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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The transformative potential of agroecology : integrating policies, practices, power, and philosophies for living well James, Dana


The dominant industrial agri-food system is a key contributor to global socioecological crises, including climate, biodiversity, and public health crises. In response, social movements, researchers, and decision-makers have increasingly called for transforming food systems through agroecology. Commonly defined as a science, practice, and social movement, agroecology provides a holistic alternative paradigm for (re)designing agri-food systems that are based on ecological principles and social justice. Given its status as an agricultural powerhouse and its reputation for advancing agroecological innovations through state and civil society institutions, this thesis uses Brazil as a case study to assess agroecological approaches to food systems transformation at multiple scales. First, through a literature and policy review, I take a historical-relational-interactive approach to describe how the interplay between social movements, the state, and the agribusiness sector has shaped agroecological policy in Brazil, assessing the degree to which its institutionalization was successful. I then use municipal-level agricultural census data to identify how agroecological indicators are spatially distributed across Brazil in order to identify municipalities with relatively high and low agroecological performance. I suggest that stronger agroecological performance is influenced by grassroots organizations, local cultures and traditions, and access to public policies and markets. Third, I analyze farm management plans and interview data to assess the relationship between farm size and agroecological practice use among farmers in an agroecology network in southern Brazil, and suggest that the lack of a relationship may be explained by the role of social movements in promoting a shared vision for territorial autonomy. Finally, given the central role of social movements and networks in advancing agroecology, I take an ethnographic approach to investigate how actors involved in Brazil’s agroecology movement describe and define agroecology from their own perspectives, and find that they explain agroecology as a philosophy for living well. Collectively, these findings provide additional evidence for the crucial role that social movements play in scaling out agroecological policies, practices, and principles. Therefore, increased support and investment should be directed to territorially embedded networks and organizations that are already successfully implementing agroecological approaches on the ground.

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