Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan


  • Feliu López-i-GelatsEmail author
  • Marina di Masso
  • Rosa Binimelis
  • Marta G. Rivera-Ferre
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_559-1


Organic Agriculture Capitalist Structure Food Sovereignty Classical Movement Industrial Agriculture 
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The agricultural and rural domains are characterized by internal and external drivers which menace the system, such as GM crops’ threats to agriculture and human health, supermarkets’ power over consumers and farmers, the imposition of the WTO liberalizing agenda, and the displacement of farmland to marginal locations due to land speculation. In addition, despite the promises of the green and biotechnology revolutions, the number of both hungry and fat people in the world is high. Meanwhile, food crises are taking place one after another, and industrial agriculture has become one of the most resource-consuming and polluting among all human activities. It is obvious that agriculture and rural policies stand on the threshold of radical reforms. This is the substrate where agroecology is growing.

Historical Background

The foundations of agroecology are well entrenched in the long history of peasant practices and discourses standing against industrial agriculture schemes. The history of opposition to industrial agriculture is as long as industrial agriculture itself. Thus, agroecology belongs to a long list of peasant movements facing the spread of capitalist structures. Indeed, the shift from traditional agriculture to industrial agriculture can be conceived as a gradual process of penetration of the capitalist rationality into peasant social structures. This process has gone hand in hand with resistance movements. Industrial agriculture and resistance movements have coevolved. Resistance movements have tended to be stronger where conditions made the region less permeable to industrialization, such as isolation from economic centers or harsh environmental conditions. Examples of such peasant resistance are numerous: (i) the independence wars of the colonies, (ii) the Luddite revolts, (iii) the Narodnik movement, (iv) the classical movements of organic agriculture, and (v) the environmentalist movement.
  1. (i)

    Although a strengthening of capitalist structures can already be identified in Europe during the Middle Age, with a gradual reduction in the fallow period, the first movements of resistance to embryonic forms of industrial agriculture should be traced back to the decolonization wars. Incipient forms of industrial agriculture were developed during the colonization period, with initial developments implemented by the Portuguese in Madeira by the end of the fifteenth century, where they established large slaved-worked sugar cane plantations.

  2. (ii)

    The original Luddite revolt occurred in 1811. It was an action against textile factories in the United Kingdom, which were thought to be displacing craftsmen in favor of machines. The original Luddites claimed to be led by Ned Ludd. They claimed against transformations triggered by the Industrial Revolution and strongly criticized the blind adoption of mechanization and new technology. They burned factories and destroyed machines, which they understood were threatening their jobs.

  3. (iii)

    Narodnism was a political movement in Russia that by mid-1800s claimed that it was not necessary to go through the capitalist industrialization to reach the socialist utopia. The Narodnik movement argued that it was possible to achieve a solidary and equalitarian society, which would also be capable of feeding the population, through the peasant social structure and particularly building on the obshina – the Russian commune.

  4. (iv)

    The agrarian chemistry, initiated in 1840s by Boussingault and Liebig, in France and Germany, respectively, set the foundations of the industrial agriculture of great yields and conducted far away from cities. It was based on the promotion of chemical fertilization, on the basis of two main assumptions: (a) plant mineral nourishment is exclusively done by soil chemical substances, and (b) the damaging effects on agroecosystems caused by monocultures, of loss of nutrients, and increased vulnerability to pests can be reversed by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In reaction, the classical movements of organic agriculture emerged in the 1920s and 1940s, basically in Europe, the United States of America, and Japan, where industrial agriculture and its unexpected consequences were more obvious. They underlined that agrarian chemistry was disregarding the importance of organic material in the nourishment of plants and thus its relevance for the agricultural practices. Liebig’s chemistry was thus seen as trying to solve the problems of intensive agriculture by further intensifying agricultural activity. The classical movements of organic agriculture comprise multiple branches, all sharing similar understandings. Steiner’s biodynamic agriculture, Fukuoka’s natural agriculture, Mollison’s permaculture, Claude Aubert’s biological agriculture, and Howard’s organic agriculture are some among the most well known. Their fundamental common ground is the defense of organic fertilization in view of the agrochemical dependency of industrial agriculture.

  5. (v)

    The environmentalist movement appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. In this, relevant contributions were made by (i) the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring denouncing that chemical pesticides – DDT specifically – were damaging insect and bird populations beyond agriculture with unknown consequences; (ii) the 1973 oil crisis made society in general thought, for the first time, about oil shortage, and in such context Pimentel conducted his remarkable work on the energy intensity of agriculture, pointing that the energy efficiency of industrial agriculture was far lower than the one of traditional agriculture; (iii) the disenchantment with the Green Revolution, with the high-yield hybrid seeds increasing dependence on external inputs, diminishing agricultural biodiversity, and degrading the environment. The novelty was not the magnitude of environmental degradation, but the general social awareness of it. The environmentalist movements internalized the language of ecology, by means of claiming that the ecological systems, to which humankind belongs, were being damaged.


The Three Dimensions of Agroecology

Agroecology is a concept employed referring to different domains. Some see agroecology as the scientific discipline dealing with the ecological management of agrarian systems. Agroecology here thus seems to provide the theoretical basis for an organic agriculture (Altieri 1998). Similarly, Gliessman (1990) proposes to conceive agroecology as the implementation of the ecological principles to the understanding and developing of sustainable agroecosystems. Agroecosystems are the main concern of agroecology. Agroecosystems can be seen as systems of human appropriation of nature to exploit several human-valued goods and services (Toledo 1992). Agroecology, thus, should be placed, as proposed by Garrido Peña (1993), within a new emerging paradigm: the ecological paradigm. It is not a new discipline, but a field of research interested in the unsustainability of agroecosystems. Slightly different is the perspective of Sevilla Guzmán (1997), underlying the pluri-epistemological nature of agroecology, that is understood as an organized manner to create and employ knowledge that accepts different forms. Sevilla Guzmán conceives agroecology as a fertile attempt to integrate social sciences and natural sciences to elaborate a strategy of development compatible with the environment. For him, agroecology is the cornerstone for designing alternative systems of agriculture, which are implemented at the production level and are being disseminated by collective social action. Agroecology, he continues, analyzes the agroecosystems and experiences aiming at examining in which cases the management leads toward adequate ways of social and ecological reproduction.

Although the foundations of agroecology should be sought close to agrarian sciences, the complexity of the domain tackled quickly triggered the widening of the focus of interest. New dimensions of agroecology have shown up, more concerned with promoting social transformations, rather than just with mere agricultural practices. Thus, according to the definitions of the mentioned above, three different dimensions of the notion of agroecology can be distinguished: (i) agroecology as the theoretical basis of organic agriculture (Altieri 1998), (ii) agroecology as the practice of favoring endogenous development for better quality of life for local communities (van der Ploeg and Long 1994), and finally (iii) agroecology as a social movement in favor of more sustainable and fairer food systems (Sevilla-Guzmán 1997).

In agroecology as the scientific basis of organic agriculture, more weight is given to technical aspects in production. Agroecology reveals the ecological management needed to achieve sustainable farming (Gliessman 1990). In agroecology as sustainable rural development, the technical standpoint goes hand in hand with a social perspective, and tackling the relationships between institutions and society becomes crucial. That is, it is assumed that the basis for the reproduction of agroecosystems rests on the local community. So, the ecological management of natural resources acquires a dimension of local development of an endogenous nature. In agroecology as a social movement, it is seen as a social endeavor fighting for environmental justice against appropriation of communal and open-access resources by the few (Guha and Martínez-Alier 1997). Agroecology is seen as linked to ecological distribution conflicts. Here, industrial agriculture is conceived as a process of access deprivation to environmental resources and services and the endurance of disproportionate amounts of pollution by the poor. An ecological rationality is seen in these movements coming from the fact that they are struggles for the livelihood, putting the environment on a central place as source and requirement for the living.

The Notion of Agroecology

Agroecology comprises different dimensions, as shown in the previous section. However, the very notion of agroecology is highly contested. In fact, three diverse approaches to the notion of agroecology can be distinguished: (i) agroecology as the traditional peasant practices in a kind of ecologism of the poor (Guya and Martínez-Alier 1997); (ii) agroecology as social organizations, experiences, and discourses reexamining the modern path; and finally (iii) agroecology as the ecological modernization or sustainable intensification prescriptions in the agricultural domain to promote organic production (Fig. 1). It should be mentioned that while practitioners of the second and third notions tend to explicitly employ the term agroecology, this does not usually happen in the case of the first group. We conceive the third group as belonging to what can be termed weak agroecology, in the sense that under this notion agroecology does not entail a paradigm shift, but simply the undertaking of superficial amendments to conventional ways of consumption and production. This is not the case of the other two notions of agroecology, which we propose to group under the name of strong agroecology.
Fig. 1

Notions of agroecology

Traditional peasant practices are developed by indigenous peoples and rural dwellers in most of the marginal rural areas in the world. Experiences and discourses reexamining the adequacy for the majority of the adoption of the modern path, based on consumerism, industrial production, individualism, and technification, are well spread in Western urban centers and expressed in terms of experiences such as cooperatives of consumption and production of organic and locally produced food. Schemes of organic production based on certification standards and the substitution of inputs have also been experiencing a remarkable development worldwide in the last decades.


Multiple features can be identified in the present usages of the notion of agroecology that stem from past resistance movements against industrial agriculture: the concern for local identity and autonomy, like in independence wars of the colonies; the critical perception on novel technology and industrialization, like in the Luddite revolts; the resilient confidence in endogenous development strategies and the concern on social equality, like in the Narodnik movement; the centrality of organic fertilization in agricultural practices, as claimed by the classical movements of organic agriculture; and the environmental awareness and holistic perspective as in the environmentalist movement. Times are changing and the challenges agroecology faces at present are different from those encountered at other periods of history. Certainly among the most relevant nowadays is acquiring larger degrees of institutionalization.



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  2. Garrido Peña, F. (1993). La Ecología Política como Política del Tiempo. Editorial COMARES: Granada.Google Scholar
  3. Gliessman, S. R. (1990). Agroecology: Researching the ecological basis for sustainable agriculture (p. 78). New York: Springer-Verlag.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Guha, R., & Martínez-Alier, J. (1997). Varieties of Environmentalism. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.Google Scholar
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  6. Sevilla Guzmán, E. 1997. Los marcos teóricos del pensamiento social agrario. In: Gómez Benito Cristóbal,, and González Rodríguez, Juan Jesús (eds.), Agricultura y Sociedad en la España Contemporánea. Ministerio de Agricultura/CIS. Madrid.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Feliu López-i-Gelats
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Marina di Masso
    • 1
  • Rosa Binimelis
    • 1
    • 3
  • Marta G. Rivera-Ferre
    • 1
  1. 1.Agroecology and Food Systems ChairUniversity of Vic-Central University of CataloniaBarcelonaSpain
  2. 2.Center for Agro-Food Economy and Development (CREDA-UPC-IRTA)CastelldefelsSpain
  3. 3.GenØk Centre for BiosafetyTromsøNorway