Author: Maywa Montenegro, Alastair Iles | Published on: August 26, 2016
Editor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Toward thick legitimacy: Creating a web of legitimacy for agroecology,” a peer-reviewed article published July 20 as part of Elementa’s New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum.
The industrialized food system, studies have shown, is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, algal blooms, pesticide pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss, to name a few ecological troubles. Add to this a long list of social ills, from escalating rates of obesity to the demise of the family farmer and deadening of rural landscapes and rural economies across much of the U.S.
In 2010, the National Academies of Science updated its seminal 1989 publication “Alternative Agriculture” with a fresh look at the state of food and farming in America. Its expert panel concluded, “Growing awareness of unintended impacts associated with some agricultural production practices has led to heightened societal expectations for improved environmental, community, labor, and animal welfare standards in agriculture.”
Yet that growing awareness and those heightened expectations haven’t led to alternative agricultural systems becoming the norm in the U.S. Organic has made some headway, but many organic growers have been forced to imitate industrial farming: grow bigger, resort to monocultures instead of truly diversified fields, and sell to large supermarkets — forgoing many of the benefits alternative agricultural systems offer, such as natural pest control, pollination from native bees, and a smaller production scale conducive to family farmers and local food economies.
So, what gives industrialized agriculture such staying power despite its adverse impacts, even as alternatives offer such benefits? And how can more wholesome food production methods such as agroecology become conventional instead of alternative? To achieve real change in how food is produced and eaten, we need to change people’s expectations of what “normal” agriculture should look like.