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Applied Agroecology:

Deconstructing Agroecology as a Science and Practice

Introduction

In this report, I aim to share my observations of deconstructing agroecology as a science; exploring its social, political, and economic contexts in relationship to scientific paradigms and practices. Agroecology has been described as a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture and local food system experiences. The field of agroecology has been framed as both a science, movement, and practice.

In this report, I introduce how applied agroecological science, such as soil science or plant ecology, is inseparable from agrarian social thought and social movements. I briefly deconstruct science, exploring its historical and contemporary relationships to the state, capitalism, and colonialism. I then introduce other forms of knowledge, such as indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge, as well as integral ecology as a tool to integrate multiple perspectives about the world. The concept of ’scientific literacy’ is then also explored from a personal perspective. Following this, I share how I have self-educated as a peri-institutional agroecologist.

Finally, I share the concept of ‘People’s Science’ as a useful framework for embracing collective systemic inquiry in our social movements. This is brought to life through a case study about SoilHack, a participatory soil science project of which I am active within. This leads to recommendations to others practicing agroecology and engaged in working for agrarian social change.

Agroecology as a Science, Movement, and Practice

My fourth and final project-related output with Gaia University is centered on agroecology as a movement. This output, therefore, is centered on agroecology as a science. Not just as a science, but as a movement in relationship to science. Guzmán and Woodgate (2013) believe that attempts to define agroecology as an applied science without a social context, without problematizing capitalist relations of production or allying itself with agrarian social movements, will significantly limit its ability to contribute to more sustainable systems of food production, distribution, and consumption. I, therefore, wish to explore in this output the ‘indivisibility’ of science, movement, and practice:

“Today, agroecologists, whether farmers or scientists, are working together to defend rural communities and agroecological cultures against the negative impacts of capitalist industrialization. While this struggle is a global one, human experience of such impacts remains place-based, and the local values, knowledges, institutions, and cultures of socioecologically situated people must be core elements in the construction of ecological sustainability and social justice. If the science of agroecology is separated from the agrarian social thought and movements with which it has grown up, we would argue that its transformative potential will be lost and agroecology will become just another instrumental discipline in the continuing saga of capitalism’s struggle to overcome its own internal contradictions."

- Guzmán and Woodgate 2013 (20

Deconstructing Science

Science originates from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge”. It usually describes the effort to understand how the universe works through the scientific method, with observable evidence as the basis of that understanding; a way of understanding the world through thought and experimentation. (En.wikipedia.org, 2017). The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge (En.wikipedia.org, 2017). Many scientists contest the role of the scientific method, however, the general perception is that it is important to gather data to test hypotheses and predictions and drawing on empirical evidence.

As a young person growing up in the West, science is the hegemonic knowledge system with other forms of knowing the world being ‘otherised’ as superstitious, new age or otherwise invalid. The most common form is reductionism, for example, natural vs social sciences. Apart from my distaste for school in general, I enjoyed science more than most subjects receiving two A grades. Science came alive to me as I contested animal research, actively pushing me to learn more and more about scientific processes and power in society. It was necessary to be able to interpret and evaluate data, to understand scientific language and observe the power relationships at play. My understanding of the relationship between science and capital, could not have been more visceral than experiencing state repression for rejecting the exploitation of animals in research. In prison, I studied environmental science and once again, found myself experiencing intense pleasure from learning and geeking out about new fields of interest, like soil science and botany.

One of my stated goals when designing this OP is to “develop my scientific literacy”. It was clear at the start that I did not clarify what ‘scientific literacy’ meant. Therefore this section contains my summary of these terms, as well as a deconstruction of science in general. I aim to explore the limitations of reductionism and science’s relationship to capitalism and colonialism.

A necessity of reductionist scientific approaches is the compartmentalisation of elements that are studied separately without relation to each other. We may learn the technical aspects of particle movement and soil erosion, but we do not explore the socio-economic drivers of soil degradation or land use. This is not just inconvenience, some people believe this dichotomy is fundamental to capitalism. Jason Moore (2016) writes, “The notion that social relations (humans without nature) can be analysed separately from ecological relations (nature without humans) is the ontological counterpoint to the real and concrete separation of the direct producers from the means of production. From this perspective, revolutions in ideas of nature and their allied scientific practices are closely bound to great waves of primitive accumulation, from early modernity’s Scientific Revolution to neoliberalism’s genomic revolutions.”

This key period of developing reductionist scientific worldviews was fundamental to growing domination. Jason Moore puts it bluntly: “If the accumulation of capital is the proletarianization of labour, it is also the production of knowledges aimed at controlling, mapping and quantifying the worlds of commodification and appropriation.”

Science has not only been used to serve capitalism but the state itself and its imperialism, colonialism, and hegemony in society. In writing on science, colonialism and indigenous peoples, Laurelyn Whitt (2009) explains that how according to Linnaeus, the very raison d’être if the science of natural history was to serve the state. Botanists, for their part, were “agents of empire”; their inventories, classifications, and transplantations were the vanguard and in some cases the “instruments” of European order. She writes how, “Formal scientific institutions, such as Britain’s Kew Gardens, played a crucial role in the expansion of empire by generating and disseminating scientific knowledge which facilitated transfers of energy, manpower, and capital on a worldwide basis and on an unprecedented scale.”

Whitt describes this process as biocolonialism. You can read a further description of biocolonialism and its harm in the appendices. Dr. Laurelyn Whitt states how the dominant knowledge system tends to embrace an anti-pluralism, a lack of receptiveness to alternative epistemologies, to others ways of knowing the world. Imperial science means cognitive authority, and ‘anyone who would be widely believed and trusted as an interpreter of nature needs a license from the scientific community.’

In understanding the role of knowledge production in agroecology, this leaves me to ask what about the millions of peasants and indigenous peoples that have diverse ways of knowing the world? Do they not interpret nature and how are their knowledges delegitimised by the scientific community?

When raising this critical questions about science (ironically, what becoming scientifically literate should mean - that we question), science is defended with conceptions of neutrality. We are presented with a worldview that somehow science is independent of commercial, political and religious interests. We are sold the narrative that the application of knowledge derived from science should be for public good and be accountable to us, the people.

This “for the public good” narrative enables the political justification for almost any project. In discussing scientific colonialism, John Galtung (2009) argues that a major aspect of it is the idea of unlimited access to data of any kind, just as the colonial power felt it had the right to lay its hand on any product of commercial value in the territory. I would add that this perception justifies the commodification and exploitation of millions of animals for research. Likewise, Whitt reminds us that Governments, universities, and industries attempt to recoup their economic investment in selected scientific projects by converting the results of research into private intellectual property.

Imperial Science is not just about a worldview that sustains capitalist relations, it is also practically and tangibly “safeguarding our economic and military strength” (Anelli, 2011). The questions resurfacing for me during this output therefore are: If the generation of imperial scientific worldviews and approaches to analysing the world were fundamental to capitalism’s emergence and growth, then how are they also not still fundamental to sustaining a capitalist society? If this is so, what is our relationship to science as people working to transform social relations?

Integrating Multiple Perspectives

In order to understand what ‘scientific literacy’ meant, I had to also understand other ways of knowing the world. Agroecology is a unique field in that it commonly privileges traditional ecological knowledge. In the introduction to the Agroecology 5-Day Course taught by leading international professors Dr. Miguel Altieri and Dr. Clara Nicholls, they stated that they are learning from the Campesinos and that this knowledge is born from them, not the other way round.

In her article on “Indigenous Knowledge as the Basis for Our Future”, Priscilla Settee (2008) writes that:

“Indigenous Peoples view IK as something that has sustained their communities since time immemorial. Dakota Elder Ken Goodwill states that IK is valid in its own right and does not need to be validated by other systems.  The Canadian International Development Agency uses the following definition, “IK represents the accumulated experience, wisdom and know-how unique to cultures, societies, and/or communities of people, living in an intimate relationship of balance and harmony with their local environments. These cultures have roots that extend into history beyond the advent of colonialism. They stand apart as distinctive bodies of knowledge, which have evolved over many generations within their particular ecosystem, and define the social and natural relationships with those environments. They are based within their own philosophic and cognitive system, and serve as the basis for community-level decision-making in areas pertaining to governance, food security, human and animal health, childhood development and education, natural resource management, and other vital socio-economic activities.”

Laurelyn Whitt affirms how indigenous knowledge is intrinsically situated knowledge, that it emerges from a place. As someone displaced from any kind of land-based culture through eight generations of industrialization, this relationship to the land can only be rebuilt through direct knowledge and what semblance of agricultural knowledge that exists.

Many people are trying to engage with the world through a framework of holistic science. This involves embracing complexity and not beginning inquiries with reductionist methods. It is less about studying constituents and more about studying relationships.  

In their book, The Web Of Life, scientist Fritjof Capra (1997) writes how “The new paradigm may be called a holistic worldview, seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a disassociated collection of parts. It may also be called an ecological view if the term “ecological” is used in a much broader and deeper sense than usual. Deeper ecological awareness recognises the fundamental interconnectedness of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature.”

I definitely feel that agroecology embraces a holistic worldview. One of the most useful frameworks I have encountered for navigating these different forms of knowledge, from reductionist science to indigenous knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge, is Integral Ecology.

The authors of the book, Integral Ecology, Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Michael E. Zimmerman (2010) describe integrative ecology as: The mixed methods study of the subjective and objective aspects of organisms in relationship to their intersubjective and interobjective environments at all levels of depth and complexity. It aims to be comprehensive, inclusive, non-marginalising and embracing of diverse perspectives on the natural world. In the appendices, I have shared the principles of applying the integral ecology framework.

One of the main tools introduced by this approach is a diagram of four quadrants:

http://www.pelicanweb.org/12.15.IntegralEcologyFig1.png

Source: http://www.pelicanweb.org/12.15.IntegralEcologyFig1.png

To bring this to life, you can see the experiences of a frog in the diagram below:

http://www.pelicanweb.org/12.15.IntegralEcologyFig4.png



Source: http://www.pelicanweb.org/12.15.IntegralEcologyFig4.png

Many ways of knowing the world can, therefore, be organised in the various quadrants. Navigating between these, we can see how they relate and how they represent different parts of the whole. This example just shows some schools of ecology in the different terrains.

http://www.pelicanweb.org/12.15.IntegralEcologyFig5.png

Source: http://www.pelicanweb.org/12.15.IntegralEcologyFig5.png

When engaging with knowledge, such a research paper, or a testimonial from a project, we can ask ourselves:

  • What part of reality is focused on? Which quadrant is privileged?
  • How is that reality investigated? What perspectives and methods are used?
  • Who is doing the looking?

We can also use the framework to approach learning, as I have done for soil science detailed in the Case Study section of this report.

This tool has opened up worlds of understanding to me now. I no longer feel a battle between different forms of knowledge, it is clear they can be integrated and all have something to offer in building a rich understanding of our world.

Deconstructing Scientific Literacy

With greater comfort in navigating the complexity of knowledge that exists, I returned to my original question of what is scientific literacy and how is it appropriate to my development as an agroecology. I read a lot of material around ‘What is scientific literacy?’ and it generated multiple perspectives.

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA, 2013) define scientific literacy as scientific Literacy is the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen. A scientifically literate person, therefore, is willing to engage in reasoned discourse about science and technology which requires the competencies to:

  • Explain phenomena scientifically: 

    • Recognise, offer and evaluate explanations for a range of natural and technological phenomena.
  •  Evaluate and design scientific enquiry: 

    • Describe and appraise scientific investigations and propose ways of addressing questions scientifically.
  •   Interpret data and evidence scientifically: 

    • Analyse and evaluate data, claims, and arguments in a variety of representations and draw appropriate scientific conclusions.

NSES framed scientific literacy differently, identifying three categories:

  1. Content knowledge - familiarity with basic science terms and concepts
  2. Understanding of science as a process
  3. Understanding of the impact of science on the individual and society

(Anelli, 2011)


Laugksch (2000) also proposes three categories:

  1. Practical scientific literacy - the application of scientific principles and technology to improve living standards
  2. Cultural scientific literacy - the appreciation of science as a major human achievement
  3. Civic scientific literacy - the level of understanding needed for informed engagement with contemporary science-related issues

I believe the strengths I have cultivated during this output are my cultural and civic scientific literacy and understanding of the impact of science on society, as well as the development of my content knowledge (soil science, agroforestry and so forth) that in turn strengthens my practical scientific literacy. The understanding of science as a process and applying the scientific method is a skill flex I wish to strengthen beyond this MSc. This output has been invaluable to me to support me to navigate complex knowledge in the field agroecology.

In summary, I have developed the following categories which will aid my post-MSc learning pathway:

Area of Study Self-assessed Level 

Theoretical & Content Knowledge
Intermediate
Knowledge Complexity Navigation Intermediate - massively strengthened by this output
Practical Application (Applied Knowledge) Strong
Design Skills Strong
Research and Evaluation Methods Foundational
Interpersonal and collaborative skills Strong
Critical political literacy Strong

Self-Education in Agroecology

Through adopting different lenses in which to engage with diverse forms of knowledge, this OP gave me the opportunity to reflect on how I have engaged in educating myself as an agroecologist. Agroecology, as a field, is not like nursing or engineering, there is no clarity in the field of professional standards, expectations, or even what an agroecologist really is. This is why in my OP2 I explored agroecology curriculums around the world so that I can better gauge how I sit in comparison to these standards. As agroecology as a field is so complex and dynamic, I actually believe defining the work of an agroecologist would not be possible or useful. I feel it would create unnecessary hierarchies and categories within a movement that is aiming to be horizontal and for the people.

However, identifying useful skill flexes and important bodies of knowledge that empower and strengthen practitioners of agroecology, is undoubtedly useful. This is why Gaia University has been extremely powerful in my own professional development because I can set my own goalposts and these are generated by the needs of my community and specific circumstances and projects, compared to a top-down model of education or an imposed curriculum.

Edging closer to graduation, I have had to ask myself do I have the knowledge I need to achieve my goals as an organiser, grower, designer and agroecologist? What have been the strengths and weaknesses of my self-directed education over the last 8 years and what do I now need to focus on?

In order to adequately answer these questions, I have utilised the GADIE design framework:

  • Goals Articulation - I deeply explored my own personal, political and professional goals during this OP. These will be shared fully in my OP4.
  • Survey - I created my Agroecologist Portfolio as an in-depth way of surveying my existing knowledge and experience.  
  • Analysis - To analyse my pathway, I used the Integral Ecology Framework to show me the areas I wish to cultivate to become more holistically competent as a practitioner.
  • Design, Implementation - As part of my OP completion process, I made a tactical decision to spend quality time designing my post-MSc learning pathway as part of my final output with Gaia University, rather than rush it to completion to be included in this output. You can see the pathway design, so far, in my appendices.


GADIE

Source: http://portfolios.gaiauniversity.org/artefact/artefact.php?artefact=24964&view=4538

Peri-Institutional Practice

I learned through this OP that most of my edges around working outside or on the edges of institutions, such as mainstream universities or NGOs, are emotional ones. Deconstructing this, I learned that I feel an inferiority complex because of not going to a traditional university or having a traditional science education. This is aggravated by the UK having such an entrenched class system. Because society does not value independent experiential learning or self-education, in turn, I do not value myself and my own learning. I feel a sense of imposter syndrome when I am at agriculture-related training with people with multiple degrees in environmental science or ecology. I feel that flutter of doubt in my stomach when I am about to teach a permaculture course and I know most people in the room have more formal education than me.

However, by exploring these emotions and by creating this Agroecologist Portfolio I can see that my life has been rich in learning and there is no reason why I should not be a confident and capable practitioner. In fact, I am increasingly learning that unlike many people with degrees, what they lack is my strength. I have abundant project-related experience, I have experience of actually managing a demonstration centre and my grassroots organising experience is powerfully evident. Agroecology is my lifeblood and I am putting it into practice on a daily basis.

I have aimed to share my advice for others in similar positions in my appendices.

Agroecology as a People's Science

So far I have explored many of the challenges of imperial science. I have shared observations on more holistic models such as integrative ecology and traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous knowledge systems.  However, I now explore what is the role of science in the agroecology and food sovereignty movement?

At the International Permaculture Convergence 2015, I had the privilege of participating in a session led by Dr. Rafter Sass Ferguson about people’s science. Rafter described People’s Science as both a culture of experimentation and critical thinking and the appropriation of resources of contemporary science and integrating them into our movement. He also believes people’s science is about mobilising the resources of contemporary scientific research for the liberation of people and our home the earth.

I feel a large affinity with this statement and believe this relationship is definitely the most fitting. Members of our movement can leverage scientific resources for social movement goals. We can use scientific research to evidence our work, evaluate our impact and feed into our strategies. In his article “People’s Science or pseudoscience?” (2014) Rafter believes some of the common problems of permaculture is that we “make shit up”; a lot of what we say is purely anecdotal, we exaggerate and oversimplify. The aim of organised research is that undertake systemic investigations that try to account for biases, cognitive or other. This is the fundamental notion of systematic collective inquiry: careful and strategic investigation of shared questions, critical interpretation of what we find, and systematic dissemination of questions and answers.

I believe agroecology is a people’s science because we have a relationship with academia, but it is not our driver or our ruler. We share knowledge between ourselves, and as any grower knows, we actively experiment all the time. The role of agroecologists, I believe, is to help establish the infrastructure for systemic collective inquiry and then support initiatives to share it. I have recently begun a course called Citizen Science: From Soil to Sky, which is part of the GROW a Citizen Observatory European-wide community that enables growers to learn about soil science, share data, and build a picture of soil health across the continent. I believe programs such as these play an important role in us collectively developing our knowledge.

The Permaculture Association GB prioritised research and has a great blog that is regularly updated 

Rafter has some fantastic suggestions for practitioners of permaculture that I have tried to integrate into the recommendation section of this report.

Case Study: SoilHack

In May 2017, at the end of my output period, I was able to put my learning around science and developing scientific literacy, into practice. I was part of the organising collective that have organised the first SoilHack Gathering in the UK. I aim to briefly introduce SoilHack and why I believe it is a radical contribution to soil science education.

Soil Hack Gathering Poster Centre

SoilHack is a knowledge sharing network focused on soil. It is part of the FarmHack movement and has been born out of the need to save what soils we have with the best information possible. In the UK, SoilHack has existed as a twitter account, shared email list and wiki to share information on events and latest soil research. We decided to organise the first national SoilHack Gathering to help build the movement and it took place at the land project where I live, Brook End in Somerset in May 2017. The gathering hosted more than 19 different workshops presented by participants on topics such as composting, biochar, soil biology, fungi, cover crops and more. The gathering enabled me to combine my education-related skills and knowledge generated in output two with my science-focused output three.

SoilHack is a radical approach to soil science education because it is:

  • Accessible and Inclusive - Not only in financial or practical terms but also in terms of multiple levels of knowledge. There are no barriers or entry requirements. All are welcome to learn, whatever their existing level of soil science.
  • Peer-to-Peer - A large number of the participants are also giving workshops. No one is paid, and as a result, there is no hierarchy in terms of student-teacher. Sessions are designed to support peer-to-peer exchanges of knowledge.
  • Integrative - There are sessions that are not scientific in the reductionist sense, for example, there is a session on agrohomeopathy. The organisers of the gathering decided we did not want to impose our own value judgments, and that participants are welcome to join the session, or not depending on their worldview. We have aimed to not censor or reject any offers to the gathering. There is also a solid mix of both very practical sessions, more spiritual and relational sessions, as well as theoretical and scientific presentations.
  • Political - The gathering explores not only soil science for growers but also what the threats are to soils and the power relationships at play. There are also multiple sessions on movement building, soil education, and knowledge sharing.
  • Practically Applicable - The gathering has been organised for the spreading of useful knowledge that can support people to better grow food, care for the land and develop land-based livelihoods. It is inherently practical and functional.


There are indeed limitations, such as the limited time in workshops, the geographic location of the gathering necessarily becoming less accessible to other parts of the UK, and the size and capacity of the site. It is also running on volunteer energy, which may or may not be sustainable in the long-term. However, I believe these are limitations that can be overcome as a movement and I am very proud to be part of making this event happen.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clear that agroecology as a science is unashamedly political and rich in complexity, history and unequal power relations. In this report I have aimed to introduce the multiplicity of knowledges that exist and highlight some of the relationships between them. In ecology, we know that ‘diversity is health’ and that the ‘edge is where the action is’ (that their is greater biodiversity where two ecosystems meet e.g. The woodland and field, or the ocean and land). Agroecology is a bridging model between indigenous ways of knowing the land and ecological science, while having the political literacy to observe power relationships between them. During this report I have shared my own experiences in developing as an agroecologist in a peri-institutional way, learning outside of mainstream universities and formal education. I have shared the idea of a “people’s science” as a way of appropriating resources to serve social movement goals, and I have shared SoilHack as a case study demonstrating these ideas in practice.

I end with a quote from Grade Kilomba in “Decolonising Knowledge” (2016):

"When they speak, it is scientific.
When we speak, it is unscientific.
When they speak, it is universal.
When we speak, it is specific.
When they speak, it is objective.
When we speak, it is subjective.
When they speak, it is neutral.
When we speak, it is personal.
When they speak, it is rational.
When we speak, it is emotional.
When they speak, it is impartial.
When we speak, it is partial.
They have facts, we have opinions.
They have knowledge, we have experiences.
We are not dealing here with a ‘peaceful coexistence of words,’ but rather with a violent hierarchy, which defines Who Can Speak, and What We Can Speak About."

References

Altieri, M. and Nicholls, C. (2015). Introduction to Agroecology.

Anelli, C. (2011). Scientific Literacy: What Is It, Are We Teaching It, and Does It Matter?.

American Entomologist, 57(4), pp.235-244.

Capra, F. (1997). The web of life. 1st ed. London: Flamingo.

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