Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet"
The question “How?” recurs in many discussions of the transition to agroecology. The following comments offer a perspective on this question.
The concentration of power and wealth identified within the global industrial food system extends throughout the capitalist/industrial system as a whole, and exerts a scale of influence over national and international policymaking that makes any aspirations to revitalize democracy, at these levels, relatively futile. Public awareness of global ecological crises has been growing since the 1970s, and there have been repeated calls for government to lead societal transition. Nonetheless, we are all still riding the juggernaut of industrial growth and consumerism—at least those of us in the Global North and emerging economies.
Agroecology and the democratic revitalization required to sustain it perhaps need to be built up, as far as possible, outside of the dominant system, and will only be realistically scalable when the current system begins to collapse. This will happen when fossil energy is no longer affordable to sustain the industrial food system, and industrial civilization as a whole. We may be approaching that stage if we have to resort to expensive and dangerous measures like “fracking.”
The Cuban “Special Period,” following the demise of the Soviet Union, is our best (and perhaps only) model for successful adaptation to energy scarcity and transition to scaled-up agroecology. With the loss of fuel imports and agricultural inputs, industrial farms collapsed. A key factor in Cuba’s survival and transition was the existence of peasant farming on 20% of farmland, practicing traditional agroecological methods. These methods were disseminated and supported by modern agroecological research.1
Another dimension of Cuba’s adaptation, relevant to the discussion about the politics of transition, was a strategy of decentralization. Centralized ministries were incapacitated by fuel shortages, so they were decentralized to provincial capitals and local municipalities. Responsibility for food production was devolved to provinces, including provision of a ration. Provinces with surpluses assisted those with deficits. The trend during the Special Period was towards more autonomous, but mutually supportive, city-regions.
City-states and "city-state cultures" (clusters of city states sharing a common language and culture) have been the norm for thousands of years of human history. They have been associated with cultural progress and have emerged after the collapse of larger political entities.2 I would therefore propose that an agenda to promote agroecology should be more focused on city-regions and city networks, rather than wasting too much energy attempting to mobilize national government towards transition.
1. For an account of this, see Julia Wright, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity: Lessons from Cuba (London: Earthscan, 2009).
2. Mogens Herman Hansen, Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).