Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet"

M. Jahi Chappell

Lappé has given an excellent summary of many of the challenges, and opportunities, facing us. I want to bring in a quote that she has often used in the past:

“[There are] core, often unspoken, assumptions and forces—economic, political, and psychological—now taking our planet in a direction that as individuals none of us would choose.”

The thing that regularly excites me about the future, a potentially food-sovereign and agroecological future, goes back to this oft-made point: very, very few people would choose the direction we’re going in—that capitalism’s forces and assumptions so often push us. It can be easy to forget this, given the triumphant technocratic narratives that surround us. But, with apologies to Mark Twain, the news of capitalism’s vitality has been greatly exaggerated.

We, of course, are seeing that in various ways right now. Rather than seeing, for example, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the rise of Bernie Sanders, the growth of La Vía Campesina, and many other recent events as discrete points, I view them as continuing manifestations of a rising tide for change. Political scientist John Kingdon pointed out three decades ago that specific issues rise and fall in the public agenda process, but the dynamics underneath them—public awareness, potential solutions, and attention from elected officials—continue evolving even when they are not at the top of the list.1 Said another way, it can take many years for significant change to happen, but that doesn’t mean that all previous attempts at change “failed.” Any one of them could have worked, but there is a large dose of random chance (luck) in social change, alongside planning and opportunity. But all the while, the underlying desire for change, the continuing experiments, examples, and imaginaries draw us ever closer to what will in retrospect likely look like a sudden switch to a better way. And each event, each manifestation, each movement, makes that switch a bit more conceivable, a bit more likely to happen.

Despite the hubris of capitalism’s promoters, if we know one thing with high certainty, it is that capitalism is unlikely to be the ultimate and everlasting expression of human economic organization. Claims that it best aligns with human nature take too pessimistic a view of what people are capable of, remain intentionally blind to all the counterevidence, and take too optimistic a view on the stability of human beings’ own conceptions of what “human nature” looks like.

Many of the various members of the nobility thought feudalism was the ideal and eternal system.

Mercantilists were not looking at their world and going “this is just a phase.”

Colonialists all around the globe each had their own version of thinking that the sun would never set on their empire.

The world changes. Capitalism is simply not the last system we will have. Are we guaranteed to have a better one? Not by a long shot. Can we have a better one? Absolutely.

And so we return to the promise of agroecology, and its partner, food sovereignty. They are both concepts that are still evolving—more processes than destinations.2 They will only be realized, and improved, in the practice. The exciting thing is that so many people are doing, are practicing, or would like to if given the opportunity. Young farmers are having an incredibly difficult time entering farming due to barriers in land access and credit. Indigenous peoples, small family farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolk, gatherers, and more around the world are struggling to hang on to their land, their rights, their sovereignty, their traditions, and their livelihoods. But these millions of people are struggling, because they believe something better than what we have now is possible (and in many cases, of course, because they do not have another choice).3 Billions of people, in fact, want to and are in the process of pushing to take the planet in a direction that we, as parents, children, spouses, friends, and communities would choose. Insofar as we deepen and improve our solidarity—through agroecology, through food sovereignty, through compassion, love, and participation—we build strength and power towards change for the better. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”4

Agroecology gives us a science and practices to help inform this movement towards a better, more just, more sustainable food system. Food sovereignty seeks to reunite, and to invent new ways to unite, the rights to decide and control our own food systems and the responsibilities we have to each other in our communities. Not just our local communities, but also as part of the world community. We can no longer deny that the actions of each individual have an effect on the quality of life for everyone else, and for future generations. This is why my colleague Mindi Schneider and I have recently argued that the three pillars of food system sustainability ought to be agroecology, food sovereignty, and food justice, rather than the bland, uninformative, and uninspiring “social, economic, and environmental.”5 Beyond the food system, we might think of the three pillars as democracy, justice, and ecology. But whatever you call it, one thing is clear from the growing profile for agroecology and its siblings: it represents values and needs that are deeply and genuinely felt by many people around the globe. It will be of course by no means be easy to “get there.” But more and more, I believe we have every reason to think that we can.

1. John W. Kingdon,  Agendas, alternatives, and public policies, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).
2. For an expansion on this theme, see Jill Carlson and M. Jahi Chappell, Deepening food democracy (Minneapolis: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2015),
3. See, for example, International Forum for Agroecology, Report of the International Forum for Agroecology (Sélingué, Mali: The Nyéléni Center, 2015),
4. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech delivered at the 11th Annual Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, 1967).
5. M. Jahi Chappell and Mindi Schneider, “The new Three-Legged Stool: Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Food Justice,” in Routledge Handbook of Food Ethics, ed. Mary Rawlinson (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).

M. Jahi Chappell
M. Jahi Chappell is Senior Staff Scientist at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and board member of the Open Source Seed Initiative. His first book, tentatively titled Beginning to End Hunger: Food, Policy, and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, will be published by the University of California Press in 2017.

Cite as M. Jahi Chappell, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet," Great Transition Initiative (April 2016),

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