Building Medicinal Agroecology

Building Medicinal Agroecology

A recent co-authored book chapter on “building medicinal agroecology” has been reviewed nicely.

Building Medicinal Agroecology

“…In this chapter we argue that industrial food production, distribution and consumption play a central role in perpetuating the present intersecting crises of poor health, biodiversity loss, climate change and inequality. At the centre of our argument lies a contention that multiple rifts (e.g. between humans and nature, urban and rural, food and medicine) have been radically accelerated by industrial capitalism and the technocratic responses it produces, and that such rifts are the root causes of these crises. Fundamentally extractive in their commodification of labour, nature and knowledge, current food systems have cemented these deep metabolic, epistemic and social rifts, the roots of which reach back to at least the invention of the plough. The implications continue to shape health outcomes today. We argue that medicinal agroecology, existing in diverse forms but united by an understanding of food and nutrition as medicine, heals the rifts that separate us from the natural world and each other. Medicinal agroecology, as we conceive it, offers a pathway to planetary health by directly addressing the root causes of these crises rather than their symptoms, and thus constitutes a planetary medicine…”.

Here’s the nice review by Monique van de Vijver, Innovation Manager Health at Solidaridad Network, Founder Health Perspectives of the chapter titled “Building Medicinal Agroecology: Conceptual grounding for healing of rifts“, which I co-authored with Chiara Tornaghi, Georgina McAllister, and Martin Pedersen from the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience of Coventry University in the UK. It is the first and conceptually grounding chapter of the seminal “Medicinal Agroecology: Reviews, Case Studies and Research Methodologies“. A network has formed through the process of putting this book together and a field of thousand medicinal agroecology flowers will hopefully bloom… 🙂

NEWSLETTER 3, 28 August 2023

Chapter 1: Building Medicinal Agroecology, Conceptual grounds for healing of rifts

Chapter 1 of the book Medicinal Agroecology, Reviews, Case Studies and Research Methodologies is the first of the two chapters that offer conceptual grounds for a book that has brought together a very diverse group of people with interconnected insights and experiences. It is written by Chiara Tornaghi, Georgina McAllister, Nina Moeller and Martin Pedersen from the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience of Coventry University in the UK.

The chapter starts with an often cited quote that is believed to be of Chief Seattle, a late nineteenth century chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American tribes in what is now Washington state: “All things are interconnected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the  children of the earth.” It is a quote from his speech to State Governor Stevens, who expressed his wish to buy land from them. He could not understand how the land and nature could be possessed by men and he predicted how the ‘linear’ and destructive thinking and acting of the white men who conquered their sacred grounds would lead to their own destruction, possibly even before all other tribes would be destroyed. It seems his words are becoming prophetic.

The words of chief Seattle reflect the deep rift between the holistic and interconnected thinking of indigenous people and the extractive power and economic interest driven thinking of the Western people that invaded their territories. A way of thinking that has led to a process of disconnecting from nature since many centuries or even millennia back. A process which took destructive turns with the introduction of civilization and that was hugely accelerated in the past fifty to seventy years by the current predominant political, economic and business paradigms. Paradigms which are now deeply anchored in many of our systems, from education to health and from agriculture to trade and industry. A process of acceleration and deep rooting which was largely driven by the chemical industry, the global commodity traders and the food industry, endorsed and supported by Western governments. This model was then imposed on many of the former European colonies and spread throughout the world in many other ways. The different components of the model may not all be bad or all bad, and even have contributed to progress in different ways, but in their combination and interaction, and because of their character and dominance, they exclude and exploit or otherwise harm the vast majority of people and have become a poisonous and destructive cocktail for life on earth and the health of our planet. 

Conceptual and practical rifts as a symptom of systemic and structural disconnectedness from nature

In their introduction, the authors describe the multiple rifts that have separated humans from nature, like the rift between the over-industrialized food the industry has made us used to and dependent on, and the people and resources that provide for it; the rift in current day medicine that has disconnected food and the way it is produced from health, contrary to traditional medicine systems that see food as a medicine; and the rift between urban and rural lifestyles, that has led to a disconnect between urban people and the countryside that reinforces and normalizes an extractive lifestyle. These are the three propositions the authors react to and position as the main systemic causes of current day disconnectedness of people from nature, and which have come to normalize harmful exploitative and destructive practices throughout. Practices that are in  some cases old to exist, but that are “radically accelerated by industrial capitalism and technocratic responses it produces”, as the authors put it. Practices that are “fundamentally extractive in their commodification of labour, nature and knowledge” and that “continue to shape our food systems and health outcomes today” (p. 3/4). This as opposed to the indigenous and other older cultures’ respect for nature, the organic movement that came about in the forties and grew after the deadly effects of DDT became known through the Rachel Carson’s movie “Silent Spring”, and later the more interconnected concepts of “One Medicine”, “Conservation Medicine”, “EcoHealth”, Ecosystem Health”, “One Health” and Planetary Health”. 

Capitalism, the epistemic rift and people’s medicinal knowledge

This is the title of part three of the chapter and provides an academic framework for the shared insights that have led me to the health inspired and focused agenda that I am currently driving at Solidaridad. The title mainly relates to the immensity of the different rifts that exist between people, societies and culture in terms of world views, beliefs, understanding and knowledge, but very much also about the values, behaviour and actions of humans that stem from these and have led to the sustainability challenges the world is facing today. It talks about the dominance of Western science based imperialism, mercantilism and industrialization of the past centuries which has led to a food system in which our food and the resources needed to produce them are converted in a capitalist fast-win earning model based on business paradigms that normalize and institutionalize maximization of growth and profit at the cost of people and nature. It has converted our food system into a system that is detrimental to people’s health in different ways. It has made people dependent on industrialized food high in fat, sugar and salt, that is now known to cause so-called “non communicable” food related diseases like obesity, chronic diseases like diabetes and coronary artery diseases, and even infertility and cancer. The industrialized  methods and synthetic products used to cultivate the ingredients for this food have depleted and polluted soils and water sources on which people depend. As a consequence, the crops that are subject to monoculture based global commodity trade are generally low or imbalanced in terms of nutritional value and increasingly contaminated with unacceptable levels of pesticide residues, while food crops for the local markets are often contaminated with high levels of pesticides and industrial contaminants that find their way to water used for irrigation (and even drinking and cooking). 

Food and medicine for profit

With our food system worldwide as the main cause of non-communicable diseases, the health industry is thriving. People that suffer from chronic and other food system related diseases end up in a health system that is highly fragmented into specializations and built on a technical approach to health rather than a holistic approach, aimed at treating symptoms more than understanding and addressing underlying causes of health problems that manifest through these symptoms. There is better business in treating these diseases with costly treatments and lifelong medication than in preventing them. Multinationals like Bayer are big in chemical inputs for agriculture, but also in all kinds of medicines. Exemplary is the overview of German pharmaceutical and agriculture company Bayer AG’s top pharmaceutical products based on revenue 2020-2022. According to this report by statistics company Statista, Bayer’s largest revenue-generating segment is Crop Science, followed by the Pharmaceuticals segment. During 2022, Bayer’s top pharmaceutical product was Xarelto, a blood clot reducing medication used in the treatment of coronary artery disease, which WHO has classified as an industrial food related chronic disease. Food and food system related non-communicable diseases are said to be responsible for 70% of all deaths worldwide. The rift between this approach and the traditional and more recent interconnected agricultural and health systems and approaches could not get wider. 

Medicinal AgroEcology and healing of rifts

The title of chapter one talks about conceptual grounds for healing rifts. From their critical analysis of our current food and health systems and the dominant political and business paradigms and structures that have shaped them into what they are today, the authors analyze what the concept of Medicinal AgroEcology can bring to the table to heal the rifts described, in order to reconnect people with nature and the resources they depend on for their livelihoods and their health, whether directly or indirectly. The authors don’t believe that the systems and industries that induced these rifts are the ones that will be able to close  them or solve the issues caused by them. In their view the solutions proposed and funded by instances like WHO, World Economic Forum, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stem from the same line of thinking and are based on the same narratives that have discredited traditional systems and continue to justify the current ones. This again is not surprising in view of the fact that they are heavily funded and influenced by the same actors, their narratives, their paradigms and their interests. Powerful actors that  have not been responding – on the contrary – for decades now to the severe challenges the earth and its inhabitants are facing, and have proven to be good at preventing governments from doing so through strong lobbying.

The authors belief that change on the contrary is to come from the “growing movement of peasants and civil society” that believes that “the crisis humanity faces cannot be remedied by more of the same and that the industrial mode of food production must be discontinued.” The movement of agroecology proposes a pathway to planetary health that aims to “get to the root causes rather than merely suppressing their symptoms.” It looks to do so “by directly addressing key nexi of the different crises (soil health, gut health, nutritional value of food, zoonotic spillover, regeneration of biodiversity amongst others)” the earth is facing. It is also a framework in which “human and more-than-human relations matter. Whom you are connected to and in which ways, the conditions in which you live, what you eat, drink, breathe and the ways you are able to dispose of your waste matter; always and in all ways matter, but especially to health.” (p. 12). Here, the notion of food sovereignty comes in. 

Inspiration for change, starring medicinal plants

Medicinal AgroEcology builds on agroecology, but in addition takes into account the systems that directly relate to the food and health systems and industries. It recognizes the importance and potential of agriculture as a means to turn the tide, putting health first, but also the role of consumption and distribution of food and resources.  It is inspiring and encouraging to see how the authors underpin and conceptualize – as I have tried through my health approach at Solidaridad – the importance of a food and medicine system that is supportive to health by addressing root causes. As you will learn through the chapter reviews that are still to come, the concept of Medicinal Agroecology has attracted contributors that recognize the enormous and diverse healing potential of plants. The many, many plants and trees with special properties that can both help prevent diseases and heal them, and as such play an important role in support of farm, ecosystem, animal and human health.

“Medicinal Agroecology: Reviews, Case Studies and Research Methodologies”
Edited By: Immo Fiebrig
Edition: 1st Edition
First Published: 2023
eBook Published: 31 May 2023
Pub. Location: Boca Raton
Imprint CRC Press
Pages: 354
eBook ISBN: 9781003146902
Subjects: Environment & Agriculture, Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing & Allied Health