The Science of Sustainable Agriculture Is Agroecology
Interview with Miguel Angel Nuñez

Miguel Angel Nuñez is a co-founder and member of IPIAT (Instituto para la Producción e Investigación de la Agricultura Tropical). He has been working with small-scale, family farmers at the grassroots level for more than thirty years. He is a professor of Agroecology and Tropical Agriculture at several Venezuelan universities and a researcher at IPIAT. Since 2004, he has been an advisor to the Venezuelan Presidential Office on agro-environmental issues. He is a former coordinator of the Latin American Agroecological Movement (MAELA). The interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on August 26, 2007 in Merida, Venezuela.

The sun’s energy

In Motion Magazine: Please talk about the use of energy in the creation of food.

Miguel Angel Nuñez: The answer to that question is wide-ranging because since food was first created the food system has been dependent on the sun’s energy.

For us, for the people that live in tropical weather, it is highly important to recognize that we have several advantages in using the sun. In the near future, tropical energy, sun energy is going to substitute for fuel-oil energy. In other words, when we are talking about agroecology, when we are talking about the production of food, from the sustainable point of view, from the agroecological point of view, we are talking substituting oil energy with the sun’s energy. For example, in poly-cropping there are many synergistic effects that make us see that the sun’s energy is the rational way that is coming to the planet.

For us, the basic material for the development of the new agriculture must be related to the use of the sun’s energy. It will be more efficient.

The Green Revolution

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk some more about how this relates to the use of hydrocarbon resources and the Green Revolution?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: The Green Revolution grew depending on the irrational use of energy. Most of this additional energy input comes directly or indirectly from non-renewable fossil fuels. For example, in a productive system where you are putting agrochemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, the efficiency of energy in that crop is very low. For one kilo-calorie that you gain from that crop, any kind of crop, you are spending eight, eleven, twelve, fourteen kilocalories in the productive system. And I am not even talking about the industrial processing system in which you have to expend even more energy. It’s been scientifically proven that this energy-intensive form of agriculture cannot be sustained into the future without fundamental changes.

So, when we are talking about sustainable agriculture, when we are talking about the agroecological productive system, the one kilocalorie that we put in the system will gain between eight, nine, eleven kilocalories. This means a lot of efficiency from the energy point of view, in relation to the productive system. And, if we have an efficient energy point of view in the productive system, we are going to have more equilibrium in the system and we are going to have more control of the technical relationship within the system.

In the agricultural Green Revolution model, the energy expenditure in irrigation is very high. The expenditure in transportation is high. The expenditure in application of fertilizers and insecticides and pesticides is high and also is highly risky for human health. What we have to do is to try to analyze, from the energy point of view, which ones out of all of these components are expending more energy in the productive system and see how we can improve this in a way that will reduce the amount of energy that is expended.

New type of research

And that one is research that we have to do. It’s a new type of research that we have to require of universities and institutions; to know how agroecology, how sustainable agriculture, is in its behavior the rational use of energy in the productive systems. When we are talking about the freedom of use of techniques, we should know about the different types of techniques that are in the agroecology system and how to apply the agroecological techniques that help to reduce, to rationalize, be more efficient from an energy point of view.

Look at the cost of the oil. The price of the oil is going up all the time. What the Green Revolution and the biotechnology revolution, from the transgenic point of view, are doing is they are trying to make some genetic modifications in order that they can keep down the inputs that they are using -- in oil energy consumption.

I believe, that the transnational companies, which have the control of the distribution, of the production of seeds and agrochemicals, they should not be doing research to modify the genetic structure of the seeds but (rather) related to the amount of energy that is being used in the system.

You maintain independence from the technological model, in that way. You have to be independent of oil production. This is the reason why they are running so fast -- in order to have the production of a new variety of seeds, in order that they can improve the system, but from the energy expenditure point of view.

They are looking to try to modify the seeds and see how the system responds to the reduced use of energy. Not too many people are working in that field.

In Motion Magazine: Why would it benefit them?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: Because they maintain the technological-model system. They maintain the technological-model system because they want to dominate the scientific and technological agricultural science as a model in different types of societies.

In Motion Magazine: So they recognize the need to use less energy and themselves be less dependent?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: Right.

The vocabulary of sustainable

In Motion Magazine: But they want to keep you within their model rather than have you go over to the agroecological model.

Miguel Angel Nuñez: Exactly. And this is the reason, too, why you find in some transnational companies the move, the interest, in the vocabulary of “sustainable”.

For example, we found in many big enterprises that are in the Latin American South, we found many people talking about the sustainability of soya. And for the sustainability of soya it is impossible that you could be able to approach it with that type of industrial production system.

You could have a good yield in agroecological organic production, but in order to keep with the demand for soya all around the world you would have to work with really high technology and that high technology implies the use of soya transgenic seeds. Even though they say they working with sustainable technology, it is not true. It is a lie.

Agroecology and agronomy

In Motion Magazine: What is the difference between agroecology and agronomy?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: The profile of the professional is different. The agronomist looks for profits with higher inputs of energy into the system. Agronomists are looking for monoculture. Agronomists (in general) use a production system dependent on oil energy, on machinery working on large areas of land. The agronomist doesn’t worry so much about the socially-organized production system. Always, the agronomists, due to the fact that they are putting on the table high yields, high profits, they have to work with monoculture. That one is a very big difference.

Agroecology is completely different because agroecology works with the productive diversity in the agrosystem. Agroecology is working to have a new design of the productive system. Agroecology must deal with the evolution of the productive system related to the organization and cultural values of the system. Agroecology doesn’t work so much with monoculture.

Agroecologists work with several scientific principles. When we are working in agroecology, we try to apply these principles as the main keys to our work. And we share with the farmer. We share with the producers. We share those principles in order that the producer can realize that agroecology can be applied to working on a different scale of production -- four acres, five acres, ten acres, 100 acres. In that way, you keep applying the scientific principle and you can work agroecology everywhere, in every space that you want.

Agronomists don’t follow scientific principles because monoculture is against the natural system. Agronomists work with monoculture and monoculture doesn’t follow natural law. This is a very big difference.

The agroecologist has a holistic point of view. The agronomist doesn’t have a holistic point of view. Agroecology must deal with the design, the evolution, with “how do you deal with the productive system”. Agroecology is an endogenous system. Agronomy is not endogenous. Agroecology raises up the traditional knowledge of our peasants (campesinos) and uses it for the new design of agro-ecosystems. Agronomists do not do that.

Agroecology must maintain the soil in a well-fertilized way. Agroecology approaches the new soil science. Agronomy does not. Agronomy depends on the use of agrochemicals. Agroecology does not. Agronomists are causing damage to the soil, to the water -- agroecology not. And that one has to do with these principles. Agroecology produces soil, water, biodiversity, and so on.

New type of labor relationship between farmers

Agroecology deals with a type of organization that leads you to a quality environment. Agronomists don’t have to do deal with a quality environment. We are talking about quality of life. Agronomists don’t take into consideration the quality of life because they are producing contaminated food.

When we are talking about the quality of life and environmental equilibrium, we are talking about harmony in the social system. And this is what agroecology is looking for -- to have harmony. If we have harmony in the social organization system, and we are talking about the good quality of life we will have in achieving equilibrium, harmony in the social agroecological productive system. Then we can talk about a new type of relationship, a new type of labor relationship between farmers; keeping in mind you cannot have quality of life if you don’t have an equilibrium in social productive relationships.

What does that mean for us? That farmers in agroecology have been looking for a different way. Farmers in agroecology are looking for a way that has dignity. Farmers in agroecology are looking as professionals because they have knowledge that they are applying, knowledge that we have known, very well, for thousands of years.

When we are talking about knowledge we are talking about power. Knowledge of power. And we want the type of power that empowers us, that will give us another type of organization. We believe so much that agroecology is going to be one of the active parts of the social and solidarity economy that we want to put in the new society.

The social and solidarity economy -- agronomists don’t deal with the social and solidarity economy. Agronomists deal with the old-organization economy because they just have one method of production in their brain – high yield, high profits, regardless of the damage that it does to the environment, regardless of the damage that it does to the food and us.

Moving from the countryside to the cities

In Motion Magazine: One of the results of industrial agriculture has been millions of people moving from the countryside to the cities.

Miguel Angel Nuñez: Right.

In Motion Magazine: Do you think that is inevitable in the development of society? Or even something that we would want? Is that part of a sustainable culture?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: We have that problem already. I would say that the only way that we can start to fight against that problem is to get back to the fields; that we get back to the root of it. I believe we can do that because in the cities, in the urban societies, you have a lot of pressures. You have a lot of limitations. And those pressures and those limitations raise so much about the understanding of the development of a new society. With ecological limitations, with service limitations, with technologies, difficult limitations -- what are you going to be thinking of as to how a new society could be organized?

In the revolutionary process, one of the bright ideas that our president has is to create new cities; to create a new type of organization in cities; that we shouldn’t make the mistakes that the old cities made. We should start to approach and look for sustainable action that allows us to try to create a new type of city. The idea is to start to work with towns, small towns that are in extreme poverty and try to overcome the poverty with the organization of new cities.

When you are thinking about organizing new cities, you have to think about how to develop sustainable resources: soil and water resources. In order to keep soil production, you have to have water. If you have water you must work with the biodiversity of plants. These three things come together. You have to think about a new type of society, a new type of town, a new type of city has to be thought of in a sustainable way. We don’t have another way around it.

In that way, we should be able to create this type of society, this type of organization of cities. We are going to improve. We are going to try to establish (to present) this difference from the ideological point of view to the people in the big cities that have to move to other places.

In Motion Magazine: Have to move?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: What I’m talking about, “to have to move,” is: I have to put on the table that we have so many ecological, technological, service pressures in the city. Do you want to deal with these things? Do you think you can have a future working with a shortage of water, for example? Do you think that we can have a future keeping these types of social relationships in the cities: crime, violence, and drugs? That one is a type of domination, oppression. This is a type of ideological and political domination. You could have the people in the city and you could establish repressive social control in order to control the people, in order to dominate the people. This is what I am thinking we could have soon, unless we go back to the land and work the land in a different way than we were working before.

Having conscience

In Motion Magazine: But you wouldn’t force them to go and do that?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: No, I am not talking about forcing the people. Here in the Venezuelan revolution we are not talking about forcing, we are talking about having conscience, having ideological and revolutionary conscience, in order that one of your options is to go to the field; to get back to the land; to get back to the rural areas and work for the agroecology and food sovereignty. In Venezuela, we need to produce a lot of food in order to keep alive the revolutionary process.

For example, in Venezuela close to 90% of the population is in a big city, and all of the population is in the coastal belt in the north. We have an empty country in our back. So what are we going to be doing with those resources? It is really simple. We have many things to do in the Venezuelan field and, for example, there is a very important initiative of the Venezuelan government that is being developed called Los POLOS Agrarios Socialistas, the Socialist Agrarian Focal Points, of which 16 are going to be created between now and 2013. If those 16 Socialist Agrarian Focal Points are accomplished in a good way, we might be talking, in the year 2013, of 70% of Venezuela’s agrarian territory doing a transition process to agroecology; going through a transition process to sustainable agriculture. And that one is amazing.

Teaching agroecology

This is one other thing that we have to accomplish. We already have more than 3,000 farmers that are working in agroecology. We already have several institutions that are teaching agroecology. The Venezuelan Bolivarian University is teaching agroecology. We have a couple of universities that are going to start with a Master’s program in agroecology. We have a unique international experience, for which we are getting support from international farmers who are working in agroecology with the Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST) and Via Campesina. We are creating this International Agroecology Latin American Paolo Freire Institute in Barinas, Venezuela,

Also, the Ministry of Agricultural Land has a very, very strong program promoting agroecology. This year it has been giving money, grants, 24,000 million bolivars for agroecological credits and agroecological activities. This is a huge amount of money for the farmer to take into consideration in working with agroecology.

By the year 2013, we hope to have created 113 bio-control labs and 73 bio-fertilizer labs which are going to be covering between 2.5 and 3 million hectares all around Venezuela. That one is also amazing. I don’t know of any country that has a measure like that. This is a very important goal for the Venezuelan process. I hope we can keep making social pressures to achieve it.

We are requiring all of the agronomist universities to change, to think and change curricula and start to teach, in a really good way, agroecology. For example, agroecology is reflected in several articles in the proposed reform of the national constitution.

We have to realize that the technical and political formation of the agronomist must be related to what you find in the constitution. You cannot have a formation program, a degree in agronomy, that doesn’t match the constitution’s principles. And this is the thing that we are fighting for; to put into the constitution food sovereignty, to put into the constitution agroecology and see how we can advance from that point of view. That one is a fight. That one is a very, very good fight and a very important fight that we have to deal with; that the Venezuelan people must deal with. How is the professional agronomist going to use this type of opportunity?

Diversity of knowledge

In Motion Magazine: A major part of where the science of agroecology comes from is traditional and indigenous knowledge. In your own experience, what does that mean? Does that only relate to agriculture or does it include the whole indigenous cosmovision?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: When we are talking about traditional and indigenous knowledge, this is part of agroecology, because agroecology promotes diversity of knowledge. Why? Because the history of agriculture has indigenous knowledge and also has traditional knowledge. This knowledge is very important, in order to understand what can happen in the development of the productive system.

When we are talking about agroecology and indigenous and traditional knowledge, we are talking about agroecology being a unifier: getting together, sharing, interrelating indigenous knowledge, traditional knowledge, and new scientific knowledge to maintain the agroecological and productive systems. That diversity of knowledge, linked to the socioeconomic perspective in the productive system: how you design the ecosystem; how the productive system evolves. Agroecology deals with the application of principles in any agroecosystem looking for sustainability in whole food systems.

The water-river system, recovering the soil, biological control

In Motion Magazine: Can you give an example?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: There are several examples. In traditional coffee plantations, you will find this type of concept. You find traditional knowledge in how you shape, how you fix the relationship with the trees that are around the coffee plant. That one is traditional knowledge.

For example, the distance between the coffee plant and, say, an avocado plant: one avocado plant, one orange plant, another tropical fruit, one wood land. The distance between them and how you arrange the poly-crops -- that one is traditional knowledge. That one is very important environmentally because when you have a poly-crop, when you have an organization of several types of trees, you are producing soil and water. You have to work the agrosystem knowing that traditional knowledge. And that knowledge we don’t find in universities. We don’t find in books. We find it in the field; with practice.

That one is the reason why the farmer must come and say, “Listen, we can organize the trees in this way.” When we are talking about organizing the trees and having a goal of producing soil and producing water, we have to deal with the management of the water river basins. That one is traditional knowledge: to find out what is going in the natural system. When you deal with the soil, with water production, maintaining the water-river system, the production of water, you are dealing with the social economy of the coffee grower. You are dealing with the production of coffee.

Another example. If we want to recover the soil that has been degraded by agrochemicals, we have several ways to work it out, several agroecological techniques to work it out of the soil. We could use green manure, which is legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil. This has to do with the relationship of the green manure with another type of crop which will give you the production of soil. So, we have to be involved in the production of the bio-structure of the soil, the “mantillo” of the soil. It is the structure of the soil, the shell of the soil, the last level of the soil, in order that you will produce soil and produce organic matter. If you are producing soil you are producing organic matter. If you are producing organic matter you will have a deep soil. If you have a deep soil that one will be a pretty good guarantee that you will recover the soil and you will have a sustainable soil to maintain the production. That one also is traditional knowledge. Remember, a good healthy soil will give a healthy plant and a good plant will give you a good soil.

Another example. If I have a field of corn or a field of black beans that has been attacked by an insect, I could incorporate (in the field) a biological control system with some fly, some tree, some biological control, some bio-fertilizer control. I am relating the new scientific agroecological knowledge with the traditional knowledge of soil.

You see how they are integrated?

The science of sustainable agriculture is agroecology

In Motion Magazine: Why is agroecology a new paradigm for Venezuelan society, as you talk about in your new book? (La Agroecologia en la Soberanía Agroalimentaria Venezolana -- click to download a PDF)

Miguel Angel Nuñez: I think it is well demonstrated how agroecology is going to be the new productive paradigm for agricultural science. There are many people, many good researchers, in different places around the world, in the United States, in Spain, Argentina, Columbia, Venezuela, in Mexico, in Peru, in Bolivia, there are many good researchers, many good honest people who have invested so much of their lifetime trying to understand, trying to put on the table the advantage of agroecology, in relation to the new paradigm. We reserve so much respect for those researchers back in the ’70s, in the ’80s of the last century that were putting on the table many of the ideas that we are discussing today in this interview.

It is a matter of time and a matter of waiting, time and space, but I don’t have any doubt that agroecology will be dealing with that process, the new science, the new agricultural science all around the world.

It is clear that agroecology will be dealing with the new agricultural productive food paradigm. There is no question about it.

In Motion Magazine: Do you have any knowledge of how it is in other parts of the world, the status of it?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: There has been very interesting research in several important universities. In fact, research by the University of Essex (in the U.K.) identified more than 286 organic conversions in 57 countries, the average yield increase was found to be an impressive 64 per cent.

In those countries, I would say that there are many millions of farmers working in sustainable and agroecological techniques on quite a few million of acres in different types of countries. This research deals with close to 258 projects all around, in 47 countries. Besides that, the international organic farming movement say that they need to certify thousands of organic farmers that are looking for certification of their fields and certification of their food.

Inorganic agriculture: the application of the principle

I have to clear up though, that although organic agriculture is fed by the agroecological scientific principle, you will find some organic production that is monoculture, that is not agroecology. Organic agriculture is another thing and it can be different from agroecological production. You will find in production of organic agriculture the application of some scientific principle in agroecology, but also, you will find another type of organic production that doesn’t find the principle. That one is a very important thing to say.

In Motion Magazine: What would be the difference?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: The application of the principle. For example, organic monoculture production is not agroecology. You will find many acres that have been produced by organic monoculture -- in that type of system you don’t apply the agroecological principle. But, you will find a diversification of food in organic agriculture which is gaining the advantage of the agroecological principle. Organic agriculture is following similar steps of the Green Revolution: promoting monoculture; monoculture, large-scale production, specialized fields and concentrated resources and knowledge. Also it helps to maintain the traditional agrarian structure called latifundio.

To support the self-sufficiency of countries

In Motion Magazine: The creation of the international agroecology institute that the Venezuelan government is working on with the MST is an example of the promotion of agroecology. Did you want to talk any more about that?

Miguel Angel Nuñez: I believe that this international institute that is a proposition of the MST and Via Campesina, I think it is an important idea. It is an important project that has to be developed and must get not only the support of the Venezuelan government, it must also get the support of all the governments around in Latin American countries.

Venezuela has a very important and aggressive foreign policy from the energy point of view, from the perspective of ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana Para Las Americas -- the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), from the perspective of the TCP, that is Tratado de Comercio para los Pueblos. When we are talking about help, we are not (simply) talking about helping other countries, or just giving away money as many people believe. We are not talking about giving oil just for giving oil, or sharing the oil for other goods, for other services, we are talking about how to get involved in an international dynamic to try to support autodeterminación (self-determination); to support the self sufficiency of countries, to develop a process according to the new type of world that we want; according to “another world is possible”.

So, when we are talking about having an institution like the International Agroecology Latin American Institute, when we are talking about that one, we are trying to support the autodeterminación of those countries that are really interested in having another type of school, another type of formation, of professional from the agroecological point of view that could help those countries, that could help the country in a different type of way.

From small farmers in Bolivia

For example, we are, right now, in Venezuela, receiving 80,000 tons of soya that is being produced in a sustainable, responsible way from small farmers in Bolivia. That one is ALBA that one is TCP. And that soya that is coming from Bolivia is not transgenic soya. It has been certified as not being transgenic. That one means something, man. This is a very important aspect.

When we are receiving agroecological seeds from the MST and the enterprises that MST has, we are talking about TCP and we are talking ALBA. When we are receiving organic black beans from Bolivia, we are talking about the integration of both countries. They are bringing good seeds to feed the Venezuelan people and we are buying the seed in order that they could be able to improve the life of the farmers.

You can have many types of integration. It seems to me it has to be the most important type of integration. That one is the reason why we are putting on the table, in the foreign arena, to talk and discuss food sovereignty from the agroecological point of view. Not from the traditional point of view, not from the Green Revolution point of view, not from the transgenic point of view. That one makes it different.

We are putting on the table that discussion. And the farmers, the producers, the campesinos, must discuss that one. How is the farmer contributing? How the farmer is putting energy; is putting inputs; is putting his production toward food sovereignty from agroecology. We believe that one is the way we can have a better and more significant integration between the countries, between the farmers, between the people.

It is very important, the issues that we are talking about.

Published in In Motion Magazine June 22, 2008

 


HOME