A History of the Agroecology Research-Action Collective

The Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC) grew out of an earlier endeavor called the North American Agroecology Forum. The impetus for the “NA Forum” was a desire among academic and civil society advocates of agroecology in the US, Canada, and Mexico to begin networking more closely together. Following the First International FAO Agroecology Symposium held in 2014, the FAO had convened a number of regional area conferences around the world. But North America had not been included in these regional dialogues. Thus, the NA Forum was conceived originally as a loose consortium of actors who might assemble North American research, education, and advocacy group, possibly working towards its own informal regional conference. An important notion animating this early effort was the understanding that agroecology is not about expecting change elsewhere. “We can’t continue to do the same thing here while asking the rest of the world to change,” said Hans Herren, one of our members.“ Agroecology is not something just for developing countries but something that should be happening in Europe and North America.”

Between March and August of 2016, the NA Forum held a series of meetings and conference calls. Via word of mouth and email outreach, many prominent agroecology, food sovereignty, and food justice researchers and organizers joined the nascent group. Together, we drafted an invitation letter, defining our “science, practice, and social movement” approach to agroecology, with the idea this letter would serve as an outreach tool, inviting others to join us. 

A few significant challenges emerged early on for the NA Forum. They are worth highlighting here briefly, as they help elucidate why this group dissolved and the Agroecology Research Action Collective (ARC) took its place. First was a problem of representation. The NA Forum was beginning to fashion projects and plans about what it wanted to do. But we did not yet include the farmers, the farm workers, the food workers, the rural organizations, and other frontline communities we presumably intended to serve. How were we supposed to make key decisions before having people at the table who should be central to this decision-making process? 

Second was our “big tent” vs. “small tent” conundrum. Initially, we had envisioned the NA Forum as a large and catholic initiative, including academics and scholars in public and private institutions, a wide range of small and large NGOs, frontline agrarian policy, education, and advocacy organizations, farmworker coalitions, indigenous rights groups, and so on. We quickly found, however, that the large tent goal was pragmatically unrealistic. More importantly, it fed into the representational paradox noted above, where speaking or acting before achieving adequate representation was undemocratic, yet moving forward was impossible without any action or words. 

Thanks to help from key interlocutors (Marcia Ishii-Eiteman and Saulo Araujo), the NA Forum received feedback from the National Family Farm Coalition and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance about moving beyond this impasse. In a memorable meeting in May 2016, we heard feedback from the NFFC: 

One high-level issue they shared with us concerned the ethics of community-engaged research. Specifically, how frontline groups have spent ample time training non-farmers, participating in other groups’ conference calls, opening their spaces to research by graduate students and faculty. But the benefits do not always flow back to the community. They asked us:

  • Would the NA Forum be willing and able to work with frontline groups to develop ethical/accountable principles and terms of engagement?
  • How would the Forum synchronize with groups and group processes on the ground?
  • Would the Forum be willing to go to the spaces where they are alreadyworking?
  • To what extent will the Forum be available to support the urgent survival and policy priorities of frontline groups? 

Without farmers and workers, they reminded us, there can be no agroecology. So how does the NA Forum deal with survival pending revolution?   

Getting Our House in Order 

U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance assembly, 2018. Photo: David Meek

The recommendation we heard from the National Family Farm Coalition and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance was that it made more sense for us to go back to the drawing board – to “get our house in order,” so to speak. Rather than assemble a big tent group in which inequitable scenarios makes it difficult for those on the frontline to be a part of any voluntary organizing effort, we should assemble dedicated academics and affirm specific and tractable commitments. “Getting our house in order” began to take on more resonance in light of scholarship on participatory action-research, decolonizing methods of scholarship, and emancipatory strategies of pedagogy and practice (see: The Case for Engaged Scholarship).   

Through this process, we realized a few important things. First was that we risked perpetuating “white saviorism” and Western colonial epistemologies without a great deal of reflexive work. Second, we were more agile and accountable if we could first organize among ourselves, agree about out practical and theoretical commitments. Third, that getting our house in order would be an ongoing process, never fully complete, but that the doing put us in a better position to begin interfacing with grassroots, community, and frontline agrarian and food groups. 

Relaunching the ARC: Towards “a shared analysis”

In May 2017, we relaunched as the “engaged agroecology scholars” group. Rather than exist to advocate for agroecology, as the NA Forum had proposed, our new mission was more directly relational: to put academics into dialogue, co-learning, and co-creative partnerships with social movements. 

By May of 2018, we had organized a governance structure, begun to develop a few distinct working groups, and voted on a new name: the Agroecology Research-Action Collective, or ARC. We developed a working statement of Principles & Protocols with feedback from frontline organizations. It signaled an attempt to respond to earlier criticisms by grassroots movements and is, for us, an important statement of process, purpose, and worldview. We also began to undertake a few different projects, including a petition critiquing the film Food Evolution, “rapid response” sign-on letters supporting social movements’ policy and advocacy campaigns, and op-eds contesting agribusiness-friendly media. We co-organized sessions at scholarly conferences (including at AAG, DoPE and Haverford) seeking to crack open traditionally academic spaces by inviting farmers, activists, lawyers, and organizers to share their perspectives and help us deepen ours. 

Photo: David Meek

By late 2018, in launching this website, we have successfully transitioned from mostly internal work of “getting our house in order” to beginning to forge a “shared analysis” with agroecology and food sovereignty movements in the US and internationally. In March 2018, one of our members participated in a key USFSA convening in Chicago, which helped us better understand that organization’s history and strategic priorities. Over the course of the summer and fall, we have participated in further regional meetings of the USFSA, culminating in the national assembly in Bellingham, Washington in October. Many of us also participated in the 2ndFAO International Symposium on Agroecology in Rome and the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative in The Hague. We reported back to our members with analyses of those experiences, and occasionally, published these accounts as popular articles.  

At the time of this writing (September 2018), we have crystallized a couple of projects for the longer term. One of these is the Science Commons, the design of which you can read about here. The other is a dedication to go where they are, reflecting movements’ earliest questions posed to the NA Forum: would we be willing to go to spaces where people are already working? Can scholars cede the privileged ground on which they generally stand when asking others to join their “invited spaces”? Will they dare enter “created spaces” that are not their own – where people are already working, where local groups have more comfort and decision-making authority, where movements will have more power than on invited turf? (Gaventa2006) 

The Science Commons has thus far organized its first pilot project: to provide systematic feedback on a major review of agroecology and other innovations led by the FAO’s Commission on Food Security (CFS) and a specially appointed High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). For this project, our members collectively reviewed seven different innovation systems included in the report, and we are following the consultation and revising process as it unfolds into 2019. The “going where they are” commitment has brought us to a variety of meetings, assemblies, and encuentros at local, regional, national, and international levels. Whether these have been dialogues between Zapatistas and academics, workshops on decolonizing science, or festivals conjuring post-capitalist futures, they have allowed for face to face engagement between scholars and activists, for dialogical learning, and for agroecology to implant in unanticipated spaces.