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Cooling and feeding the planet with agroecology

August 2011

In order to fix the broken food system, we need to de-colonize our minds. What do I mean about “de-colonize”? To understand that, do this short exercise. What comes to your mind, when you hear the word “Agriculture?” Is it a tree, a head of lettuce or vast endless fields somewhere in the US Midwest? 

If the first thing came to your mind was a vast field of a single crop (such as endless rows of corn), you are certainly not alone. For decades, both consumers and farmers have been educated to think of agriculture as an industry of monocrops. The end of small, integrated farm plots (i.e. real food) coincided with the advent of industrial agriculture and the launch of the “Green Revolution.” 

This so-called revolution not only failed to end world hunger, but also contributed to another problem exacerbating the water, soil and even the climate crisis. Studies show that industrial agriculture produces between 16 and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, stemming largely from its reliance on petroleum for production and global shipping, and its reliance on toxic pesticides is creating other kinds of harm to humans and to the soil and water. 

Contrary to its name, the Green Revolution is neither green nor a revolution. It is, however, well financed. Major donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are financing the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).  In fact, AGRA is one of the largest grant recipients of the Gates Foundation, which seems intent on importing to the continent the agricultural system that has created problems in many other parts of the world with genetically modified seeds and resource-dependent methods. 

In Africa and elsewhere, the Green Revolution and industrial agriculture are responsible for the depletion of land and water resources and local biodiversity. Seen as “modern,” this type of agriculture is neither the most efficient nor the solution to climate and food crises. In fact, modern or technologically advanced industrial agriculture is increasingly inaccessible to the majority of small-scale farmers. Also, those “modern” techniques deplete water resources and soil which is unsustainable if we want to end hunger or sustain our planet. 

Further, industrial agriculture is heating up the planet. And according to a report from ETC (Canada), it takes 18 percent more energy for industrial farms than small scale agriculture to produce the same crops. In times we need major changes in the global economy from speculation to investment in communities and families so they can attain their right to food, the dominant view of industrial agriculture is taking us in the wrong direction. It employs less people, while small scale agriculture provides jobs and revitalizes local economies. 

Despite the widespread belief that it would disappear in the global economy, small-scale agriculture continues to thrive through community gardens from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the highlands in Peru. They are the only source of food and income for many families and, in many cases, a major supply of animal protein, vegetables, and grains to local communities. In Brazil, small-scale farmers provide more than 50 percent of the food that it is consumed nation-wide. In sum, those farmers and their agricultural practices are the ones who really can cool and feed this planet. 


People in both urban and rural communities are constantly developing practices and techniques to produce food and live well in harmony with the local environment. These practices are often based on the combination of practical knowledge and theory, or praxis. In agriculture and environmental conservation, we call it agroecology

Agroecology is a framework that respects the knowledge of individuals and communities dedicated to environmental stewardship. In agroecology, the knowledge of those who work the land and protect biodiversity is the foundation for the development of local solutions to the climate, water contamination, and food production. In that sense, agroecological practices are based on the knowledge of people whose survival depends on the synergetic relationship with nature. 

For instance, women are often responsible for the multiplication of creole seeds and cultivation of medicinal plants. Relying on traditional knowledge and caring for the local culture and environment, women have played an important role in the development of agroecological thinking. For this reason, when we talk about agroecology, we refer to the needs and rights of women, as well as those of indigenous people and peasants. 

In Sololá, Guatemala, Grassroots supports a women-led vegetable garden project which embodies the perspectives of agroecology, as well as women’s leadership and rights. At the national assembly in 2006, women from the National Coordination of Peasants and Indigenous People (CONIC) requested a food production initiative. Even further, the women of CONIC, a Mayan indigenous organization and our partner in Guatemala, said the project should strengthen women’s leadership in their communities. Members of CONIC’s Women’s Secretariat consulted families in Sololá about a project that would help to improve their backyard vegetable gardens – including not simply an expansion of existing gardens for income generation, but also the implementation of new techniques such as compost production. 

With the support of Grassroots and the help of CONIC’s field organizers, women in six communities in Sololá have been working to improve their practices. The group is using agroecological methods that include the development of demonstration units that serve as a practical classroom. Over the years, the women of Sololá have participated in several training events in which facilitators help the group to develop their own understanding of the project, instead of bringing imposing outside technologies and solutions. 

As outcomes, CONIC’s Vegetable Garden Project has generated:

–           Self-esteem: Participation in trainings with other women has contributed to increased confidence and self-esteem among indigenous women. Whereas previously women did not feel participate in community discussions, instead allowing men represent their families in community meetings and decisions, this project produced leadership of women within communities. For many, this project – focused on and led-by women – helped its participants gain self-esteem and confidence to participate in leadership roles. 

–           Learning from and teaching others: Through trainings and exchange visits to other women’s group, the participants had the chance to learn and share their experiences about vegetable gardening, seed saving, medicinal plants, cooking recipes, etc. 

–           Self-reliance: In 2010, CONIC and the project participants decided to take the project to a new level. Based on their success to date, they were able to raise funds from government agencies (Banco de Tierras) and indigenous authorities to buy seeds, so more women could participate. For many, it was a new and empowering experience. 

–           Better diet and more income: CONIC’s field coordinator Maria Luisa notes that the group has produced 25 different crops, including vegetables, grains and medicinal plants, all available for family consumption. In some cases, participants were also able to sell fresh vegetables (that exceed their family’s needs) at the local market. 

–                      Rejecting agrochemicals: In many Mayan communities, agronomists and agrochemical sellers lure farmers to use industrial agriculture techniques as a way of increasing their yield, ignoring the impact on soil fertility and farmers’ health. CONIC plans to increase communities’ awareness of the dangers of agrochemicals, as well as show the better production using agroecological methods. Through small experiments, the group compared parcels of organic versus conventional agriculture. Satisfied with the results of areas that received natural fertilizer (compost), a few community members – both women and men – decided to use organic agriculture methods in their crops. 

The case of Sololá is just one of many examples of indigenous and peasant communities who are working to change the current food system. The project is just one strand of the global web that CONIC in Guatemala, the Via Campesina, Grassroots International and others are building around the globe. A partner of Grassroots International, the Via Campesina is a network of farmers, indigenous people, peasants, pastoralists and fishers. Represented in 70 countries, the network represents an estimated 200 million people around the globe.

Changing the food system

The Via Campesina organized its II Continental Encounter of Agroecology Trainers in Chimaltenango, Guatemala earlier this month. Peasant and indigenous organizers from 20 countries throughout the Americas participated. As in the case of Sololá project, the event also promoted the learning exchange between visitors and local farmers about sustainable agriculture practices and current challenges. Through a “Peasant to Peasant” methodology, the group discussed lessons and reaffirmed its commitment to change the food system. 

At the event, the Via Campesina reinforced its commitment to build a movement of urban and rural communities across borders to end hunger, as well as social and economic inequality. Daniel Pascual from the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) and member of the Latin America Confederation of Peasant Organizations (CLOC)/Via Campesina said that “the policies of the Guatemalan government do not favor the production of healthy foods, because the use of genetically modified seeds and food imports [favored by free trade agreements] has invaded the [local] markets.” Also at the Encounter, Fred Congo from the Federation of Peasant, Indigenous and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) stated that “food sovereignty without agroecology is not possible. Only through agroecology can peasant families guarantee food sovereignty.”

By resisting the colonization of their minds and territories, peasant farmers provide evidence that the solutions to this global economic crisis (which is essentially a crisis of values) are not that complicated.

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