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Ways of Knowing and Being for Agroecology Transitions

Maywa Montenegro de Wit, University of California, Santa Cruz
Colin R. Anderson, University of Vermont
Francisco Rosado-May, Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo
Lauren Baker, Global Alliance for the Future of Food
Amanda Jekums, Global Alliance for the Future of Food

For thousands of years, Indigenous foodways have actively nourished health, culture, and nature through worldviews grounded in Land and principles of reciprocity, relationality, and sovereignty. More recently, agroecology has learned from and built upon this wisdom and expertise to elaborate a paradigm shift away from colonial-capitalist food systems. Agroecology is increasingly gaining traction as a framework through which to transform food systems and address the root causes of climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity, and other symptoms of social inequity. To this end, cross-sectoral movements for agroecology now work to support and advance agroecology in farming practice, scientific research, educational opportunities, institutional uptake, policy recognition, and popular discourse.

But agroecology, like other unconsolidated movements, has some world-making problems that need a closer look. Agroecology is well known as departing from industrial agriculture in terms of both principles (like diversity, resilience, and biocultural heritage) and practices, from crop polycultures, seed saving, and biological control to agroforestry and integrated agriculture-aquaculture. Increasingly, agroecology is viewed as mounting a political challenge to the neoliberal food regime and to the concentrated power of corporations and governments which shape institutions, policies, and markets to lock in the status quo. Yet less frequently centered in conversations about agroecology transitions are ways of knowing and being at the heart of food systems change. While Western cosmologies and Western science dominate agricultural and food system ‘development,’ a transformative agroecology practice requires working within and with a plurality of cosmovisions, knowledges, and sciences that underpin diverse expressions of agroecology. This epistemic bricolage calls for challenging dominant epistemologies, navigating the frictions and contradictions of making agroecological knowledge (including Western science, Indigenous science, anticolonial science, and more), and staying attuned to how knowledge shapes material worlds, and vice-versa.

Rich and largely understudied terrain like this should provoke interest. Yet within science policy and funding contexts, agroecology appears mired in narrow debates over evidence. “Where is the evidence for agroecology’s benefits?” donors ask. “Can you give me data that agroecology will outperform industrial agriculture for yield and profit?” policymakers want to know. Farmers (justifiably) worry, “Where is the evidence that I’ll stay afloat if I take up agroecology?” Many such questions merit further research to help shed light on unknowns. But engaging with these questions through a one-dimensional drive for “more evidence” and “more data” tends to reproduce colonial logics wherein agroecology and Indigenous knowledge become mere mechanisms to achieve productive ends. It doesn’t ask “whose evidence?” but instead accepts “evidence” as bounded by Western Enlightenment parameters and dominant notions of agricultural success. These assumptions form the bases of the majority of scientific, academic, and policy processes and institutions, and serve to lock-in the current trajectory of agricultural systems.

This special feature invites contributors to go further—to explore the politics of knowledge that underlie evidence and its boundaries; to document evidence through the lens of multiple experiences and perspectives; to provide insights into how evidence is mobilized into policy and movement arenas; and to help chart transformative research in key areas. When “inclusive” strategies are increasingly popular, and when different actors require different types of evidence, what strategies can be used to respect an ethic of incommensurability that cannot be joined or conflated (Tuck and Yang 2012)? How does agroecology, as diálogo de saberes (Martínez Torres and Rosset 2012), promote epistemic justice and pluriversal politics without collapsing into multicultural extractivism? What strategies can be used to support a civil society led agenda for research, education, farmer training, policy work, and community-based organizing for more just and sustainable food systems. What inspiration and insight can we glean by learning from the knowledge processes of informal, Indigenous, and decentralized grassroots movements and communities building agroecological alternatives in their territories?

We invited academics, practitioners, civil society, and transdisciplinary teams to contribute in the following areas:

  1. Meanings & Politics of Knowledge and Evidence: How does power and politics shape and infuse our understanding of evidence, what “counts” as evidence, the broad range of ways evidence is documented, and the historical and epistemological roots that shape our understanding of agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways? 

  2. Contested Ground: What kinds of food system questions do we need to pose and what new/better kinds of evidence are relevant in order to answer them? Does agroecology principally need more evidence or more political power? How do academics, farmers, policymakers, and social movements marshal evidence for agroecological transformations whilst also redefining terms by which evidence is understood? 

  3. Mobilizing Knowledge: How is knowledge mobilized across different constituencies and in different spaces, including sites of formal policymaking and governance as well as in civil society networks, communities, and social movements? Who is asking for evidence, for what purpose, in what form, and for what purpose/ends? When different actors are only willing to accept particular types of evidence, what strategies can be used to meet these needs while respecting an ethic of incommensurability that cannot be joined or conflated?

  4. Research-Action Agenda: What are the priority areas for transformative research and action agenda that is transdisciplinary, that centers political and social justice and the right to food and food sovereignty; and that challenges entrenched power, vested interests, and structural lock-ins? What research and knowledge building approaches support research-action agendas? How is “action” — individual and collective, immediate and long-term — shaped by different ways of knowing and being?

  5. Institutional Change: What processes are underway or are needed to transform knowledge and innovation systems and institutions to better support agroecology? How can we transform universities, funding programs, research institutes, academic societies, and educational networks? 

The editors of this collection initially came together while working on a compendium of perspectives: “The Politics of Knowledge: Understanding the Evidence for Agroecology, Regenerative Approaches and Indigenous Foodways.” This Elementa journal special feature extends the insights and arguments of that compendium, helping scholars and practitioners collectively deepen this research and dialogue.

Open Access: This Special Issue will be fully open access, meaning that there is no charge to read, download, or use any content published, and content is published with open reuse licenses. This is made possible through the sponsorship of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.
Author Instructions: For timelines and instructions, please refer to these notes on submitting a Research Article or a Commentary Article.


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