A new shade of green?
Explorations of agroecology and the importance of environmental history in Costa Rican food production
Today’s agri-food system is arguably in a “state of crisis” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 1). As the authors of Big World, Small Planet (2015) argue, food production “consumes the most land and freshwater, emits the most greenhouse gases, represents the biggest threat to biodiversity, and is a key source of nutrient loading” (Rockström and Klum, 2015, p. 100 eBook). Conventional methods of food production have been known to cause “[s]oil degradation, water contamination, groundwater depletion, deforestation and land cover change, [and] health effects of exposure to pesticides” in their quest to ‘feed the world’ (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 1).
Despite the worldwide proliferation of modern crop technologies and the export of highly sophisticated food-transportation networks in the last 50 years, hundreds of millions of people still cannot meet basic nutritional requirements. According to the World Health Organization, 815 million people in 2016 suffer from hunger, equivalent to 11% of the global population (UNWHO, 2017).
The global food crises of 2008 and 2010 exacerbated the devastating impacts that an ‘unequal’ food system can have on the world’s poor and hungry (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 90). Questions of maximum efficiency in agricultural production led to calls for “a new Green Revolution” and increased investments in biotechnology, to ‘fix’ the growing hunger problem. Some have called for implementing a ‘triply green’ revolution, one that “boosts productivity even higher, but also reduces impacts on the environment and sustainably manages water resources” (Rockström and Klum, 2015, p. 129 eBook).
This “compelling and seductive narrative of the need to ‘feed the world’” now advocates for a 70% increase in total food production by 2050 (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 7) Yet some scholars (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013) attribute the staggering amounts of hungry people in the world not for lack of food grown but on inflated food prices. This examination of food access and distribution decidedly rewrites the ‘more food-less hungry’ narrative spun by agribusiness companies, whose bottom lines depend upon massive, global networks of food production.
Agroecology, as both an alternative agricultural practice and smallholder-social movement, has its roots ‘from below,’ and is considered a more ‘traditional’ cultural and ecological approach to modern-day farming practices (Altieri and Toledo, 2001 in Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 93). By design, agroecology is much more locally specific and knowledge-intensive, as opposed to the capital-intensive, industrial agricultural formula outsourced to everyone in the mid-1900s Green Revolution era.
Despite its recent embrace as a counter-system to redress “ecological, social, economic, and political imbalances in the current agri-food system,” agroecology is not a new idea, but rather has evolved over centuries in Latin America farming communities. (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 1) “In Latin America, the expansion of agroecology has produced cognitive, technological, and sociopolitical innovations, intimately linked to new political scenarios such as the emergence of progressive governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil, and peasants/indigenous resistance movements” (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 93).
Costa Rica, a relatively small Latin American country by land size, is “one of the world’s leading nations for ecological sustainability” and “home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity” (Sierra Nevada College, 2018). Costa Rica’s boom-and-bust legacy as a cash-crop export economy and its infamous colonial legacy, including the country’s current dependence on imported pesticides for domestic and international food productions, has attracted the study of agroecology practices in recent years (Galt, 2014).
The following literature analysis will contextualize the legacy of the Green Revolution and the subsequent adoption of agroecology practices around the world, with Costa Rican communities analyzed as agroecology case studies. An emphasis on environmental history will also be discussed throughout the analysis.
Critical to understanding the enthusiastic adoption of agroecology in some parts of the world requires an understanding of the mid-20th century Green Revolution and its implications for the current agri-system “state of crisis” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 1). During the 1960s-1980s, agro-companies and development organizations alike spread the “high-external input, industrial model of agricultural production to the Global South” (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 98). Buttressed by ‘globally oriented’ organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, free trade agreements and post-war economic policies governed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 98), the Green Revolution drew millions of smallholder farms into its quest for increased modernity and efficiency in total global agricultural production. International crop improvement centers and agrochemical companies around the world also “acted in concert, advancing a modernization paradigm — for which the Green Revolution is used as shorthand — that embraced chemically intensive agriculture based on high-response varieties” (Galt, 2014, p. 106).
But the consequences for species diversity were severe, as “[o]ver 70% of the world’s agrobiodiversity — largely held in situ in smallholder agroecosystems — was lost” during this time of farming intensification (FAO, 2009, in Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 93). Starting in the 1970s, a shift towards agroecology emerged, as an attempt to “restore soil organic matter, conserve water, restore agrobiodiversity, and manage pests” (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 93). Yet with hundreds of millions still going hungry — and a largely leveling out in net agricultural yields (Ray et al., 2012) — philanthropic and technologically-adept organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are now supporting what some have called the ‘Doubly Green Revolution’ (Conway, 1997 in Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 92). This Green Revolution 2.0 agenda has added “transgenic technologies, global markets, environmental concerns, and a leading role for the private sector” this time around, although plenty of ethical and ecological concerns still abound (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 92).
In the 1940s, pesticides were introduced to the Northern Cartago and Ujarrás regions of Costa Rica to enhance farm production. “By the 1950s potato farmers relied on frequent applications of inorganic pesticides” for optimal crop growth — only a single decade after introduction (emphasis added, Galt, 2014, p. 101). This “intensive and widespread use of pesticides on potatoes has continued from [the] 1960s to today,” where high-value crops have been prioritized in the regions over subsistence ‘for-use’ value crops that offer little to no monetary gain (Galt, 2014, p. 100–103). Importantly, the present “dependence on heavy and frequent applications of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers” was not always the case; according to documented research of regional markets and imports, the Northern Cartago and Ujarrás regions were not historically pesticide-dependent, which implies that the “historical question [in food production] matters” (Galt, 2014, p. 88–89).
In the pesticide-intensive case presented in northern Costa Rica, Galt (2014) writes that some scholars have blamed ‘the markets’ for encouraging farmers away from subsistence to a more profit-reward, industrial kind of agriculture. But Galt (2014) rightly notes that this ‘deterministic’ market-force assumption is “not the full story” (p. 106) and obscures the gradual ‘technification’ of Costa Rica’s potato crop throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Environmental history, once again, matters to the story of pesticide intensification in Costa Rica. Galt (2014) also discusses the faulty assumption called ‘the scalar trap,’ “in which political ecologists and others in allied field assume that local production and political control of resources results in more sustainable human-environment relations than organization at other scales” and that “locally organized agrarian capitalism is somehow a kinder, gentler form of agrarian capitalism” (p. 116). Perhaps not intuitive to many ‘grassroots’ environmentalists, “environmental degradation can be created through the expansion of local and national markets as well as international markets” (Galt, 2014, p. 116). Place and context matter in the adoption of agricultural practices.
Agroecology has been hailed by many skeptical of this new Green Revolution paradigm as both “a means and a barrier to the expansion of capitalist agriculture” under the guise of this seductive ‘feed the world’ narrative (emphasis in original, Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013, p. 92). Bellamy and Ioris (2017) rightly point out that “agroecology is not a monolithic block” and its connotation as both a conventional-agriculture alternative and a politically rooted ideology has not remained stagnant over time (p. 1). Understanding the myriad forms and foci of ‘agroecology’ in practice around the world is important for employing its uses as a framework in agricultural practices going forward. Bellamy and Ioris (2017) unpack two distinct ‘camps’ of agroecology and their implications for agroecology’s adoption around the world.
The more technology-focused or ‘scientific agroecology’ is often “associated with Western scientific epistemologies and methodologies” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 3). This form of agroecology focuses on the interconnected ecological processes occurring at the farm level but largely “excludes social, cultural and political issues” associated with agribusinesses and livelihoods (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 3). Critics have argued that this sort of “applied science without a social context” perpetuates an ahistorical narrative of ‘how things came to be,’ erasing the Green Revolution’s legacy and the multi-decades worth of ‘traditional’ agroecological farming practices in Latin America, before it was ‘co-opted’ by Western science and named as such (Guzman and Woodgate, 2013 in Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 4)
The term ‘political agroecology’ encompasses the more radical and participatory social movement associated with farmers’ transition away from conventional agricultural practices to more economically and ecologically ‘just’ practices (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017). This lens includes attention to issues of food sovereignty and food justice, with ‘practical agroecology’ centralizing farmer knowledge and a whole-systems approach to agriculture (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017). Political agroecology as a ‘paradigm shift’ emphasizes a “set of technological and practical adjustments” and sees itself more aligned with a transnational social movement than a sterile lab experiment (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 3). It also involves an analysis of class and other power relations that shape access to natural resources. Connecting agroecology to place-based environmental history once again helps contextualize the reasons for ‘prioritizing’ a more political approach. “Latin American agroecology, for instance, has its roots in social movements explicitly aimed at agrarian empowerment, which emerged as a response to economic exclusion produced by agricultural modernisation (sic)” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 3).
The possibility of an ‘agroecology transition’ to a more ‘sustainable intensification’ of agroecological practices exists, here on the precipice of a Green Revolution 2.0 (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 8). A real concern now is the longevity of agroecology practices to ‘outpace’ conventional agricultural techniques, a concern which Babin (2015) attempts to assuage with his multi-site study of agroecological practices in the Agua Buena district of Costa Rica. Costa Rica earned “the dubious honor of being the hardest hit Latin American nation by the coffee crisis” that swept the globe from 2000–2008 (Babin, 2015, p. 100). In his three-part research question, Babin (2015) compares the adoption of Fair Trade certification and shade-tree diversification, a type of agroecology practice, as effective ‘resistance strategies’ to the global spike in fertilizer prizes amid the early 21st century coffee crisis (p. 100). His results show that while alternative marketing strategies such as Fair Trade certification can “provide much needed additional income to cooperatives” and farmers during volatile market periods, these are “still often not enough” to stave off radical changes to land-use and more intensive agricultural modes of production (Babin, 2015, p. 105). Transitioning to agroecological practices, like shade-tree diversification in the coffee-growing industry, can cut costs, and may be more effective in terms of enhancing yields and/or establishing price supports in the long-term (Babin, 2015, p. 124). Babin’s research (2015) provides critical insights for the expansion of sustainable agriculture, more broadly, demonstrating through meticulous comparisons of land-use changes and biodiversity reports in the Agua Buena region of Costa Rica that not all ‘sustainable’ (i.e. Fair Trade marketing and certification) forms of agriculture should be adopted equally, and that agroecology practices have much to offer nutrient- and biodiversity-depleted agricultural areas.
An underlying theme in this set of articles [see ‘Primary Bibliography’] is the importance of environmental history in contextualizing the agroecology practices that are sometimes adopted today. As the push for ‘New Green Revolution’ technologies aligns its omnipresent ‘feed the world’ agenda with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal to ‘end hunger’ by 2030 (UN, 2018), the future of food production could mirror its problematic past. Alternatives to this high-input, ‘old model’ of agriculture are sorely needed, if food production is to become a more equitable and ecologically attune practice in a hungry and under-nourished world.
Agroecology as a practice and an ideology has proven itself to be an effective alternative for locally-based and ecologically mindful food production on the global market, with impressive rates of biodiversity and the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon (Babin, 2015, p. 103). Yet there are several considerations scholars, practitioners, and food producers must acknowledge if agroecology continues to be embraced as the panacea to all the pitfalls of industrial agriculture.
One such consideration is ‘the scalar trap’ (Galt, 2014), in which the mere framing of a practice as ‘local’ is assumed to be inherently ‘better.’ This assumption has the potential to obscure critical insights gained from ‘global’ institutional scales of environmental governance or research solely in favor of local actors, whose information may perhaps be erroneous or corrupt by national or regional politics. Another consideration is the potential for agroecology to be ‘scaled up,’ or the capacity for agroecology to be adopted as easily and as accessibly as the Green Revolution technologies of the 1960s proved so effectively. Without the capacity to ‘scale up’ agroecology, we risk defaulting to the dangerous (yet productive) high-throughput models of industrial agriculture in place today.
A third consideration is an understanding of the “socio-economic and policy factors that hinder or enhance the development of agroecology” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 2). Exactly “how agroecology can bring about changes to the global food system to make it more socially equitable and ecologically sound” is the subject of much debate (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 8). Some suggest working from within the prevailing capitalist and carbon-based economy to repair the broken food system. Others advocate for greater sustainability in food production without necessarily dismantling the current agri-food system. Still others advocate for greater recognition of food sovereignty and a “radical overthrow of the agri-food regime based on land distribution, rights-based approaches to water and seeds, and a widespread transition to an agroecological paradigm” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 8).
Much stands to be improved for the future of agroecology research. Additional research on the potential yield gap between conventional and agroecological production systems will aid in furthering agroecology’s legitimacy as a reliable and alternative ‘replacement’ to conventional methods of agriculture. Because agroecology is a place-based practice, “the composition of practices used will be different from one context to the next” and thus deserve careful and disparate analyses (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 11). The incorporation of “race, gender and other identity politics deserve further analysis” (p. 9) in narratives of environmental change, more broadly, as well as greater financial and institutional support for ‘bottom up’ research are imperative for the expansion of agroecology research (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 12). The “true environmental, social and health costs of different agricultural production systems also need to be better understood” for the benefit of agroecology and other ‘social sustainability’ research (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 11).
The potential exists “for agroecology to combine transdisciplinary knowledge, interdisciplinary agricultural practices and social movements” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 13). Because food studies traverses a wide terrain of academic disciplines and social/environmental movements, “agroecology represents a dynamic opportunity for genuine transdisciplinary innovation” (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 12). However, “the use of agroecology ideas in relation to wider crisis discourses does not appear to have been analytically addressed at all” and could remain in its academic silos unless deliberate transdisciplinary research is pursued (Bellamy and Ioris, 2017, p. 9).
Babin, N. (2015). The coffee crisis, fair trade, and agroecological transformation: Impacts on land-use change in Costa Rica. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 39, 99–129.
Bellamy A. S. & Ioris, A. A. R. (2017). Addressing the knowledge gaps in agroecology and identifying guiding principles for transforming conventional agri-food systems. Sustainability, 9(3), 330.
Galt, R. E. (2014). Chapter 3: An environmental history of agricultural industrialization. In Food Systems in an Unequal World: Pesticides, Vegetables, and Agrarian Capitalism in Costa Rica. United States of America: University of Arizona Press.
Holt-Giménez, E. & Altieri, M. A. (2013). Agroecology, food sovereignty, and the new green revolution. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 37, 90–102.
Additional Sources Consulted
Ray D. K., Ramankutty, N., Mueller, N. D., West, P. C., & Foley J. A. (2012). Recent patterns of crop yield growth and stagnation. Nature Communications, 3, 1293. Retrieved at https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms2296
Rockström, J. & Klum, M. (2015). Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Sierra Nevada College. (2018). Costa Rica agroecology and tropical ecology. Retrieved at https://www.sierranevada.edu/academics/study-abroad/costa-rica-ecology/
United Nations (UN). (2018). Sustainable Development Goal 2. Retrieved at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg2
United Nations World Health Organization (UNWHO). (2017, September 15). World hunger again on the rise, driven by conflict and climate change, new UN report says. Retrieved at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2017/world-hunger-report/en/