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Can agroecology bring justice to international agricultural development policy?

The public policy process undoubtedly benefits from the incorporation of scientific claims and knowledge, which can aid policy-makers in their efforts to predict future public program impacts (Douglas, 2009). Yet, employing science-based knowledge in policy-decision-making is rife with difficulty as democratic choice-makers often must address criteria that are not captured by such efforts as they address wicked problems for which there is no single scientifically derived response. That is, science alone is typically insufficient to address complex public problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Instead of employing science alone for policy-making, a dialogue between scientifically developed knowledge and other forms of knowledge such as indigenous, experiential or artisanal is needed (Ravetz, 1999; Santos, 2007b).

Unfortunately, such a proposition appears increasingly difficult to attain in the U.S. because some political actors have chosen to attack and dismiss science and its findings in the name of absolutist ideological tenets or in their quest for power or both. This stance has made the democratic possibility of an alternate form of knowledge-based policy-making involving both science and other epistemic frames increasingly unlikely in the American context. I acknowledge the battle ahead to save both democracy and science from disrepute in the United States, and I seek here to contend that science has a rightful role in policy-making and also to suggest that its usefulness to policy-makers can be magnified when combined with other ways of knowing. I illustrate this possibility by imagining a policy-making process for agriculture that employs agroecology as a model. In so doing, I focus on the subfield of international agricultural development. However, in light of how the food system touches upon nearly every aspect of society, I invite the reader to consider how agroecology, at least metaphorically, could be used in other domains, as a way to approach the policy decision process

Policy-making involves trade-offs between scientific findings and other considerations including, for example, resource-limitations and social justice concerns. Moreover, if lawmakers and analysts do not also directly attend to power dynamics in policy decision-making, unequal outcomes are likely as powerful interests overwhelm less powerful ones (Hossain, 2017). In any case, policies, whether or not guided by scientifically informed knowledge, will always reflect conflicts and tensions among salient values as well as judgments concerning whose knowledge and experiences should be considered.

The term wicked problems refers to complex social concerns for which conventional planning and knowledge lack obvious solutions (Rittel and Webber, 1973). Within international agricultural development, the neoliberal proposition that more production will necessarily result in improved lives and livelihoods for farmers and their broader communities is both widely accepted and sharply reductive. Notably, in this regard, efforts to maximize agricultural production for more than 50 years as a development tool and aspiration have thus far not eliminated hunger or food security.

One reason for this failure is that a singular focus on increasing production has neglected the reality that food insecurity arises in considerable measure from social and income inequality (Holt-Giménez et al., 2012). Nonetheless, increasing production remains the dominant approach to global food security (Altieri and Nicholls, 2017; Biovision and IPES-Food, 2020). Such efforts normally seek to increase crop yields by employing fertilizers and irrigation or, put differently, by leveraging a certain sort of scientifically based knowledge, to increase short-term harvests at the expense of concern for natural (land and water) resources over the longer term. Bolstered by evidence of the causes and consequences of widespread food crises in 2007-2008, 2010, and by the effects of the current pandemic, this value exchange is increasingly unacceptable to many activists, scholars and development practitioners (Bello, 2020; Wittman et al., 2010). In short, the global food system and the policies that now underpin it require reconsideration and revision. To reimagine that structure and develop new and more sustainable agricultural policies, policy-makers need to be able to gain access to alternate forms of knowledge beyond a single-minded focus on employing technical means to increase crop yields (Fraser, 2017; Giller et al., 2017).

Neoliberal thinking, when applied to agriculture (or any other domain) seeks to quantify, measure and manipulate knowledge to advance economic efficiency and profitability as its foremost aims. The consequence of this can lead to the dismissal of other forms of knowledge that do not comply with this assumption concerning what should be valued in society (Santos, 2007a). For example, the introduction and promotion of the Green Revolution in the Global South dismissed existing traditional and indigenous farming practices as backward and inefficient. Subsequently farms were transitioned to monocrops reliant on fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds. That change also resulted in significant cultural change and an accompanying loss of practical knowledge of historical farming methods and area conditions. Santos (2007b)  has employed the term epistemicide to describes the loss and erasure of knowledge occasioned by this ideological frame.

One can employ ecologies of knowledge as an overarching metaphor to describe how multiple forms of knowledge such as experiential, traditional, artisanal and spiritual are valid and can be mobilized to address the profound injustice this erasure of the knowledges of these existing populations represented. Proponents of the ecologies metaphor simultaneously reject the monopoly of Western insistence on efficiency and production maximization as a fundamental value valence, while arguing that calling on other co-existing forms of knowledge can and should occur to ensure both cultural appropriateness and long-term sustainability (Santos, 2007b). Ecologies of knowledge inherently acknowledge the complexity and incompleteness of a singular knowledge and recognize the possibilities of hybridization.

As an extension of ecologies of knowledge, Coolsaet (2016) has argued for agroecologies of knowledge. This construct simultaneously rejects a single imposed epistemology and its accompanying monocropping by promoting a multitude of agricultural knowledges and experiences. His conception builds on the systems-approach of agroecology: a science, practice and movement seeking to shift the international food system towards environmental and human justice (Wezel et al., 2009). A guiding principle for agroecology is a dialogic approach that places Western thinking and technology in conversation with other agricultural ways of knowing (Minga, 2017; Wezel et al., 2020) in which both forms of claims are accorded the same legitimacy.

The potential for agroecology to combat cognitive injustice within international agricultural policy development is underexplored and underutilized. In a recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) webinar, Papa Abdoulaye Seck, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Senegal to the FAO, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and World Food Programme, discussed the process by which Senegal has incorporated agroecology into its national policy through a participatory multi-stakeholder process across the nation (Seck et al., 2020). Bolivian policy too, now requires that participatory knowledge (existing farmer awareness, traditions, ethos and values) be incorporated into all public decisions concerning land use (Kincheloe et al., 2017). Ecuador has similarly adopted a food sovereignty law (Peña, 2017). Each of these examples suggest the importance of attending to different forms of knowledge in policy development and implementation.

The increasing adoption of agroecology as a framework for agricultural development by the FAO and by nations indicates the success of international and local activists’ efforts to bring attention to this vital challenge. However, more work is needed, especially at all governmental levels in the United States (Biovision & IPES-Food, 2020). The recent United States Agency for International Development (2020) New Partnerships Initiative (NPI)  argued that the agency would now seek to work with new organizations deeply embedded in target communities, and consequently represents a possible vehicle for changing the stance of U.S.-funded development policies and programs toward existing epistemic and cultural claims. Of course, unequal power relations will always exist in international development policy processes. However, should United States governmental programs such as the NPI choose to commit to listening, providing a holding environment and incorporating other ways of knowing into the policy process, the spirit of agroecologies of knowledge, power scales may shift, even if only slightly, in the direction of the communities with and for whom development is intended.


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Lia Kelinsky-Jones

Lia Kelinsky-Jones is a Ph.D. Candidate in Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. She has a background in project management, international development, evaluation, facilitation and curriculum development. Her research interests include international development, higher education, policy and agroecology. She currently serves as Advocacy Chair for the Science Policy, Education and Advocacy Club at Virginia Tech for which she leads a team focused on the development of policies and strategies for the Town of Blacksburg to develop a more resilient local food system. In her spare time, she is an avid cyclist and grower of both food and flowers.