Agroecology Now

This is my response to Frances Moore Lappé’s recent essay Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now  on the Great Transitions Network’s website.

Yogi Hendlin, “Commentary on ‘Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now,'” Great Transition Initiative (April 2016),

Commentary on Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now 

Lappé’s essay packs lucid argumentation citing exciting research. Perhaps most important, however, she elegantly frames the issues surrounding agroecology and its structural impediments as political negligence rather than inevitability.

Her convincing counterexamples melt deflationary perspectives of predetermined outcomes and the supremacy of industrial agribusiness’s overwhelming power, exposing the rich and varied minor histories and subaltern resistance of farmers and governments the world over (but especially in the Global South) simply following the engaged relational interface with the land traditional farming practices entail.

In essence, the 2013 report of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and many other such reports in the last several years agree on the necessity for a sort of devolution of farming practices.1 Decentralization means less monocropping, which, because of synergistic nutrient cycles, requires fewer nutrient inputs and more vitamin-rich soil (and hence more nutritious vegetables). Rather than increasing monopolization and chemical inputs, regionalism, agroecological and relational food practices contextualizing fulfillment of human needs with the fortification of a resilient local ecology, is quickly gaining foothold.

The one word conspicuous by its absence from Lappé’s essay that warrants appending is permaculture. In the tradition of restoration ecology, permaculture is the scientific study and practice of planting and land cultivation which meticulously composes agroecological settings so as to provide the maximum amount of food, biodiversity, and vegetal flourishing for the minimum amount of exogenous inputs.2 The contours of agroecology and permaculture overlap significantly, and each has much to add to the conceptualization and practices of the other. A major difference is that while agroecology tends to emphasize the human dimensions of ecologically astute agriculture, permaculture tends to focus on the nutrient systems of agroecology and the compositional science of these sorts of farming practices.

Insofar as the “feeding the world” question is concerned, Lappé is on point in her critique of industrial, chemically-driven agriculture that requires ever-increasing inputs. An exhaustive study comparing organic agricultural practices to conventional, chemical-driven ones found that in the North, going organic is just shy of comparable with conventional in terms of efficiency, while in Southern countries, agroecological practices produced greater quantities of food with the same work as conventional means.3 The net energy and resource savings of going agroecological&mash;not to mention the second-order benefits for birds, animals, insects, groundwater, and soil quality—give added impulse for agroecology as the only viable paradigm for farming practices. By historically contextualizing the rise of the poison, chemical, and fertilizer industries as a recent aberration of farming’s 10,000-year varied past, it makes much more sense to return to agroecological practices that support all links in the production process.

1. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security and Changing Climate (Geneva: UNCTAD, 2013).
2. Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Sisters Creek, Australia: Tigari Publications, 1988).
3. Catherine Badgley et al., “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22, no. 2 (2007): 86-108.