For an Agriculture that Doesn’t Get Rid of Farmers: An Interview with Miguel Altieri

JoAnn Kawell

Among the forms of knowledge—sciences—developed in the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans were sophisticated agricultural systems. The Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs all developed systems capable of feeding large and concentrated populations. The European conquerors partly dismantled the indigenous systems and tried to substitute European farming techniques. More recently, would-be modernizers in Latin America have fostered the spread of U.S.-style agriculture, which favors large farms, expensive equipment like tractors and the purchase of ever-growing amounts of pesticides, fertilizers and, most recently, genetically modified seeds. Proponents say such "scientific" agriculture is the only way to feed the world’s growing population, while critics charge that the only real beneficiaries are the corporations that make farm supplies and equipment. Now, scattered throughout the developing world, experiments are underway with an alternative approach known as agroecology. Miguel Altieri, author of Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture, is one of the leading advocates of this new approach. The Chilean-born Altieri is a professor of insect biology at the University of California-Berkeley, but he spends almost half the year in Latin America, working with hundreds of farmers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that want to try agroecological methods. NACLA Report editor JoAnn Kawell recently spoke with Altieri about agroecology and its possible economic, social—and political—implications for Latin America.

What is agroecology?
Miguel Altieri: We could say that agroecology is basically just a set of principles on how to design systems for small farmers. The main motivation for agroecology is that previous development projects have failed, top-down development projects have failed, and we need an alternative. What agroecology does is try to blend traditional knowledge, the farmer’s knowledge, and the principles of modern agricultural science.

The focus is on peasant agriculture, small farmers. That’s the important form of agriculture in Latin America—there are only 16 million small farmers in Latin America and they control only 20% of the land, but they are the ones who are producing the food that people eat there, because everyone else is growing for export. You go to Chile—what are the big farmers doing? Producing wine, or grapes, or peaches, or apples for export, nothing for the local populations. Go to Brazil, what are the big guys doing? Growing soybeans for the export market. To do what? To feed the cattle in Europe. It doesn’t have anything to do with the food security of the region. So the ones who are maintaining the food security, genetic diversity and the cultural diversity of the land are the peasants—the corporate model of biotechnology is an agriculture without farmers.

Agroecology projects are very underfunded projects, conducted by little NGOs helping here and there, but they have been able to reach about 4.5 million farmers throughout the developing world, farming about nine million hectares [one hectare = 2.5 acres]. We’ve participated in a study which shows that by using agroecological methods you can increase yields of poor farmers in marginal environments about 100% while at the same time conserving the soil resource base and biodiversity.

But if agroecology emphasizes traditional methods, and these are so productive, why are Latin American farmers still poor and still hungry?
MA: Basically, the problem is the inequity of access to land. We’re talking about 16 million peasant family units. That’s about 75 million people; that’s the population where the poverty’s concentrated, and the average farm size is between 1.2 and 1.5 hectares. You can’t demand too much from that little land, especially marginal land. About 80% of the small farmers, the peasants, in Latin America are concentrated in the marginal lands: hillsides, semi-desert areas, etc. Obviously the agricultural potential of those areas is very low, they should be used for other purposes, like forest or grasslands. The main way to revive and have a productive peasant agriculture would be, first, land reform and second, appropriate support for these farmers, in terms of agroecological technologies, credit, and social services that come along with rural development.

But all the efforts that were made, starting with the Green Revolution and all the extension programs have bypassed the peasantry. More than 80% of Latin American peasants did not adopt high yielding varieties, or the pesticides or the fertilizers promoted by the Green Revolution. The reason wasn’t that these people were ignorant; it had an ecological basis, because these technologies would increase the risk for them.

Can you explain what the Green Revolution was?
MA: The Green Revolution started, in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, as an attempt by the Rockefeller Foundation to modernize Mexican agriculture. Rockefeller put together a team of people to go to Mexico to report on how to modernize. When they came back they recommended that the way to do this would be to bring technology from the North, from the United States, Iowa-type, Ohio-type agriculture, using hybrid crops and making use of the technology package that implies, to push yields. There was one professor from Berkeley, Carl Sauer, who passed away many years ago, who was on that team: He’d done a lot of research on Mexican agriculture, and he wrote a minority report, saying, basically, "if a bunch of agressive American agronomists are going to go to Mexico and bring Ohio-type agriculture to small farmers, this is what’s going to happen." He predicted the impacts of the Green Revolution, the breakdown of cultures, the breakdown of the traditional systems, the erosion of the traditional varieties—they kind of fired him, and the Green Revolution proceeded.

Give us some examples of places where traditional systems are still in use.
MA: Traditional systems are almost intact in small areas—microcosms—which total about 3 million hectares in Latin America, mainly in Mesoamerica, the Andean region and the lowland tropics. One system in Mesoamerica would be the chinampas, there are about 40-60 hectares left in an area near Mexico City. A chinampa is a raised field that is surrounded by water canals, it’s a system that was developed by the Aztecs and has withstood the test of time. It’s an integrated agricultural/aquaculture system.

Meaning it produces both crops and fish?
MA: Right. The raised fields are built with the mucky sediment from the bottom of the canals, it’s very rich in organic matter; some of the nutrients from the raised fields fall into the water and enrich the water for the fish, a lot of algae and weeds start growing there, and before they suffocate the fish, the farmers put that organic matter back on the raised field as mulch. It’s a self-sustaining system, and they’ve been able to obtain anywhere from three to six tons per hectare, which is pretty comparable to any average maize [corn] field in the United States.

What kind of crops do they grow in the chinampas?
MA: They now grow about 20 different crops, but originally it was mostly maize. Now they have mostly commercial crops like flowers that they sell in Mexico City. But the [chinampas] system is collapsing. One, because of urban sprawl, and also because of the water quality. Mexico City uses the water and returns it contaminated, and so the systems are breaking down, not because the systems don’t work, but because of external forces.

How about systems in the Andes?
MA: The most traditional system in the Andes is the terraces, the andenes. The main crop is potatoes, and there are places where the terrace system is still in place where the productivity of potatoes is very high. The diversity of potatoes is also very high, they don’t grow one variety of potato, they grow 60 or 70 varieties in one terrace and that provides resistance to environmental problems, like drought or frost or disease, because one variety might suffer, but many others would survive.

That diversity exists not so much as a result of the ecology; cultural rituals maintain diversity; for example, a work ritual called the minka: Farmers from one area work in another area, and they get paid in potatoes by the farmers who are hosting the minka. Or when people marry, they get different kinds of potatoes as gifts. The survival of these many varieties is important not just for the survival of the farmers but also for the survival of agriculture, because it ensures genetic diversity. In order to maintain that genetic diversity, it’s important to maintain cultural diversity, because if you destroy these rituals, the way people are relating, you break down the genetic diversity.

Is there a particular area where you’ve been working on terraces?
MA: In the Huancayo and Cajamarca areas of Peru there are still microcosms, not the whole area, but there are still small areas. NGOs, including Peru’s CIED [Center for Research, Education and Development], have reconstructed hundreds of hectares of andenes.

How about tropical agriculture systems?
MA: In the lowland tropics, in the Amazon for example, but also in southern Mexico, you will find agro-forest systems, which are basically home gardens, huertos familiares, which could be less than half a hectare surrounding the household where you would have anywhere between 80 and 200 different trees, herbs, shrubs and a few domestic animals. These systems have a huge amount of diversity and are key for food security.

The image that most people have of tropical agriculture is that it’s mostly slash and burn agriculture. Is that accurate?
MA: Well, slash and burn is very prevalent, mostly in the highlands, but it’s diminishing because of the problem of land access, and population growth. Originally slash and burn was a very sustainable system. The key thing is that in the tropics there’s a lot of leaching of nutrients from the soil, the nutrients are tied up in the biomass, that is in the plants, so if you want to have fertile soil, you have to incorporate vegetation into the soil; then that vegetation decomposes and releases the nutrients. So what the farmers did originally was to clear a small plot of land, burn it. That releases the nutrients in the vegetation. The soil has enough fertility for about three years, then they would abandon that piece of land, and come back maybe 15 years later to the same piece of land so they could allow the forest to regenerate. That system is considered sustainable. It’s prevalent in Asia and Africa, too. As long as you have long fallows [periods during which the fields aren’t cultivated] the system works very well. That’s a very ecologically rational way of managing tropical agriculture. The problem is that the fallows became shorter and shorter because of lack of access to land, population growth, not so much because people are reproducing like crazy, but because there’s been a lot of movement of people into areas where slash and burn is being used— for example, some of the problems in the Brazilian Amazon, in Rondônia, it was mostly landless people that they were bringing from the south to the Amazon; they were people without a culture of tropical agriculture, they were doing slash and burn without knowledge and without allowing long fallows. You can still find microcosms of sustainable slash and burn—in southern Mexico for example, in Chiapas. But in most areas I think that the fallows have shortened so much, that the system’s not sustainable any more.

You say that agroecology combines traditional and modern methods, can you say something about the contribution of modern methods?
MA: That’s an interesting question, because sometimes the only contribution that modern science has is to show that what traditional farmers have been doing is correct—we do the research and we find that what these people developed were optimal systems. Let me give you a concrete example: The waru warus, systems found about 4,000 meters above sea level that exist in the Puno area of Peru and in Bolivia, in the Lake Titicaca area. Waru warus are very similar to the chinampas—they are raised fields surrounded by water that comes from Lake Titicaca. But the main effect is that the water absorbs the heat during the day and releases it at night; that changes the microclimate one or two degrees, enough to offset frost, which is very common at that altitude. Those systems disappeared because the Spanish thought the crops that they were growing, like quinoa, were pagan crops. And for other reasons related to the Conquest, those cultures collapsed, and the waru warus were abandoned. A few years ago some anthropologists, some archeologists, and some people from NGOs there started doing some work reviving the systems. There were archeological records that showed that the systems had existed. Then they started interviewing the elderly of the communities, and they started trying to revive the systems. There are now more than 200 hectares of waru warus, which have been reconstructed. They’re growing their traditional crops again. The contribution of modern science was just to find a way of reconstructing how this was done. No modern scientific breakthrough has been made that makes it possible to grow crops at those altitudes in the midst of frost.

But agroecology isn’t entirely a preservation of traditional systems?
MA: No. It’s possible to preserve the systems, if the farmers want, because agroecology is participatory—that means farmers are at the center of the research agenda. But in most places where we’re working, traditional systems do not exist anymore, they have been destroyed, basically the work is to try to rescue what was there before, and if it’s not there, to use agricultural principles that governed how sustainable agriculture was practiced in other areas with similar conditions.

What we have to do is empower the poor so they have the capability to feed themselves. What needs to be done is, first, land reform. And second, equip the farmers with agroecological knowledge and techniques. NGOs alone can’t do this; there have to be huge institutional reforms so that the public apparatus supports what the peasants really need. One example of a place where this is happening is in Brazil, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Governor [Olivio] Dutra, of the PT [Workers’ Party] has made agroecology public policy—the research institutions and universities there had people who studied agroecology, these people are now in power and using agroecology as a tool for family farming.

In Brazil there are 4.3 million family farmers who control about 30% of the land but produce 80% of the cassava and about 70% of the beans and about 60% of the maize. Their responsibility in food security, as in the rest of Latin America, is critical.

What Dutra and the PT have seen is that the family farmers play a key role in food security; they see that the revival of small farms in the countryside is key to reversing poverty, because many people are migrating to the cities, but the cities are becoming pockets of poverty. What are they going to do with all those people? They want to revive agriculture and add other industries that are going to add value to the agricultural products, bring education, bring all the services that have to come along; that’s their strategy, that rural development plays a key role in the development of the state. So it’s not so much that the family farmers represent a huge economic force; but they represent a social and ecological and cultural force.

I think what they are doing is very wise—the public sector, which is shrinking everywhere in Latin America, due to neoliberal policies, should focus on the poor, because the rest are being taken care of by the corporations. So for example in Chile, why is the national agriculture institute helping big farmers? Why don’t they work with small farmers? The corporations have their own technical assistance. Agroecology is not just a development method, but also a resistance to globalization, a tool for social movements to become much more autonomous. Brazil’s MST [Landless Rural Workers Movement] is now using agroecology on land they’ve taken over. The Zapatistas use agroecology—it is the technological flag of the resistance movement.

Is it possible for large scale commercial farms and small farmers to coexist? Isn’t Rio Grande do Sul a big commercial soybean producing region?
MA: Yes, it is. And coexistence is possible. The MST is the strongest movement in Brazil, including in Rio Grande do Sul; they are taking over land there. So you will have large scale agriculture that’s corrected by land reform—and when it’s corrected, then you will have the coexistence of large, medium and small scale agriculture.

Do you see genetically modified crops as having any role at all in the systems you are talking about in Latin America?
MA: Well, agroecology emerged as a critique of top-down approaches like the Green Revolution, which bypassed the small farmers, and did not really help them. And the same thing is going on with biotechnology; it’s top down, it’s not participatory. What we’re saying is that in order for the technology to be useful, first of all it has to be participatory, that is, the peasants get involved in the research process and they bring their knowledge—they are the ones who decide what is to be done, and all the other agencies, NGOs and research centers should be just facilitating the process.

Biotechnology did not emerge at all as a response to the needs of the poor; it emerged as a tool for some corporations to control the food system. Because they are able to engineer crops that require the use of their other products: like [Monsanto’s] Roundup Ready soybeans; it’s patented and requires the use of one particular herbicide, Roundup [also made by Monsanto]. So in that sense this technology has nothing to do with the needs of the poor.

There are people arguing, well, but look, there are applications that could be useful—but if a public organization, let’s say a Bolivian research center, developed a variety of potato that was going to be distributed to the poor and was, say, viral resistant, when they were ready to release it, then you are going to have to deal with about 20 corporations that are going to come down and claim property rights—because the associated [genetic engineering] technology is patented; when you put in the gene that has the particular feature you want, you have to use patented technology to insert it and mark it. This is what happened exactly with two varieties of papaya, one developed by a government agency in Brazil and another by a public university in Costa Rica; they could not release them because they had to negotiate the patents with 20 different corporations. That’s what happened with Golden Rice, this rice that is engineered to have the vitamin beta carotene; the Rockefeller Foundation funded the research for ten years, and then when they were ready to release Golden Rice they found out that there were complicated issues with the patents, so that’s why [the Swiss company] AstroZeneca came in and bought it. What they’re saying now is "we’re going to give Golden Rice to the poor for free," but we can’t allow feeding the poor in Latin America to be a question of whether corporations have good will or not. Agroecology empowers people to become agents of their own development.

But the other problem with biotech, with GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms] is that they are emerging at the expense of other agriculture, because of genetic pollution, we are seeing it already with the local maize varities in Oaxaca [Mexico]. When we grow transgenic crops that have a special trait, the gene for that trait doesn’t necessarily come from other plants, it might be from a bacteria, from a frog, from anything.

You put that gene into a plant because you think it’s going to express one particular trait, like resistance to an herbicide, or to a pest; well, that gene expresses itself throughout the plant and especially in the pollen. So when the pollen is blown by wind or carried by pollinators and goes through a normal process of crossing with wild relatives—that is, plants that are botanically related to the crop—there’s a high probability of encountering wild relatives in Latin America because there are many centers of origin [of domesticated plants] that are loaded with wild relatives and local varieties—so there’s going to be exchange of genes. And the wild plants are going to acquire the trait—they could become superweeds, and take over, or they might become less fit and just disappear. So that’s a danger.

The GM crops are novel crops—they don’t exist in nature, they would never exist in nature if humans had not manipulated them. They’ve manipulated them by overcoming biological barriers; people say, "but people have been domesticating and improving plants for a long time." Yeah, they have, but through the normal co-evolutionary processes that exist in nature. Here we have crossed biological barriers and found ways to use viruses and other things that would serve as transporters of these genes.

So what’s happening in Oaxaca, the center of origin of maize, an area with a lot of diversity of maize, and teosinte, which is a wild relative, is that they were using GM corn for animal feed, supposedly. This GM corn—called Bt corn—is resistant to insect pests. It started contaminating other corn varieties because of exchange of genes [through pollination]; researchers in Oaxaca found the presence of GM material in traditional varieties and wild relatives. We don’t know what the consequences could be, they could become superweeds, or they could disappear because they lose fitness. What is more worrisome is that they’ll contaminate everything so that there’s nothing we can do later on—regulation will come too late, farmers are going to lose their traditional crops. Organic farmers are also being contaminated; this is happening in Canada, with canola. The farmers lose their organic certification, because organic crops aren’t allowed to have any contamination by GMOs. So this is imposing itself—it’s like Microsoft—it’s imposing itself all over the genetic material of Latin America, and that’s unacceptable. We need to contain the purity of farming systems the way farmers want them—it’s irreversible, once you release the genes into the environment, it’s irreversible.

More information about agroecology and Miguel Altieri’s work in Latin America can be found at :

Tags: agriculture, interview, Miguel Altieri, agroecology, land, pesticides, GMOs

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