Marjolein Visser: «My faith lies among the last remaining “real farmers” of this world, who know the art of getting something out of “nothing”»

Marjolein Visser is a full-time lecturer in Farming Systems and Agroecology at Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) since 2006.

Back in February, I attended the Masterclass for Sustainable Development hosted by Act4Change and Usos. Those who followed the food sovereignty track had the opportunity to conclude the weekend in  a debate on sustainable agriculture. The term agroecology was introduced, and many of us were curious to go deeper on this topic. In order to do this, it seems necessary to understand agriculture as a social act. In this interview I talk with Marjolein Visser about the relation between ecology, agriculture and people.

For those who are not very familiar with the “scientific” side of the concept “agroecology”, how would you explain it and what are according to you the most important characteristics?

Historically, agroecology has grown out from the problems created by the “scientification” and “modernisation” of farming and their farmers (the speed of which greatly increased from the fifties on). On the other hand, out of the maturing of the natural sciences over the last century (biology, chemistry, geography, physics, geology) that culminated in ecology (from the fifties on) as the science of the interactions between living things and their world. Another definition of agroecology is: a science, a social movement and a set of practices towards (more) sustainability. An inseparable triptych.

I have the feeling most of the ecological disasters are seen as something that happens “out there” instead of relating them to our actions, to ourselves. In the Masterclass you said that there is no ecological problem without a social problem and there is no social problem without an ecological one, maybe this is a good starting point to make people aware of the importance of sustainable movements? To make them see the direct connection between our social and ecological issues?

Eating is basically an act of faith: faith in the food you ingest, faith in your education, faith in the system that produced the food, faith in the people who were involved in the food chain, faith in yourself, faith in the idea that tomorrow, next year and for the rest of your life you will have access to “your” food. Alternatively, if you do not or cannot feel this faith (for all kinds of reasons), problems are present: maybe at first sight merely social -you cannot pay for it, you have lost access to the land you used to farm- or ecological -your land has been degraded, your way of producing food is destroying the nearby river-, but in fact always socio-ecological if you think them through.

About the future perspectives, you shared at the Masterclass, that you expect a big global food crisis coming and only afterwards things will radically change, because human beings usually act when extreme situations. There are several movements going on in different parts of the world right now, do you relate some of those movements to that big crisis we will eventually face?

My faith lies among the last remaining “real farmers” of this world, who know the art of getting something out of “nothing”, on whose added value the whole construct of “civilization” is built. We need a quantitative and qualitative representation, not just of farmers but of our globalised society, so that we have the tools to make a “soft landing” instead of a crash landing. The movement “against” climate change is thus as important as the movement of the Campesinos Sin Tierra (South America) or the movements for the protection of the whales, the bees, the indigenous people, the great apes, the rainforests, clean rivers… Every movement into this direction deserves to get attention and to connect with the other movements. This interconnectedness of issues is very (agro)ecological.

However, the problem with many of these movements is that they are of a nature that cannot be taken seriously by our rulers, those ones who consider themselves serious gentlemen and ladies. These groups belong to different social realities, hence genuine communication is very strenuous. The other problem is that even those revolutionaries don’t grasp how much they depend on the very system they contest.

Finally, would you like to give us any recommendation related to agroecology and social movements?

Books: too many!

Some classic documentaries: Les moissons du future (Marie-Monique Robin), Herbe, Agroforesterie: produire autrement, Les liberterres, and the most recent one: Demain.


Ana Díaz C