ARTICLE 4 minutes

July 7, 2023

Rebuilding Our Relationship With Food

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Addressing what’s broken in our food system means taking a long and hard look at every facet—from its chemical-laced and profit-crazed agriculture practices to its role in our ever-cooking climate. But it doesn’t have to be this way, says Mark Bittman.

By Mark Bittman

Dominant culture would have us believe that a healthier, more just food system—and one that can still feed the world—is a pipe dream. In truth, the delusion is believing that our current system has any hope of success. To survive, we have to reinvent it.

Because the United States is the bastion of agricultural innovation, it’s likely to be among the last countries to alter course and create a more just system.

But there is reason for hope.

Though you may not see many examples of better food systems in your daily life, they do exist. Much distribution remains decentralized, and subsistence and small-scale farming thrive and even dominate in most of the world; many people grow food sustainably, with judgment, experience, and wisdom, along with an understanding that agriculture can’t be reduced to a formula. 

This matters, as do significant changes and efforts to create better food in the West. There is positive change coming to our food system, change that’s widespread, change that’s rekindling and enhancing people—and earth-friendly traditions of food production.

“The Peasant Way”

The word “agroecology” was first used about a hundred years ago, and it remains the best descriptor for the movements that are rebuilding our relationship with food. The word and practices have been advanced by the global peasant organization La Via Campesina (“the Peasant Way”) for decades, and that—along with the fact that, moving forward, agroecology is the most sensible approach for agriculture—has led to its use and at least partial endorsement by the governments of France, Cuba, and others, and by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, which included agroecology as a key component of its 2023 Sustainable Development Goals.

For those reasons—and because “producing food in harmony with the planet and its inhabitants” is a mouthful—”agroecology” is the word I’m sticking with. It’s a clunky term, but perhaps its unsexiness is an advantage: It’s not likely to be co-opted as quickly as “natural” and “organic” were; it’s hard to imagine “agroecological” power bars or potato chips, though stranger things have happened.

As you can guess, agroecology is a set of practices that integrates ecological principles into agriculture. As a scientific approach to farming that works with all of nature’s power and gifts, rather than seeing nature as something to be conquered, it stands in opposition to industrial agriculture. It is more serious and comprehensive than “organic,” and not constrained by USDA definitions.

But agroecology is more than just a series of techniques—it’s a philosophy and a broad commitment to improve society. Adherents define it as “an autonomous, pluralist, multicultural movement, political in its demand for social justice.” That’s key.

To paraphrase Vandana Shiva, just as monoculture destroys the conditions needed for diversity in agriculture, a sort of “monoculture of the mind” stamps out the will to change.
Mark Bittman

Farmers worldwide are struggling to maintain or regain control of their food supply while rejecting the global norms of “development” and “underdevelopment”—norms that mandate urbanization, industrialization, “efficiency,” and large scale. La Via Campesina, which is a loose coalition of 200 million farmers and activists, organizes for food sovereignty: Its goals are to get land to the landless and to enable farmers to control what they produce while making a living and stewarding the earth.

One of agroecology’s best Western advocates is former University of California–Santa Cruz professor Steve Gliessman. In the tradition of Albert Howard, Franklin Hiram King, and Rudolf Steiner, Gliessman traveled the world and saw how the strength and good sense of peasant agriculture contrasted with the fragility and recklessness of industrial agriculture. 

The Steps Toward Agroecology

Gliessman argues that developing an agroecological system would ultimately transform the global food system by first cutting back on the toxic techniques innate to industrial agriculture, starting with chemical fertilizer and pesticides.

Next comes replacing those materials and associated techniques with alternative practices, such as the use of compost, cover crops, crop rotation, and multicropping; the encouragement of beneficial animal and plant interactions; and the complete elimination of chemicals. To this point, what we’re really talking about is organic farming, but this is where farmers will begin to rebuild the system, using from-the-farm fertilizer; intercropping—planting a number of crops together—to reduce pests and unwanted plants, encouraging pollinators, and generally, in Gliessman’s words, functioning “on the basis of a new set of ecological processes.” The next step involves shortening the food supply chain, reducing the distance between growers and eaters, and establishing new ways of getting food to people.

Finally—and this can’t happen without widespread societal change in all arenas, including the economy—the global food system must become sustainable and equitable for all.

No question: a tall order. The alternative is catastrophic.

“Eating is an agricultural act,” says Wendell Berry, which is to say, food does not come from nowhere; it comes from land and people. In turn, agriculture is a political act: The policies and investments we decide on as a society determine what agriculture we practice. 

How we relate to land and the food we grow has everything to do with how we live on the earth, and who benefits and suffers from that treatment. Thus, agroecology is about not only sane agricultural methods but the empowerment of women and groups of long-exploited people such as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), land reform, fair distribution of resources and treatment of labor, affordable food, nutrition and diet, and animal welfare.

Global Justice and Sustainable Farming 

Agroecology aims to right social wrongs. The movements for global justice and truly sustainable growing techniques are interwoven, and agroecological change can’t simply stop at the first or second steps outlined above. The other yardsticks include how well food nourishes people, protects the environment, and helps farmers lead good lives. Agroecology regenerates the ecology of the soil instead of depleting it, reduces carbon emissions, and sustains local food cultures, businesses, farms, jobs, seed, and people instead of diminishing or destroying them.

To date, agroecology has received little government research support, maybe five percent of that given to industrial agriculture. Yet agroecology has repeatedly demonstrated that focusing on growing in harmony with nature can be profitable, productive, and enduring. Agroecology supports farming as a dignified way to live, creating grounding, family-oriented, life-giving work.

Thankfully, progressive governments everywhere, from the City of Philadelphia to the Pacific nation of Vanuatu and scores of others in between, have recognized the destructive nature of industrially produced food and begun to act accordingly. The progress is, to many, almost invisible. But it exists. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen, but agroecology is hands-down our best bet for changing agriculture’s role from a driver of the greatest problems afflicting humankind to a solution.

Excerpted from Animal, Vegetable, Junk. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Bittman.