentier
2014; Rosset and Altieri 2017). We define the “massification,”scaling,
“amplification,”or “territorialization”of agroecology as a process that leads
ever-greater numbers of families to practice agroecology over ever-larger
territories and which engages more people in the processing, distribution,
and consumption of agroecologically produced food. For agroecology to be
scaled, it must expand and consolidate along several axes (International
Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) 2000; Gonsalves 2001, Ranaboldo
and Venegas 2007, Altieri and Nicholls 2012, Parmentier 2014, Brescia 2017).
Scaling combines vertical (scaling-up) and horizontal (scaling-out) processes
(International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) 2000; Rosset and
Altieri 2017). The former are mostly institutional in nature, while the latter
comprise geographical and social spread to more people and communities
and are often associated with grassroots movements (International Institute
of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) 2000; Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012).
Scaling means that a greater fraction of the population, both urban and
rural, can produce and access healthy, nutritious, diverse food that is envir-
onmentally compatible and culturally appropriate (Rosset 2015; Rosset and
Here, we contribute to the theoretical understanding of agroecology’s
scaling processes by analyzing five cases of massification around the globe
and identifying key factors in each case that allowed agroecology to grow
beyond isolated, local experiences. We selected the five emblematic cases
based on their territorial reach, the thousands of families involved, the extent
and quality of their documentation, and our direct experience with each one.
Ours is not a comprehensive review of instances of agroecological scaling nor
do we explore each case exhaustively. Instead, we identify necessary and
contributing drivers of scaling and analyze across cases the relative signifi-
cance of these. We also make an initial attempt to elucidate the complex
relations among these drivers so that strategies for advancing agroecological
transformations might be formulated and evaluated. Works by Gonsalves
(2001) and Parmentier (2014) have already identified several key elements of
scaling. The former provides guidance to NGOs and development agencies
that promote agroecology, while the latter focuses upon policy prescription.
We argue that although allies in NGOs, governments, and other sectors can
contribute key resources and help create an environment conducive to
scaling, successful scaling processes are grounded in broad-based, inclusive
social movements (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson 2017; McCune et al. 2016,
2017; Rosset 2015; Rosset and Altieri 2017; Rosset et al. 2011).
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 3
Case 1: the Campesino a Campesino movement in Mesoamerica
The Campesino a Campesino (CaC) movement was born in the early 1970s
in Chimaltenango, Guatemala, as an effort of Kaqchikel Maya farmers,
with some support from OXFAM and World Neighbors (Holt-Giménez
2006). The farmers drew upon traditions of labor sharing; horizontal
pedagogical practices congruent with the “action-reflection-action”praxis
of Paulo Freire (1970); Latin American popular education; Liberation
Theology; and the indigenous culture to which they pertained (op cit.).
Indigenous peasant farmers used cross visits, demonstration plots, and
small-scale experimentation to teach each other techniques for soil and
water conservation, such as green manure, living and non-living contour
barriers, crop diversification, and intensive bio-horticulture. These agro-
nomic improvements, along with the organization of the Kato-Ki coop-
erative, increased production and incomes. The campesinos began to
liberate themselves from plantation labor and even to purchase and
redistribute land from neighboring coffee farms. But during the brutal
repression of the 1980s, latifundistas called in the Guatemalan military to
Many of CaC’s farmer-extensionists fled. With help from NGOs, they
found work with grassroots projects in Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua,
where they broadened their experience with sustainable agriculture as well as
their organizational skills (Holt-Giménez 2006). Because of this diaspora, the
CaC methodology spread to diverse organizations throughout the region.
Among the most successful were the Mexican peasant organizations Centro
de Desarrollo Integral Campesino de la Mixteca (CEDICAM)
in Oaxaca and
the Grupo Vicente Guerrero,
in Tlaxcala (Boege and Carranza 2009). These
groups adapted the Guatemalan methodology to their own social context and
developed a broader methodological and technical repertoire. Beginning in
1986, farmers from Vicente Guerrero, again with NGO backing as well as
tepid support from the Sandinista government, brought their methodology to
the Nicaraguan Union Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos (UNAG). This
organization was a founding member of La Via Campesina (LVC), a trans-
national peasant movement.
In Nicaragua, CaC grew into a broad-based
movement for social change based upon sustainable peasant agriculture
(agroecology), reaching 30,000 peasant families distributed across much of
the country. This “resistance movement,”as it was defined by its actors,
bolstered the peasantry against the threats of industrial agriculture by pro-
moting socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable
farming (Holt-Giménez 2006).
UNAG later with withdrew from LVC.
4M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
Case 2: ANAP and the agroecological revolution in Cuba
Cuba was the Latin American country that adopted the green revolution’s
technological package with greatest intensity (Machín Sosa et al. 2010,2013;
Rosset et al. 2011). However, agroecology was key in helping Cubans survive
the crisis caused by the collapse of the socialist bloc in 1989–1990 and the
subsequent tightening of the US trade embargo. Cuban peasants were
boosted food production without scarce, expensive inputs by first substitut-
ing ecological inputs for imports that were no longer available and then
through a transition to more diverse, agroecologically integrated farming
systems. Key practices have included soil conservation, crop rotation, green
manure and compost, polycultures and agroforestry, biological control of
pests, integration of livestock with crops, and diversification. Cuban agricul-
ture’s necessarily rapid transition was possible not so much because appro-
priate alternatives became available, but because of the CaC social-process
methodology that the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) –a
member of LVC –learned from Mesoamerica, then adapted and used to
build a grassroots agroecology movement.
Between introduction of the methodology in 1997 and 2010, about one-
third of all peasant families in Cuba came to participate in the “Farmer to
Farmer Agroecology Movement”within ANAP (Machín Sosa et al. 2010,
2013; Rosset et al. 2011; Val 2012). This movement has since grown to
include some 200,000 peasant families, about one-half of the Cuban peasan-
try. During the same period, the Cuban peasants’contribution to national
food production has increased significantly, due at least in part to this
movement. This rapid spread of agroecology was attributable principally to
the social-process methodology and to the social movement dynamics the
movement created. Evolving agroecological practice contributed to the sig-
nificant increase in the peasant sector’s relative and absolute production and
resulted in additional benefits, including resilience in the face of climate
change (Rosset et al. 2011; Funes and Vázquez 2016).
Case 3: organic coffee boom in Chiapas, Mexico
The thousands of indigenous peasants in Chiapas, Mexico, who supply world
markets with organic coffee offer another instructive case of agroecological
scaling (Martínez-Torres 2006). The process has been influenced, driven, and
supported by Liberation Theology and the Indigenous Theology of the
Catholic Church, with their fundamental tenet of a preferential option for
the poor (Hernández-Castillo 2010). The recovery of ancestral and popular
knowledge associated with Maya cosmovision has been central elements of
the boom (Hernández-Castillo and Nigh 1998), along with crop diversifica-
tion; agroecological soil management; strengthening of indigenous identity;
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 5
organization of cooperatives; and fair trade links through Max Havelaar and
other labels (Martínez-Torres 2006; Renard 2003). A key turning point was
the 1989 closing of the Mexican Coffee Institute (IMECAFE), which had
controlled coffee exports. The dismantling of IMECAFE coincided with the
fall in international prices and with the loss of yields and profitability.
That combination of events constituted both a crisis for peasant coffee
producers and (ultimately) an opportunity (Martínez-Torres 2006). In
response to the crisis, an organized process began for the commercialization
of organic coffee under organic and fair-trade schemes. That process, which
ensured a better price for the producing families (Martínez-Torres 2006), was
made possible by a constellation of actors. Among them were cooperatives
backed by Liberation Theology; left-wing political groups present in the
region since the 1970s; cooperatives that IMECAFE itself had supported for
three decades; and other self-organized cooperatives (Martínez-Torres 2006;
Nigh 2002). Other important factors were the physical infrastructure created
during the IMECAFE period and links with the experience of Oaxaca’s
Union of Indigenous Communities of the Isthmus Region (UCIRI), which
had already established marketing schemes for organic coffee. The coops
drew from examples of successful agroecological and agroforestry practices
provided by the Finca Irlanda operation and by Guatemalan agroecology
promoters who had been displaced by that county’s civil war. In addition,
exchanges among the indigenous farmers themselves occurred more sponta-
neously (Martínez-Torres 2006). This strong movement, linked to export and
mediated by organic certification labels (Martínez-Torres 2006), now
includes 31,000 farm families, mostly indigenous, working in a region that
covers 72,000 hectares. These organic coffee farmers obtain roughly the same
yields as conventional farmers with higher profit margins (Martínez-Torres
Case 4: Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) in India
Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), a set of methods that agronomist
Subhash Palekar put together based upon traditional practices and agroecol-
ogy, has become the foundation for a grassroots peasant movement that has
spread to various states in India (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson 2017). It has
attained wide success, especially in the southern Indian state of Karnataka
where it first evolved. The movement found fertile ground in the organiza-
tional landscape of the Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS), a
member of LVC. Participation in Karnataka alone is estimated at roughly
100,000 farmer families; at the national level, it may run into the millions
according to ZBNF leaders. This level of participation has been achieved
without any formal organization, paid staff, or even a bank account. The
movement benefits from a spirit of volunteerism among its peasant farmer
6M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
protagonists. Part of the appeal to farmers comes from Palekar’s charisma
and powerful mix of Hindu cosmology and resistance to both transnational
corporations and the green revolution (Bhattacharya 2017; Khadse, Rosset,
and Ferguson 2017).
At the local level, the movement is run informally, with a self-organized
dynamic. Most farmers who practice ZBNF are connected to each other
informally and carry out both organized and spontaneous farmer-to-farmer
CaC-style exchange activities. Leaders tend to emerge naturally from the
grassroots. At the state level, the main organized activities are training
camps run by Palekar. The camps last up to five days, with about eight
hours of classes each day. Attendance ranges from 300 to 5000 farmers.
Farmer-to-farmer networks, cross visits, and farmer–mentor relationships
develop from the contacts made at the camps (Khadse, Rosset, and
Survey respondents reported that ZBNF is effective for farmers in agro-
nomic, social, and economic terms (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson 2017).
Most reported that sustained use of ZBNF practices –such as biofertilizers,
biological pest control, contours, polycultures, and mulch –improved yields,
soil conservation, seed diversity, quality of produce, household food auton-
omy, income, and health. Motivations commonly cited by farmers for joining
the ZNBF movement include the health of their families, food self-suffi-
ciency, and reduced production costs. Most reduced their farm expenses
and thus their need for credit, one of the major problems plaguing Indian
Case 5: Rede Ecovida in Southern Brazil
The Rede Ecovida (“EcoLife Network”) was created formally in 1998.
However, it can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s, when parallel social
movements were confronting both land concentration and the environmen-
tal and socioeconomic damages occasioned by modern, agrochemical-based
agriculture (Charão and Oliveira 2016). The combination of these menaces,
and of organizations formed to confront them, created conditions for various
alternative-agriculture initiatives, which later came to be called “agroecol-
ogy.”These initiatives were linked with the Rede Tecnologia Alternativa-Sul
(“Alternative Technology Network –South, Rede TA-Sul”), which was
linked, in turn, to the national Rede Projeto em Tecnologia Alternativa
(Rede PTA). Additional links were formed with processes promoted by the
Catholic Church’sPastoral de la Tierra (“Land Pastoral”), which was based
upon liberation theology, and with other local organizations searching for
alternatives (Charão and Oliveira 2016). Ecovida now comprises NGOs,
groups, consumer cooperatives, and cooperatives and organizations of pea-
sant farmers who practice agroecology. Ecovida has a decentralized structure
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 7
in 150 municipalities in the three southern states of Brazil: Rio Grande do
Sul, Santa Catarina, and Paraná. The movement has expanded to 29 farmers’
organizations, 2,700 family farmers, 10 consumers’cooperative, 25 associa-
tions, and 30 agro-industries located in 18 municipalities, with more than
180 farmers’markets (Ecovida 2017).
Although Ecovida focuses on nested markets (Hebinck, Schneider, and Van
Der Ploeg 2014), its members’activities are rooted in agroecological practices.
Members follow principles of horizontality, solidarity, justice, and care for
nature, all of which permeate the governing logicof their activities, and therefore
go beyond marketing and profit making. Ecovida’s participatory certification
program started in the late 1990s as a response to the government’s attempts to
regulate organic production (Perez-Cassarino 2012). The certification program
is an example of Ecovida’shorizontal pedagogical approach, whose goal is
transformative learning (Radomsky 2010). Ecovida members follow their sys-
temic understanding of agroecology and promote a solidary economy between
producers and consumers (Perez-Cassarino 2012). The structure of that econ-
omy allows for different configurations of markets, ranging from door-to-door
peddling, to farmers’markets, to sales to community canteens, consumer
groups, restaurants, and an intermarket commercialization circuit within three
states (Charão and Oliveira 2016; Perez-Cassarino 2012).
Key drivers in the massification of agroecology
Eight interrelated drivers emerged from our analysis of these five cases.
Those drivers can act alone or together to promote and sustain territorial
scaling of agroecology
: (1) crises that drive the search for alternatives; (2)
social organization; (3) constructivist teaching–learning processes; (4) effec-
tive agroecological practices; (5) mobilizing discourse; (6) external allies; (7)
favorable markets; and (8) political opportunities and favorable policies. At
the beginning of a particular process, one or a few of these drivers may drive
scaling. However, positive feedback and virtuous synergisms arise among
drivers as scaling advances, thereby activating other drivers and bringing
them to bear. We propose as a working hypothesis that broad, strongly
articulated, resilient scaling of agroecology results from integration of several
drivers. The eight drivers seem to have been key to the scaling-up of
agroecology in most or all of these five cases. Other drivers undoubtedly
contribute in some cases. Furthermore, access to land for farmer families is a
necessary precondition for agroecology and its growth. With these caveats,
we now describe how these drivers determine agroecological scaling.
Rosset (2015), Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson (2017), and Rosset and Altieri (2017) offer similar lists.
8M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
Driver 1: crises that encourage the search for alternatives
To varying degrees, each of the five cases arose in the context of crises in one
or more facets of the food system and, in some cases, the broader society.
These crises, diverse in origins and expressions, set the stage for transforma-
tion but were never the sole drivers of massification.
When the CaC movement began in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, the country
was at war, economically embargoed by the United States, and suffering from
degraded soils, low yields, a deep food shortage, and unprecedented hyperinfla-
tion (Vásquez and Rivas 2006). In Cuba, the agroecological movement gained
prominence in the context of the fall of the Soviet bloc, the worsening of the US
economic blockade, a widespread food shortage, and the exhaustion of the agro-
industrial model (Machín Sosa et al. 2010,2013; Rosset et al. 2011). In Chiapas,
thecoffeesector’s crisis during the late 1990s was due to the confluence of high
input costs, declining yields, collapseofinternationalcoffeeprices,andthe
dismantling of IMECAFE (Hernández-Castillo and Nigh 1998;Martínez-
Torres 2006). In India, the crisis was marked by overwhelming peasant indebt-
edness that led to an unprecedented epidemic of suicides –an average of one
farmer suicide every 30 min –coupled with low incomes due to falling market
prices and rising costs of green revolution inputs (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson
2017;Misra2008;Mohanty2005; Vakulabharam 2013;Vyas2005).
These crises created political opportunities and propitious contexts for
alternatives to the agro-industrial model. Within such climates, the seeds of
agroecological massification could germinate and then be nurtured by the
suite of interacting drivers we describe below.
Driver 2: social organization and intentional social process
Social organization is the culture medium upon which agroecology grows.
Social-process methodologies accelerate this growth (Rosset 2015; Rosset and
Altieri 2017). Imagine a farm family that is not part of any organizational
fabric. The family may transform its farm agroecologically, but other farmers
may have no obvious way to learn from or emulate the family’s experience.
In contrast, if that family is part of an organization that carries out farmer-to-
farmer exchanges, those exchanges could easily have a multiplier effect.
The experience of rural social movements, and of farmer and peasant orga-
nizations, indicates that the degree of organization (called organicidad or “orga-
nicity”by social movements) is a key element in bringing agroecology to scale,
as is the extent to which horizontal social methodologies based upon peasant
and farmer protagonism are employed to construct social processes collectively.
Increasingly, peasant organizations themselves are sponsoring farmer-to-farmer
processes and agroecology schools (McCune et al. 2016,2017; Rosset 2015:
Rosset et al. 2011; Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012).
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 9
Social organization and process played a key role in each of the five cases
reviewed for this article. That role is most immediately apparent in the
Nicaraguan and Cuban cases where CaC social-process methodology led to
rapid scaling of agroecology (Holt-Giménez 2006; Rosset et al. 2011). We
have argued elsewhere that agroecology spread much more rapidly in Cuba
than in Central America because of ANAP’s greater degree of organicity and
the greater intentionality with which ANAP took on and promoted CaC
methodology (Rosset et al. 2011).
We have also argued that ZNBF took off in Karnataka state because it took
root in communities that already had a rich organizational fabric provided by
the KRRS farmer organization (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson 2017). In
Chiapas, Martínez-Torres (2006) has shown that a previous cycle of social
capital formation by peasant coffee cooperatives laid the groundwork for the
rapid uptake of organic farming methods and for the cooperatives’appro-
priation of new markets that opened up for labeled coffee. In Brazil, the
Ecovida network is, in effect, an organizational structure based upon a social
process and a methodology for linking existing farmer and consumer coops
(Lamine, Darolt, and Brandenburg 2012). In all cases, social organization and
process was the driver that made scaling-up possible.
Driver 3: effective and simple agroecological farming practices
The reduction of synthetic inputs (e.g., via integrated management of soil
fertility and pests) and input substitution (purchased microbial pesticides and
biofertilizers) can be steps in a transition toward agroecological systems. This
is what Gliessman (2015) calls level 1 and 2 agroecology: the reduction of
industrial inputs and the substitution of conventional practices with agroe-
cological practices, respectively. However, an agroecological system occurs at
level 3, a focus upon integration among elements of the agroecosystem. Level
3 agroecology requires creation or strengthening of autonomous mechanisms
for maintenance of soil fertility and regulation of pests and weeds, as well as
synergies and complementarity in use of space, nutrients, water, and sunlight
(Gliessman 2015). Such agroecological practices are based upon the main-
tenance of the life in the soil, enhancement of agrobiodiversity (such as the
integration of crops, trees, and livestock), and farm and landscape redesign
(polycultures, soil conservation, conservation of forest, or wildlife patches)
(Gliessman 2015; Perfecto, Vandermeer, and Wright 2009).
In their respective initial phases, India’s ZBNF and Cuba’s agroecological
revolution (lead by ANAP) were based primarily upon input-substitution
practices, including biofertilizers, efficient microorganisms, botanical pesti-
cides, biological control agents, and (in Cuba) vermicomposting. More inte-
grative (level 3) agroecological practices promoted in our cases included
ZNBF’s use of mulch and native cow manure to enrich and protect soil
10 M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
and to close nutrient cycles. Similarly, Ecovida promoted organic-matter
incorporation, erosion prevention, and use of green manures. Farmers in
Cuba, Chiapas, and Central America used green manure, incorporation of
organic matter, hedgerows, and contour barriers. Organic coffee farmers in
Chiapas also used compost, microbial soil regeneration, mulch, and weed
management for prevention of soil erosion.
To increase biodiversity and related agroecosystem functions at the farm
level, the movements we describe in India, Chiapas, and Cuba promote
polycultures and agroforestry systems (e.g., diversification of shade trees in
coffee plantations; integration of livestock with crops and trees; and integra-
tion of fruit trees with sugar-cane diversification). The Cuban and Brazilian
organizations foster local seed selection, production, and exchange. We
found no evidence that the movements we studied promote protection and
restoration of wild areas within or adjacent to agricultural landscapes, even
though that practice is important for maintaining agroecosystem function
(e.g. Perfecto, Vandermeer, and Wright 2009).
Despite the frequent lack of integrative practice at the farm and landscape
level, the massification efforts noted in our five cases have reduced external
inputs and production costs while increasing production. For example, ZBNF
farmers have achieved better yields using less water and fewer off-farm inputs
(Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson 2017). In Nicaragua, members of the CaC
movement saw their costs decline while their yields increased by 300% (Holt-
Our analysis of these cases suggests that simple, level-2 practices and
recipes may be important for early adoption. More complex practices that
depend upon a more sophisticated understanding of ecological relation-
ships at the farm and landscape levels advance at a slower pace. As the
rapid adoption of Green Revolution packages demonstrates, technologies
that give quick, visible results appeal to farmers. More complex agroeco-
logical management, practices that accrue benefits more slowly, and those
that require landscape-level coordination may be more difficult to pro-
mote, particularly because their benefits, while substantial, can be diffuse
and difficult to observe. This is why the CaC methodology is based on
starting slowly, with simple practices likely to give rapid results. Early
success motivates farmers to stick with the process, and more complicated
practices are introduced gradually (Holt-Giménez 2006; Machín Sosa et al.
Driver 4. Constructivist teaching–learning processes
Teaching–learning processes used by movements that have scaled out agroe-
cology promote the active inclusion of traditional/local/contemporary knowl-
edge, as well as development of autonomy. Pedagogy is predominantly
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 11
horizontal. For example, farmer-to-farmer methodology, congruent with
Paulo Freire’s constructivist
principles (Freire 1970; Holt-Giménez 2006),
was used in all five cases. These teaching methods guarantee collective,
horizontal learning, discussed variously as the co-creation of knowledge
(Coolsaet 2016), and “diálogo de saberes:”dialog among different “knowl-
edges”or ways of knowing (Martínez-Torres and Rosset 2014). The common
objective is recognition of peasant knowledge and cultivation of peasant
protagonism in place of conventional agricultural extension, in which pea-
sants play a more passive role (Altieri and Toledo 2011; Holt-Giménez 2006;
Rosset et al. 2011; Scoones and Thompson 1994). All five emblematic cases
built upon traditional and local practices, especially for the rescue of native
seed varieties and animal breeds.
The teaching–learning processes in the cases we studied integrate spiritual/
emotional/ideological components with technical training, enabling people to
experience meaningful learning (Ausubel 1983). For example, the farmer-to-
farmer method demands work with “head, heart, and hands,”that is, cogni-
tive, emotional, and practical elements (Holt-Giménez 2006). The spiritual
component is evident in Chiapas’s organic coffee boom and the CaC
Movement in Mesoamerica, both of which are influenced strongly by
Liberation Theology’s see-judge-act praxis and by indigenous cosmovision
(Boff 1994). Somewhat similarly, the ZBNF is embedded in spiritual values
that allow peasants to connect with agroecological practice. In all five cases,
teaching–learning processes are accompanied by a clear ideological posture.
The educational programs in each case include processes for systemic ana-
lysis of macro-level socioeconomic, cultural, and political contexts. These
pedagogical practices resonate with Vigotsky’s sociocultural theory, which
states that social interaction, culture, and historical context play a funda-
mental role in the development of cognition (Carrera and Mazzarella 2001;
McCune et al. 2016).
Although Rede Ecovida and Mesoamerica’sCaC movement collaborated
with local schools, the emphasis in all five cases is on informal education.
Thus most training takes place outside of formal institutions, using meth-
odologies coherent with critical pedagogy, peasant protagonism, and auton-
omy. Significant elements include use of materials suitable for local
conditions, mutual visits among peasants, and practical activities in mean-
ingful places –such as their own fields –that make learning meaningful. The
methodologies are based upon teaching by example; what teachers often call
“modeling ethically and practically”(McLaren 2001:79). This “pedagogy of
Delval (2000, 78) considers constructivism to be “a psychological and epistemological position that tries to explain
how knowledge is formed [. . .] Constructivism proposes that subjects need to build their knowledge and that
knowledge cannot be given already built. This theory states that subjects form their knowledge based upon the
knowledge they already have, testing it and contrasting it with their physical and social reality”(translation by
12 M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
the example”is understood in Latin American social movements as a con-
tinuation of the thinking of José Martí and Ernesto “Che”Guevara (Barbosa
and Rosset 2017; Turner 2007). For example, training groups visit farms that
employ efficient agroecological practices because seeing results first-hand
inspires peasants to emulate these practices. Furthermore,
Farmers learn from each other by sharing wisdom, creativity and knowledge, not
just information and techniques. Rather than simply transferring technologies,
farmers first and foremost “make culture”- sharing that leads to action builds a
culture of sustainable agriculture. Technology transfer is actually just one (and not
always the primary) component of this cultural matrix Holt-Giménez (2001, 27).
The teaching–learning processes used in the five cases are supported by
auxiliary materials that include books, booklets, radio, TV programs, and
even intense interchanges of ideas on social networks such as Facebook and
(in India) cell-phone-based communication (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson
2017). The pedagogical components of agroecological scaling stimulate peo-
ples’creativity as well as their active participation and full recognition of
themselves and others as subjects (Brescia 2017; McCune et al. 2016,2017).
In McCune et al. (2016), we further argue that peasant organizations are
implementing these critical pedagogies in ways that use territory itself as a
pedagogical mediator in bringing agroecology to scale.
Driver 5. Mobilizing discourse
The theory of collective action holds that discourse is a key element in social
mobilization processes when it allows the definition or framing of a common
problem, a shared adversary, a horizon of struggle, a common identity, and
common principles (Touraine 1994). The ability to establish a clear, easily
understandable discourse or frame that helps promote social action in a way
that is understood and reproduced by the collective is important for the
scaling of agroecology. Successful agroecology movements combine “agroe-
cology as farming”(farming practices that work) with “agroecology as fram-
ing,”a discourse that (among other things) motivates peasant and farmer
families to undertake sometimes-difficult agroecological transformations
(Martínez-Torres and Rosset 2014; Rosset and Martínez-Torres 2012).
In all cases analyzed, the discourse has been heavily politicized against the
agro-industrial system of the Green Revolution. Beyond that, for agroecolo-
gical discourse to be effective, it must be culturally relevant in each specific
context. For example, Palekar’s ZBNF discourse amalgamates a critique of
the exploitative, anti-peasant system, dominated by transnational corpora-
tions and Western culture, with metaphors from Hindu mythology and
Gandhian principles of personal change, austere life, non-violence, and
responsibility to Mother Earth (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson 2017). In
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 13
Cuba, criticism of the agro-industrial model hybridizes with food sover-
eignty, the care of nature, the revolution’s socialist values, the pride of
being a farmer, and the words of José Marti (Machín Sosa et al. 2010,2013).
The mobilizing dialog in the -coffee movement in Chiapas and CaC
Movement in Mesoamerica, which are influenced by Liberation Theology,
strongly questions both the dominant development paradigm and the tech-
nological path of the Green Revolution, while espousing faith, autonomy,
love for Mother Earth, defense of the territory and culture, and the cosmovi-
sions and ancestral knowledge of Mesoamerican peoples (Hernández-Castillo
2010). In the south of Brazil, another region strongly influenced by liberation
theology, the discourse of Rede Ecovida against agrochemicals and the com-
mercialization of industrialized foods in large supermarkets and promoting
care of nature and health have helped create a common identity shared by
the consumer movement and agroecological farmers.
In summary, each of the five cases is marked by a framing discourse, based
upon culturally, spiritually, and contextually appropriate principles and
values that recognized the worth of farmers and indigenous peoples. Each
discourse has been effective because it motivates the movements’members to
stand against the agro-industrialized system and to take up agroecology as
the alternative to the harmful Green Revolution model.
Driver 6. External allies
External allies have played a vital role in each of our case studies. The
resources and support that allies bring to the scaling process take a variety
of forms: publicity; material (e.g. funds); moral (e.g. social legitimacy); and
organizational or human (e.g. knowledge, abilities, and volunteers). The
support of allies comes from various areas, including government, media,
academia, political parties, religious institutions, and NGOs. Allies include
institutions and, more commonly, individuals within institutions that do not
normally support agroecology. Those individuals include sympathetic gov-
ernment officials able to redirect public resources.
Key allies of the ZBNF movement are Hindu ashrams that provide free
accommodation and food for training camps, as well as social legitimacy. The
peasant movement has provided organizational support, spreading agroecol-
ogy through its grassroots structure. Tech-savvy individuals have given ZBNF
communication support with a wide Internet presence through various blogs,
forums, and other websites where online exchanges occur among both rural
and urban farmers. Some shops provide favorable market outlets. Influential
individuals, including a few entrepreneurs, politicians, actors, and govern-
ment officials, have given the movement visibility in mainstream media and
pushed for favorable public policies (Khadse, Rosset, and Ferguson 2017).
14 M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
Essential allies of the CaC movement in Central America included NGOs
and peasant organizations that brought ideas, funding, and organizational
resources. The movement began with mostly financial, though also technical
support from World Neighbors and Bread for the World (Holt-Giménez
2006). In Nicaragua, support from German Protestant and Catholic churches
played an important role (Salazar 2014). Participants also credit NGO sup-
port as key to introducing a gender-equity perspective to the movement
In Cuba, various government agencies have been important allies of the
CaC movement. Supportive public policies like land reform were key pre-
conditions for the success of CaC. Allied peasant organizations in Central
America, supported by international NGOs, were fundamental in introdu-
cing CaC methodology to Cuba in the late 1990s. NGOs and universities
have provided research, technical, and other types of support. Groups includ-
ing the Cuban Association of Agriculture and Forest Technicians (ACTAF),
the Cuban Animal Production Association (ACPA), and the international–
national public sector Innovation Program on Local Agriculture played
similar roles. The dominant ideology of the Ministry of Agriculture remains
that of large-scale industrial agriculture. However, the movement has won
many favorable public policies, “at least until trade relations are normalized.”
In the meantime, Cuba boasts some of the world’s most supportive policies
for agroecology (listed in Machín Sosa et al. 2010,2013). The Brazilian
agroecology movement grew as an alliance of alternative agriculture NGOs,
members of local, ecological agriculture initiatives, and farmers’organiza-
tions. The Federation of Family Farmers (FETRAF) joined early on.
Subsequently, the Landless Workers’Movement (MST) –an LVC member
supported –added its strength and numbers to the movement. The alliance
later helped create the Brazilian Agroecology Association (ABA) and the
National Agroecology Articulation (ANA), both of which are national group-
ings of agroecology NGOs, movements, and scientists. Regional networks like
Rede Ecovida in southern Brazil formed as partnerships among farmers,
scientists, consumers, and some parts of government to establish localized
agroecological food systems. These alliances have strengthened the move-
ment’s capacity to react to political opportunities and advocate for favorable
In Chiapas, Mexico, the influence of Presbyterian and Catholic clergy who
adhered to liberation and indigenous theologies promoted organic coffee as
part of a revival of the traditional Mayan culture. Also critical was the capture
of coffee processing infrastructure by peasant cooperatives –aided by sym-
pathetic government officials –when IMECAFE was privatized.
In summary, the five cases show that external allies play key roles in the
amplification of agroecology movements, providing support to farmers,
channeling resources, motivating articulations between social sectors, and
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 15
strengthening lobbying capacity. Nevertheless, there may be a fine line
between using support from allies for building the internal strength of
autonomous, bottom-up processes versus creating high levels of depen-
dence on external actors and/or policies and that put the medium- and
long-term sustainability of the process in jeopardy (Rosset and Altieri
Driver 7. Construction of markets favorable to agroecology
The development of alternative food networks (AFN) is not a necessary
condition for the widespread adoption and adaptation of agroecological
practices by farmers, as the lack of such in the cases of ZBNF in India and
CaC in Nicaragua show. Nevertheless, in many instances, markets are a
strategic sociopolitical arena for scaling agroecology (Hebinck, Schneider,
and Van Der Ploeg 2014; Pretty 2001). For Gliessman (2015), building
“food citizenship”through participation in AFNs is the fourth level of
agroecological conversion. Reciprocal arrangements such as solidarity net-
works have often been central to the advance of ecological farmers’markets
and the socioeconomic viability of agroecology (Gliessman 2015; Granovetter
2005; Henderson and Casey 2015; La Via Campesina 2015; Parmentier 2014;
Van Der Ploeg 2012).
These market arrangements can be driven by consumers of internationa-
lized goods, as in the case of certified fair-trade and organic coffee produced
in Chiapas (Martínez-Torres 2006). The arrangements can also be based
upon local and regional food markets, such as those organized by Rede
Ecovida in Brazil. Alternatively, they can be driven by public policies that
support small farmers and agroecological production, as in the cases of
Cuba’s strong support for cooperative formation and tight arrangements
for purchasing their production, and the Brazilian Federal Food
Acquisition from Family Farming (PAA) program (Wittman and Blesh
2017). The socioeconomic and ecological effects may vary according to the
type of market arrangements, but arrangements that prove helpful to massi-
fication of agroecology contribute to food-system transformation by differ-
entiating agroecological production from the general market.
The spread of organic and fair-trade coffee production in Chiapas has
clearly been market-driven, with the conformation of peasant marketing
cooperatives and the arrival in the 1990 of European buyers in search of
organic coffee production (Martínez-Torres 2006). Because coffee has proven
vulnerable to external factors such as market swings and crop diseases,
cooperatives have sought to diversify in recent years. This effort is reflected
in their search for other fair-trade products (e.g. honey) as well as food for
self-sufficiency and local markets.
16 M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
The Cuban case exemplifies a strong involvement by the State in managing
the food market, from supporting the conformation of farmers’cooperatives
throughout the country and awarding them purchasing contracts to ensuring
crop prices that give market guaranties to farmers. These market arrange-
ments in Cuba contribute to the persistence and growth of scaling processes
that originate in the drivers described above.
The Rede Ecovida exemplifies an agroecology movement formed around
an AFN. Through actions including conforming nested market circuits that
connect producers and consumers, and a network of local seed production,
the Rede has become the principal social platform for a solidary-economy
movement spanning three states in southern Brazil (Perez-Cassarino 2012;
Rover 2011; Rover, Corrado De Gennaro, and Roselli 2016). Ecovida’s decen-
tralized, horizontal structure articulates diverse actors through market
arrangements for agroecological products that transform local and regional
The multiple market mechanisms used to strengthen agroecological move-
ments correspond to the need for social innovation adapted to different
situations and challenges. Although we question whether AFNs are a necessary
condition, market conditions can determine the rhythm at which agroecology
goes to scale. The cases we studied lead us to suggest that transformative
potential is enhanced when movements use markets as spheres of sociopolitical
action. This process is not necessarily contingent upon state intervention,
although social movements created around these market strategies can influ-
ence state practices and public policy.
Driver 8. Favorable policies and political opportunities
Policies, including private- and public-sector initiatives, can complement and
enhance efforts for scaling agroecology (Parmentier 2014). The most-signifi-
cant examples involve reformulation and roll-back of policies supporting the
reproduction of the agro-industrial model, instead supporting pathways
based upon agroecological principles. Examples include programs for
small-scale farmers in Brazil and Cuba.
State involvement has been present in all our cases of scaling or institu-
tionalization of agroecology, but to variable degrees. Policy assuring access to
land and different types of land reform establishes necessary conditions for
scaling. In Mexico’s organic coffee movement, the state had limited involve-
ment, and the dismantling of a state marketing program created a political
opportunity, allowing peasant organizations to influence market arrange-
ments and regulatory frameworks. Similarly, the ZBNF movement in India
emerged from a farmers’movement, and only after the movement gained
strength did the government respond by providing resources for a peasant
agroecology school. In the Cuban and Brazilian cases, the actions of social
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 17
movements, including peasant organizations and unions, won significant
state support, including public policies to reinforce movement strategies
contributing to agroecological scaling.
No single policy emerges as essential; rather, combinations of complemen-
tary policies are needed to tackle the various issues at stake in the transfor-
mation of agri-food systems. In Cuba, scientists and farmers demanded
public policies in the farming, education, and market sectors to strengthen
agroecology. Examples include programs to promote biological control,
urban agriculture, organic matter recycling, participatory plant breeding,
backyard livestock, changes in the school curricula, acquisition of agricultural
products by the government, and new stages of land reform policies that
provide peasant access to unproductive land (Machín Sosa et al. 2010,2013).
These agroecologically focused policies prospered within the context of
national policies that maintain high standards of education, health, and
technical capacity for farmers, as well as special-period policies to ensure
farmers’access to land, credit, and markets.
The Workers’Party governments in Brazil also adopted a long list of
policies to support agroecological practices (Caporal and Petersen 2011;
Petersen, Mussoi, and Soglio 2013), though these policies never threatened
the dominance of the industrial agri-food system and many of them are
being rolled back by the new government that entered via a parliamentary
coup d’etat (Oliveira and Baccarin 2016; Rosset and Altieri 2017). The latter
reinforces the concern that public policy support can create dependencies
that weaken social movements over time. In Brazil, the cutback of policies
that supported cooperatives and incipient agro-industrial projects for family
farmers means that these enterprises now have difficulty covering their costs
(Oliveira and Baccarin 2016).
Coherence among policies is fundamental (Parmentier 2014), and the
depth of policy changes required for systemic transformation has yet to
materialize. For example, in Brazil, a large country with a strong agricul-
tural-export economy, diverse socioeconomic groups have gained space for
their interests, including peasants and family farmers. However, the sum of
all the policies they have won from the state is tiny in comparison to ongoing
state support for agribusiness (Itaboraí 2013). Small-scale farmers compete
on unequal footing because policies that attempt to promote family farming
and agroecology are in tension with more-entrenched policies that support
large-scale monoculture production. A similar situation is seen in Cuba,
where many national policies now support agroecology, but policy lock-ins
(e.g. institutions) and path dependence (e.g. infrastructure) mean industrial
agriculture dominates the agenda of the Ministry of Agriculture, which hopes
for normalized trade relations.
18 M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
The five cases of agroecological massification that we analyzed have been
sparked by crises and fueled by strong organizational structures within social
movements capable of channeling the collective response to those crises. This
sort of process gathers strength as constructivist pedagogical methods are
employed, as farmers recognize the efficacy of agroecological practices, and
as alliances enhance momentum. In addition, favorable markets and policies
broaden opportunities for transformation of the agri-food system.
While the relative importance of the drivers for scaling agroecology varies
among the five cases (Table 1), we detect some patterns. Perhaps the most
important of these is that scaling is multidimensional, resulting from con-
vergence of several drivers. Crises were present in all the cases we studied
and in some instances seemed to set scaling processes in motion. However,
successful response to crises and opportunities seems to require a well-
developed, preexisting organizational fabric.
Stated differently, organization and social fabric constitute the culture
medium on which agroecology grows. They provide the structure through
which values, meanings, lessons learned, and horizons of political action
circulate. They also provide opportunities to design and implement processes
like CaC and to link with external allies.
“Organizational structure”should not be interpreted as referring to a static
arrangement. Rather, a movement’s organizational structure can grow as
agroecology is amplified to articulate smaller organizations and extend
their reach. Such was case of Ecovida, where a network was created as part
of the scaling process. Nor does the organizational structure have to be
formal. India’s ZBNF movement escalated through a partially spontaneous
network and through interactions that were not institutionalized. Moreover,
many farmers practice agroecology without formally joining any organiza-
tion. Still, the reach of the organizations may determine to a large extent the
scope for scaling agroecology (Rosset et al. 2011).
Table 1. Relative importance of drivers contributing to agroecological massification in the five
analyzed cases (rated from 1 to 5, consensus of the authors).
America Chiapas India Brasil
Crisis 4 2 .5 3 .5 3 .5 1 .5
Social organization, process 4 3 .5 3 .5 3 .5 3 .5
Effective agroecological practice 3 .5 3 .5 3 .5 3 .5 3
Mobilizing discourse 3 2 2 3 .5 2
Constructivist pedagogy 3 .5 3 .5 2 2 2 .5
External allies 2 .5 3 .5 3 3 3
Favorable markets 2 1 .5 4 1 .5 3 .5
Favorable policies 3 1 .5 2 .5 1 3
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 19
Horizontal, constructivist pedagogies and methodologies, such as CaC,
seem to be crucial for bringing agroecology to a territorial scale. The dis-
semination of agroecology and the transformation of productive practices
have been achieved, thanks to such methods, based upon dialog of knowl-
edges. According to Rosset et al. (2011, 168–9):
Methods in which the extensionist or agronomist is the key actor and farmers are
passive are, in the best of cases, limited to the number of peasant families that can be
effectively attended to by each technician, because there is little or no self-catalyzed
dynamic among farmers themselves to carry innovations well beyond the last techni-
cian...A fundamental tenet of CaC is that farmers are more likely to believe and
emulate a fellow farmer who is successfully using a given alternative on their own farm
than they are to take the word of an agronomist of possibly urban extraction. . .
Whereas conventional extension can be demobilizing for farmers, CaC is mobilizing,
as they become the protagonists in the process of generating and sharing technologies.
Peasant promoters need thorough preparation in the methodological
approach, lest some of them follow the example of experts from extension
programs by imposing rather than facilitating, and by prescribing methods
rather than participating in processes (Machín Sosa et al. 2010,2013). When
peasant promoters do act like extensionists, the process typically remains
centralized in a few farmers and loses momentum. It is essential that agroe-
cological practice and critical pedagogies walk hand in hand and so that new
proposals can be tailored to new contexts.
In most of the five cases, input substitution strategies proved attractive to
farmers. However, we maintain that agroecology movements need to move
beyond input substitution to benefit from synergistic interactions in more
fully integrated agroecological systems (Vandermeer and Perfecto 1997;
Morales 2002; Gliessman 2015). However, this transition is well developed
only in the Cuban case (Rosset et al. 2011). These observations raise impor-
tant questions about processes of transition and transformation, such as,
would it be possible to start with greater complexity and an emphasis on
prevention? Or is it best to first capture the attention of farmers with the
quick results obtainable through input substitution? Might a focus upon
input substitution perpetuate linear, cause-and-effect, “recipe”thinking?
Can framing around traditional cosmovisions promote complex thinking
and practice, through ways of knowing that recognize the interconnectivity
among agroecosystem elements (Aldasoro 2012)?
The processes we studied were championed and led by peasants and
farmers. Indeed, peasant farming and protagonism are at the center of
farmers’movements and agroecology alike, leading to a natural affinity.
Van Der Ploeg (2013) suggests –and our cases corroborate –that agroecol-
ogy appeals to farmers in part because it diminishes their dependencies and
builds their autonomy. Thus, agroecological movements are strongest when
not overly dependent upon external structures originating from NGO
20 M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
projects, research institutions, or public policies. On the contrary, agroeco-
logical movements foster constant conformation of farmer and peasant
leadership that gives them leverage and strength.
Even so, in the cases analyzed, the role of the external allies has been
important. One lesson is that while it is necessary that farmers’organizations
manage the process, external allies can play a fundamental role by contribut-
ing to specific aspects that the organizations cannot cover adequately on their
own. Moreover, on a more normative note, the deep transformation that
agroecological movements are advocating will require sharing of the struggle
and costs –be they material, political, or cultural –among different groups in
society. Loading all the required effort onto the farmers may impose a limit
on scaling. At a certain point, alliances (including dialogos de saberes) then
become critical for strengthening agroecological knowledge and rural–urban
linkages, as well as for influencing policy and market dynamics.
We and many other authors believe that the participation of women is
critical to scaling agroecology (Parmentier 2014; Siliprandi 2015; Siliprandi
and Zuluaga 2014). With the exception of the CaC movement (Holt-
Giménez 2006), we did not find evidence that women’s involvement was
explicitly fostered in the cases we studied. Yet women play diverse roles in
agriculture, and their traditional responsibility for nurturing families and
communities, mentally and physically, gives women a profound and complex
understanding of agri-food systems (Allen and Sachs 2012). In addition,
women have undertaken leadership in movements to advance and develop
agroecology and resist unjust agrarian models and territorial exploitation
(Martínez-Alier 2002; Siliprandi 2015; Tait 2015; Tapia 2016). Our field
experience and reading lead us to believe that in many –or perhaps most
–cases, it is women who encourage and implement agroecological change
within families, both directly and by influencing men (Siliprandi 2015). Holt-
Giménez (2006) notes that women are often the guardians of biodiversity in
fields and gardens and have a strong influence in decisions about which
crops and varieties to plant.
In the same way, it is important to understand the role of youth in
agroecological scaling. Although youth were not central to the cases we
analyzed, peasant movements are currently emphasizing youth leadership
and training (McCune, Reardon, and Rosset 2014; Barbosa and Rosset
2017; McCune et al. 2016,2017). Young people who stay in the countryside
or return to it usually have a more agroecological vision than the previous
generation. Youth seem to be advancing agroecology (McCune et al. 2016,
2017), and agroecological schools equip young peasants with both technical
and political skills.
Public policies were not among the most important early drivers of scaling
in the cases we analyzed. Typically, such policies had to be won through the
movements’advocacy or struggles and on the basis of successes already
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 21
achieved. For example, ANAP’s influence on Cuban policies was propor-
tional to that bottom-up movement’s ability to boost agroecological produc-
tion. Brazilian policies in favor of agroecology and family farming were won
by the struggle of peasant and family-farm social movements, with the help
of allies in NGOs and other sectors. Even where favorable policies were in
place when movements began, those policies tended to contribute only after
the scaling processes had already gained momentum.
Parmentier (2014, p.59) argues that “unlocking ideological barriers to
political recognition of the socioeconomic and environmental importance
of farmers and agroecology”is crucial in the policy-making process.
However, in the cases analyzed here, changes in policies have by and large
been marginal. Even the inclusion of food sovereignty in countries’constitu-
tions (e.g. Ecuador) has had little effect so far. The governments of Bolivia,
Uruguay, and Argentina have given lip service to agroecology, but their
overarching political economies remain hostile (Montagut, Gascón, and
Riera 2010; Vergara-Camus and Kay 2017).
A further complication is that policies promoting the institutionalization
of agroecology may cause farmers’organizations to lose control of the
massification process, thereby weakening movements (Levidow, Pimbert
and Valorqueren 2014; Giraldo and Rosset 2016,2017). Another risk, asso-
ciated with the current trend toward institutionalization of agroecology in
the FAO and other national and international venues (Giraldo and Rosset
2016,2017), is the cooptation and capture of “agroecology”policies by
agribusinesses eager to be “greenwashed.”
we explored lead us to suggest that while markets can attract people to
agroecology, scaling based principally upon market opportunities can be
vulnerable to external changes. Thus, market mechanisms should be
designed to strengthen social movements, not to be a central driving
force thereof. Markets have not been indispensable to the increase in
agroecological production, but failure to consider markets can be an
Achilles heel. Markets contribute most to agroecology movements in
cases like Rede Ecovida and Chiapas’s organic coffee production, where
they are nested within networks whose unifying elements are environmen-
tal and social values. Rede Ecovida assures compliance with those values
through a participatory guarantee system that builds internal capacity and
relationships rather than perpetuating reliance on external certification
(Radomsky and Leal 2016). Alliances created around market mechanisms
have the potential to extend the reach of agroecology’s transformative
power to realms other than production. We note, too, that large-scale
transformation of agri-food systems will be difficult until demand for
agroecological products increases and until stronger relationships between
producers and conscious consumers are developed.
22 M. MIER Y TERÁN ET AL.
Conclusions: a new field of research and construction of alternatives?
In this analysis, we have identified eight drivers that were important, to
varying degrees, in the scaling of agroecology in five cases that we consider
emblematic. The analysis is preliminary and does not fully address ele-
ments such as the roles of women and youth nor transformations at the
scale of alternative food regimes. Nevertheless, we believe that the patterns
revealed contribute to understanding of agroecological scaling in diverse
We have barely addressed interactions among the various dimensions of
agroecological scaling and the importance of the “quality”of each in
particular cases. Much more detail is needed on how these dimensions
can interact to generate positive feedback. In particular, we believe it
important to advance research that systematically studies how public
policies can accompany existing efforts, helping them grow more autono-
mous and better organized rather than generating risky dependencies.
Research is also needed on the role of public policy in catalyzing the
emergence of new processes.
We have focused upon aspects that favor the scaling of agroecology, but
we should not ignore the importance of analyzing elements that limit the
expansion of agroecology. Those elements include paternalistic, clientelistic,
demobilizing relations; public policies that facilitate land concentration and
land grabbing; and actions of governments and international and market
institutions that foster the expansion of agribusiness and industrial mono-
cultures (Giraldo 2018; Rosset and Altieri 2017). Nor have we considered
other obstacles, such as the lack of organization and/or mobilizing leader-
ship, the hegemonic power of the dominant agricultural development para-
digm, and the insidious effects of the coloniality of knowledge. We need to
deepen an understanding of how to scale agroecology in the context of
neoliberal globalization, where these limiting aspects constitute the rule
rather than the exception.
Scaling of agroecology is both a relatively new research field and a real-world
phenomenon with great potential (Parmentier 2008; De Schutter 2010b). The
havoc being caused by the Green Revolution model makes scaling urgent:
agroecology must transcend individual plots and farms, to become the norm
on the scale of territories, rural–urban constellations, and nations (Gliessman
2015;Rosset2015; Rosset and Altieri 2017), extending to the global agri-food
system, level 5 in Gliessman’s(2015) scale of agroecological conversion. We
believe that this expansion requires greater capacity for articulating the ecolo-
gical and social-science aspects of agroecology and for transdisciplinary asso-
ciations with social movements that defy corporate agribusiness and the
industrial agri-food system while building alternatives (Méndez, Bacon, and
Cohen 2013; Ferguson 2015).
AGROECOLOGY AND SUSTAINABLE FOOD SYSTEMS 23
This research was partially funded by CONACYT (Proyect 2529). Peter Rosset was partially
supported in this research by the Processo CAPES PVE-Edital 65/2014, no. 23038.010102/
2013-34 Programa Professor Visitante do Exterior of the Government of Brazil, at the
Universidade Federal de Ceará (UFC).
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Omar Felipe Giraldo http://orcid.org/0000-0002-3485-5694
Miriam Aldasoro http://orcid.org/0000-0001-5411-7499
Bruce G. Ferguson http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3963-2024
Peter Rosset http://orcid.org/0000-0002-1253-1066
Ashlesha Khadse http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3152-1776
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