Democratizing Food Systems and Breaking the Bonds of Food Empires

*Este texto foi divido em 3 partes. Para acessar a 1ª parte, clique aqui. Para ver a 3ª parte, clique aqui. Para acessar a versão em português, clique aqui, e em espanhol, aqui.

Agroecological knowledge: learning by doing and sharing. Photo from Collection of Rede Agroecológica Raízes da Mata

By Paulo Petersen and Denis Monteiro

Thinking that the agroecology movement is limited to producing organics in a “differentiated niche” is a mistake. Its focus is to redirect agriculture according to logics that oppose and subvert the capitalist market.

In Part II of this three-part series, Paulo Petersen and Denis Monteiro dig deeper into articulating capitalist neoliberal food empires as the structural root of the current crises in food systems. They go on to present the case for agroecology as the alternative model to prevent the looming collapse. Part I is available here. Earlier versions of this pieces were previously published in Portuguese.

A latent social force hindered by empires of food

The Covid-19 pandemic has given new life to the questions on the impact that the control of giant corporations over food systems and its impact on public health. According to a scientific committee organized by the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, the globalization of uniform patterns of food production and consumption is has aggravated three health problems worldwide: obesity, malnutrition and climate change. As the three both have common causes and effects and also influence each other, the commission identified the process as a unique phenomenon, which it called a global syndemic.

The global syndemic can be read from both poles of food systems: on the one hand, agricultural production is carried out on large scales, based on the intensive use of artificial inputs, such as agrochemicals, hormones and antibiotics; on the other, the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the culturing of deeply unhealty and unsustainable diets; and to energetically sustain this chain of ecological and sanitary irrationality, the intensive use of fossil fuels.

Industrial agriculture and the consumption of junk food have been practiced for several decades, mainly after World War II. Yet, there is no doubt that the accelerated expansion and growing interdependence between industrialized consumption and production occurred under the auspices of neoliberalism, particularly after the signing of the Agricultural Agreement of the World Trade Organization (WTO), in 1995. 

According to the definition proposed by Dutch sociologist Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, true “food empires” have since formed, profoundly altering the political economy of food systems by subjecting the social world and the natural world to new forms of centralized control and massive appropriation. For van der Ploeg, we are witnessing “an imperial conquest with regard to the integrity of food, the expertise of agricultural practice, the dynamics of nature and the resources and aspirations of many farmers”. In contrast to the purported benefits that corporate food empires claim for themselves, they produce no wealth. Like the old colonial empires, they only take over resources previously controlled by local nations and communities, leaving heavy social and environmental liabilities in return.

It is in this historical context, that family peasant agriculture, in all its cultural and identity diversity, emerges as a socio-cultural and political force that holds promise for the future as we rebuild healthy, economically dynamic, technically efficient and ecologically sustainable food systems. There is plenty historical evidence that the logic of social and economic organization of family farming enables the combined development of these dimensions. This is precisely because it imprints in its technical and economic arrangements a set of principles common to the dynamics of how nature operates: diversity; adaptive flexibility; the cyclical nature of the processes; interdependence; and associative and cooperative ties.

Nevertheless, this potential etched in the biocultural memories of family farming and widespread throughout the planet has been largely wasted by public policies and regulatory frameworks designed to favor the expansive dynamics of capitalist agriculture and, more broadly, of food empires. In the place of diversity, this system advances productive specialization, characteristic of the economies of scale adopted in industrial production; cyclical economic processes on a local scale give way to global commodity chains; interdependence between economic agents is progressively replaced by large monopoly conglomerates; the principle of cooperative partnership in the economy is supplanted by competitive individualism in the markets.

Paradoxically, many specific public policies aimed to support family farming, often resulting from hard-fought victories of social movements, end up being productivist and counter-productive to their interests. Poorly designed policies tend to induce farming families to adopt technical and productive innovation trajectories that compromise their economic autonomy and tear their ties of belonging to community solidarity networks.

People in shop buying Agroecological food
The agroecological movement is not limited to producing organics, in “a specialized niche”. By Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia

This situation was verified in Brazil, one of the pioneer countries in the establishment of specific public policies for family farming. Since the mid-1990s, an important part of public funding channeled to this segment has induced it to incorporate the technological packages of the Green Revolution and to specialize its production units. This policy orientation resulted in the progressive substitution of traditional polycultures associated with outdoor farms by monocultures and confined livestock farming — both structurally dependent on commercial inputs. From an economic point of view, these technical changes have implied an increasing commoditization of management operations previously carried out by the families themselves and often involved cooperative processes in their communities.

With the advancement of the so-called “agricultural modernization”, traditional practices in rural economies have been progressively abandoned. These practices include: the local manufacturing of production supplies, the reciprocity in the community for the execution of heavy work, the artisanal processing of production, associative marketing and even the production of food for self-consumption. This has given rise to the increasing commoditization of these products and services necessary for the technical and social reproduction of family farming. As a result, an important part of an essential economic segment, which has historically reproduced itself maintaining high levels of autonomy in relation to capital, is led to enter trajectories of political and economic subordination to the industrial and financial sectors of agribusiness. Not without reason, the renegotiation of debts with the financial system through rural credit policies has come to be increasingly present in the agendas presented annually to the federal government by rural social movements. Even in its demands for public policies, family farming begins to reproduce the behavior of capitalist agriculture.

“Modernizing”, in this sense, means instilling the “entrepreneurial spirit” in family farming, i.e., guiding the economic management of the production units exclusively by the “logic of the markets”. Under current historical conditions, this implies in subordinating family farming to globalized agribusiness chains. In other words, it implies in “depeasantization” of family farming.

Overcoming the Moral Economy of Agribusiness to Democratize Food Systems 

Public policies tend to focus narrowly on increasing agricultural production, creating negative socioenvironmental and cultural externalities to the detriment of the multifunctional qualities typical of peasant agriculture. These policies aimed at ‘strengthening family farming’ often reduce the areas dedicated to the production of basic foods and increase the production of agricultural commodities for the ultra-processed food or feed industries, such as soybeans and corn. This greatly hinders the multifunctional family farming. This is a critical predicament in a country where the right to healthy and adequate food for the people is not guaranteed and is being further compromised with the deepening of the effects of the pandemic.

Even at the microeconomic level, the contradictions are evident. Guided by the objective of maximizing financial profitability in the short term, the economic progress of a family enterprise does not necessarily generate benefits for the surrounding community. On the contrary, this style of growth, beneficial to a few and for a limited time, hinders alternative paths towards more equitable and sustainable rural economies. In this sense, modernization is a path for the development of socially selective and economically concentrated agriculture, in which only those considered entrepreneurs with a business acumen would be morally able to receive public support. It is not without reason that the notion of “competitiveness” has been consolidated as a central value in the moral economy of those who understand agriculture as simple agribusiness.

The development of the latent potentials of family farming as a socio-cultural and economic basis for fair, healthy and resilient food systems therefore requires overcoming the moral economy of agribusiness. To this end, it is necessary for the State to intervene in order to reposition the role and place of markets in the regulation of food systems: a selective arena in which the economic survival of farming families is determined by their degree of alignment with the norms, values and technological standards imposed by oligopolistic networks that operate on a global scale. Instead, agricultural and food markets must be actively transformed to be institutional mechanisms developed and maintained with the effective participation of producers, consumers and agents of local intermediation chains.

This means deconstructing the mystical aura attributed to the market by neoliberal thinking. Like an autonomous entity with its own will, whose invisible hands exercise the power to control the operation of societies, markets are, like any human institution, social constructions that reflect power relations between the actors involved. Fair and democratic food markets are those capable of stabilizing an adequate balance between the interests of the different economic agents involved. Fair remuneration for those who produce, process and distribute food and adequate prices for those who consume.

Making these objectives possible requires the development of democratic governance for food and agriculture. In practice, this implies a redefinition of the roles adopted by the State, civil society and the private sector in regulating economic transactions in food production and supply. This is something virtually impossible to achieve with the application of the neoliberal approach to public management, i.e., with the supposed deregulation of agricultural markets in the name of the supposed free enterprise. This is a contradiction when considering the determining role of the State in conditioning the supposed free markets in favor of the private initiative of a minority to the detriment of the public interests of the majority. 

Agroecology and a new geography of food

Democratic food governance implies the development of a “new geography of food”, with the shortening of physical and social distances between production and consumption. The “relocation” or “reterritorialization” of food systems is exactly what the agroecology movements have been actively advocating and building for decades.

Rather than depending on chemical and fossil green revolution technologies, agroecology develops technical systems maintained by the ecological functions provided by biodiversity. Whether native or exotic, cultivated or not, the biodiversity maintained and managed in agricultural landscapes according to agroecological principles is responsible for capturing and converting solar energy into biomass. With very little or no dependence on commercial supplies and external energy, this biomass is harvested to meet the economic and food needs of farming families and is also recycled in the (agro)ecosystem itself, feeding back into the ecological functions responsible for maintaining soil fertility and the health of crops and livestock.

Looking through this perspective, the notion of “low carbon farming (ABC for it’s Brazilian acronym)” has been recently inserted in the diversionist narrative of Brazilian agribusiness. This approach, like climate smart agriculture lets the corporate model off of the hook and conceals the role of agribusiness in climate change. These models are thus totally inappropriate and questionable. Agroecology contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building farming that is more resilient to climate change, precisely because it replaces economies commanded by financial transactions, entropic by nature, with bioeconomies, i.e., economies in which value is produced in close integration between human work and local ecological flows through the management of biomass.

Healthy food from land reform settlements donated on the outskirts of cities in the state of Paraná by the Landless Rural Workers Movement. Photo by MST

In lieu of agricultural markets controlled by the food empires, the agroecological approach guides the development of territorialized food systems based on the autonomous initiative of local networks formed by producers, processors, distributors and consumers. Built based on various associative forms adjusted to the cultural and organizational peculiarities of each territory, these networks develop and coordinate short circuits of food supply constituted by local markets and other non-market mechanisms of economic transaction, such as exchanges and donations. By stimulating new relations between the rural world and cities within the territories, territorial agroecology networkscontribute to promote regional food cultures, an indispensable condition for the construction of “food sovereignty”, a central political banner of the movements and organizations identified in agroecology .

How can we ensure the feeding of a growing world population and increasingly concentrated in large cities with this proposal to relocate food systems? This recurring questioning of the agroecological proposal points to one of the great challenges posed for a not-too-distant future, when the human population should reach its peak, somewhere around 9 to 10 billion souls. Addressing this critical question requires answers to two other equally critical questions. 

The first is of a biophysical nature: how do we increase the volume of food to supply the growing demand without relying on abundant water, cheap oil and a stable climate? These are three indispensable conditions for the maintenance of the current industrial standards of food production, processing and distribution, which will be irrevocably committed to the continuity of these same patterns.

The second issue is directly related to the demographic dimension. Are the establishment of giant conurbations with the suppression of rural areas and small and medium-sized cities and, on the other hand, the maintenance of the uninhabited rural world with the spread of an approach to farming without farmers desirable and sustainable paths for the future of humanity? The current pandemic reveals one of the many irrational aspects of this pattern of demographic distribution resulting from an organized economic system to produce “reserve armies” of workforce for urban-industrial activities.

According to the image proposed by Manuel Castells, currently Minister of Universities in Spain, the pandemic represents the reset of a dysfunctional system that tends to collapse. In other words, it is an automatic alarm emitted by the system itself so that its dysfunctions are addressed. Formulas adopted in the past to overcome social and economic crises are doomed to fail because they have disregarded the fact that human societies function based on the metabolic integration of the entire Biosphere. Overcoming systemic dysfunctions implies the construction of another metabolic pattern. In Castells’ words it implies “a new way of life, another culture, another economy”.

Agroecology presents itself in this context of redefining civilizational paths as a feasible and necessary proposal for the construction of economies anchored in new cultural values that will base new forms of life. Relocating, deconcentrating and decentralizing are verbs to be conjugated in an integrated way in the grammar of the economies that should emerge to enable these plural worlds.

Agroecology for building a social and solidarity economy 

Institutional recognition of agroecology is growing worldwide. In some media, this recognition remains restricted to the technical dimension of the agroecological approach, which is very often confused with organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is a legally standardized agricultural production model, whose main defining characteristic is ruling out the use of genetically modified organisms and synthetic inputs harmful to human health and nature, such as pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones and antibiotics. Despite its similarity with organic agriculture at the technical level, also oriented to the dispensing of agrochemicals and transgenics, agroecology explicitly incorporates social and political dimensions in its critical perspective when asserting itself as a focus for the structural transformation of food systems according to political economy pacts anchored in counter-hegemonic values ​​and practices aimed at promoting social equity and environmental sustainability.

This conceptual distinction is necessary when we identify that an important part of the world’s organic production is currently controlled by the agribusiness corporate chains. Although it represents an advance in terms of environmental benefits and human health, the exponential growth of organic agriculture in the last twenty years has been fundamentally linked to the same grammar of power imposed by empires of food. This is what explains the fact that organic agriculture is expanding worldwide as a niche market that links a limited number of certified producers to a small portion of consumers with the capacity to pay the extra charged for organic food. It is precisely this logic of economic organization as a specific segment of a market that offers food with increasingly poor quality, which explains the paradoxical simultaneous growth of organic agriculture and the consumption of pesticides in Brazil.

Fortunately the agroecological movement and an important part of the organic agriculture movement in Brazil emerged and developed together, as a critic of not only the technological standards of industrial agriculture but also to the environmentally predatory and socially unfair economic rationale of agribusiness. An eloquent example of this joint construction comes from the 1990s, when the organic movement based on agroecology in Brazil rebelled against the initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture’s move to standardize the certification processes for organic production to meet the demands of the European market.

The local commercialization of organic foods had historically been based on relationships of trust established between producers and consumer. In this context, the movement questioned the need to pay for professionalized certification services, a procedure that was beginning to be adopted worldwide based on pressure from Europe. The result of the fight against the commodification of trust was the official recognition of the Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGSs) in the Organic Law of 2003. Subsequently, other self-managing solidarity devices for generating trust were regulated in the Brazilian legislation, ensuring that an important portion of production in the country, especially family farming, remains commercialized through short circuits, such as farmers’ markets. This Brazilian experience has influenced international debates on the standardization of organic agriculture, with the PGSs currently being recognized by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM-Organics-International) and in the legislation regulating the activity in several countries.

This achievement is an emblematic expression of the challenge of institutionalizing ideas consistent with practices and values of the social and solidarity economy in public policies and normative frameworks of states that are frankly in line with neoliberal foundations. On the other hand, it is worth noting that in economies that are strongly planned and controlled by the State, there are powerful obstacles for the application of these practices and values in the organization of food systems.

There are plenty of historical examples related to the failure of the state interventionist logic on agriculture and food. Cuba’s example is probably one of the most paradigmatic cases in this regard. After decades of heavy subsidies from the Soviet Union for the maintenance of industrial agriculture in the country, the Cuban food system practically collapsed when subsidies ceased due to the bankruptcy of the Soviet regime.

To overcome the tough special period, marked by high levels of malnutrition in the population, the government understood that the structural solution to the food challenge would not involve centralized control of distribution. Nor would it go through the continuity of the production model dependent on agrochemicals and fossil energy sources that it no longer had. Only by abandoning the productivist and anti-peasantry approaches also crystallized in the thinking of the orthodox left, would the country be able to build consistent and lasting responses to the social drama experienced. In practice, this implied in a specific action by the government in alliance with the heroic Cuban people in order to decentralize the food system based on reviving the peasant approach to production,  stimulating agroecological production, and building short supply circuits regulated by local social and solidarity economy networks.

Creating an institutional environment favorable to the development of these practices was decisive to face the deep food crisis in a relatively short time, with the pivotal contribution of urban agriculture initiatives. Cuba is recognized today as one of the countries that have made the most progress in the employment of agroecological perspective for the construction of its food sovereignty.

An agroecological approach to the crisis 

The Cuban example supports the central argument in this article: the transformation of food systems based on an agroecological perspective is an urgent and indispensable condition for us to structurally overcome the civilizational crisis we are currently in. The example also highlights the role that a sudden and unexpected crisis can play in the sense of mobilizing social forces in defense of emergency alternatives to bring changes in the medium and long term. The acute deepening of the health care and food supply crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic works at this very moment as a surprise test to challenge our collective ability to build effective responses to the structural crisis in the neoliberal food system.

As Boaventura Sousa Santos adequately identified, the cruel pedagogy of the virus shows us that the numbing normality of the status quo will lead us inexorably to social disorder. The main challenge for the moment is to generate collective learning from this painful experience so that social forces are able to divert us from this path towards the abyss.

Although contemporary with the implementation of the political-ideological project of the Green Revolution, the criticisms and propositions of the social movements that today gather around agroecology have only recently received some credit in the international community. This sudden recognition occurred exactly with the outbreak of the global food crisis in 2008, the first with such dimensions since the Second World War. Estimating an increase of 150 million hungry people in the world, which have reached the figure of 1 billion people, different United Nations agencies have multiplied calls for emergency action, while FAO convened an extraordinary conference on food security, held in June of that year.

The grueling debates at the event expressed the deep and irreconcilable differences related to the way people interpret the crisis and how they propose to face it. The prevailing voices explained the phenomenon as the result of a particularly unfortunate situation formed by the combination of negative circumstances such as rising energy costs, the use of agricultural land for the production of agrofuels, the frustration of crops in important agricultural areas due to droughts and the increase in demand for grains resulting in changes in consumption habits, with the increase in meat diets. The result of such a fragmentary assessment, unable to relate these phenomena as symptoms of a single structural crisis, could not be other than the reaffirmation, in the final declaration of the Conference, of the validity of liberal policies in the (de)regulation of agricultural markets and technological modernization based on agrochemistry and biotechnologies.

In spite of the resilience shown by the hegemonic power system, the particularly negative situation in 2008 created political space for counter-hegemonic perspectives to be considered in official debates since then. New assessments and new proposals for action to face the profound contradictions of the neoliberal diet were presented in official documents of great international repercussion. In 2009, the report “Agriculture at a crossroads” by the important International Panel for the Evaluation of the Role of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), composed of more than 400 scientists from all the continents, indicated the need to urgently replace industrial farming methods with methods that promote biodiversity and benefit local communities. It further states that more and better quality food can be produced without destroying rural livelihoods and natural resources. 

Public demonstration in defense of biodiversity and against transgenic crops. Photo by Gabriel Fernandes, AS-PTA’s Collection.

Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, corroborated the IAASTD guidelines in the report presented to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations Assembly, in 2010, in addition to explaining the potential of agroecology as the scientific focus best suited to redirect knowledge generation systems and technological alternatives for agriculture. The document refers to agroecology as “a mode of agricultural development that not only presents close conceptual connections with the human right to food, but that, in addition, has shown results in providing this right to vulnerable social groups in several countries”.

In the same line of argument, a series of documents was released by UN bodies and by research groups from prestigious academic institutions around the world. As part of this process of critical review of institutional guidelines, the UN declared 2014 as the “International Year of Family Farming (IYFF)”. In the midst of the IYFF, FAO organized an International Symposium on Agroecology focusing on the promotion of food and nutritional security, followed by four regional seminars. Further on, already in the context of the debate on the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) agenda, in 2018, the second International Symposium on Agroecology took place, this time placing the challenges for the agroecological approach to be institutionalized in public policies at the center of the debate. A recent book highlights many of the reports over the last decade that have laid the foundations of evidence and arguments for agroecology. 

This path of institutional recognition of agroecology forced the agribusiness corporations to adjust their narratives. Their self-legitimizing discourse had focused up to that point on the alleged virtues of their technological packages, always presented as products on the frontier of scientific knowledge. In addition to the agrochemical arsenal used on a large scale since the 1960s, these packages started to incorporate genetic manipulation technologies, with the advent of agricultural transgenics starting in the 1990s. The key argument of the legitimate narrative of the agricultural modernization project imposed worldwide since the mid-twentieth century is related to the need to increase and maintain high physical productivity of crops and livestock through the said modern technologies, a condition for overcoming hunger and malnutrition.

Although the falseness of this argument has been denounced for decades, it was exposed in vivid colors in the 2008 food crisis, after more than 50 years of imposition of agricultural packages through public policies. The crisis has made it clear that the dramas of hunger and malnutrition are not the result of a problem of supply, but of poor distribution of the food produced. In addition to failing to fulfill their central promise, it has become increasingly difficult for agribusiness corporations to hide their direct responsibility in generating and continuously deepening negative effects on the environment, the climate and public health. The need for adjustments in the discourse comes precisely from this growing public recognition of the contradictions of a technological matrix that erodes the biophysical and social conditions of the existence of agriculture itself.

Notions such as “sustainable intensification”, “climate-smart agriculture” or the aforementioned “low carbon agriculture” are now part of the corporate rhetoric in order to convey the false idea of ​​environmental responsibility in agribusiness. Behind these new labels, small changes to old bottles. Technical proposals based on the management of biodiversity and biomass, typical of the agroecological approach, are now accepted in an unprecedented way in the technological arrangements of agribusiness. This stratagem plays a dual role in the war of narratives in which the political struggle is fought: on the one hand, it produces a superficial layer of technical and environmental rationality, seeking to transmit the false image of balance between economic and ecological objectives; on the other, it confuses the terms of the public debate on agroecology, including the clear intention to co-opt parts of the agroecological movement directly involved in scientific-technological innovation.

Because the movement resists and does not allow itself to be co-opted, it is identified by its detractors as ideological and radical. Which in a way is true, we must admit, but not in a disparaging way, and in no way different from the ideological and radical project of neoliberal capitalist food empires. Agroecology is indeed ideological because it defends values ​​associated with equity and social justice, also incorporating a clear orientation in favor of economies that are harmonious with the dynamics of nature.

Agroecology is indeed radical because it calls out the power relations that organize globalized food systems as the root of the structural crisis to be overcome. These are relationships that are imposed through technologies developed to generate structural dependence on agriculture in relation to financial capital. To break the bonds of dependence on capital is the objective of agriculture organized according to an explicitly oriented approach to remunerating labor and ensuring the ecological reproduction of the means of production. Agroecology is this approach.


*Texto originalmente publicado no site Agroecology Now


Paulo Petersen é agrônomo, coordenador executivo da AS-PTA – Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia, membro  do núcleo executivo da Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia (ANA) e da Associação Brasileira de Agroecologia (ABA-Agroecologia)

Denis Monteiro é agrônomo, secretário executivo da Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia (ANA) e doutorando na Universidade Federal Rural do Rio de Janeiro