Escape from Empire? Agroecological Autonomy in European Peripheries

  • Simon Charles Popay

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis explores emerging forms of agroecology in European peripheries, by looking at the ‘autonomy’ of alternative farmers in Cornwall, UK and Calabria, Italy. Agroecology, closely associated
    with traditional and small-scale ‘peasant’ forms of production, is concerned with the sustainability and equitability of agriculture and food systems. Agroecology remains contested, with more
    conventional and radical interpretations, complicated by its overlapping scientific, political and practical aspects. I contrast Tilzey and van der Ploeg’s approaches to agroecology and peasant autonomy, particularly in Europe.. Van der Ploeg argues that farms in Europe are increasingly making use of agroecology and becoming more peasant-like, including by aspiring for greater autonomy. Tilzey instead argues that more radical (‘counter-hegemonic’) forms of food sovereignty and
    agroecology, which actively challenge capitalism and aspire for ‘actual autonomy’, are mainly found in the global South. Meanwhile, alternative farms in the global North, including Europe, are more likely to be ‘alter-hegemonic’, aspiring to a limited form of autonomy that is compatible with capitalism. However, these narratives of peasant autonomy risk denying a more fundamental sense of agency, by assuming the ideological inclinations and practices of farmers in particular class
    positions. Instead, I argue for an ‘agency-centric’ concept of political autonomy based in critical realism. This is comprised of self-determination, freedom and conscious control over structural
    conditions. I also contrast this political autonomy with a ‘biotechnical’ autonomy grounded in agroecological practices of reducing farm inputs and closing nutrient/energy cycles. I use these concepts to explore how alternative farmers in Europe’s internal peripheries relate to capitalist structures, exhibit more alter-hegemonic or counter-hegemonic tendencies, and what the
    implications are for emerging kinds of agroecology.

    I find that most farms in Cornwall and Calabria are market dependent and have alter-hegemonic ideologies, although some farmers’ ideologies and practices are more counter-hegemonic. These ideologies stem from complex processes of socialisation, many of which are linked, but not reducible, to class relations and positions. All farmers are subject to market imperatives, but
    unevenly, including whether they are small capitalists, petty commodity producers, or part-time farms. Farmers with more counter-hegemonic ideologies actively resist these imperatives, but the possibility of doing so depends on less commodified access to land, strong social networks and buoyant markets. The former two are prominent in Calabria, where most farmers have backgrounds in the region. The latter is more prominent in Cornwall, where most alternative farmers are inward migrants, who lack strong local networks, but are sustained by buoyant markets for local and ecological produce, underpinned by a strong tourism sector. Farmers’ abilities to influence conscious
    control over their structural contexts remains the weakest aspect of autonomy in both regions.

    Farmers in Cornwall have better access to state institutions than those in Calabria, though this is skewed towards small capitalists. While some farmers are actively seeking to ‘scale-out’
    agroecology, this is ultimately constrained by competition in alternative food networks. In response to this, I explore the prospects of a more counter-hegemonic trajectory emerging in Europe, predicated on a specific form of ‘agroecological autonomy’. The main barrier to agroecological autonomy is the depopulation of peripheral rural regions, which hinders the labour-intensification of farming, entails on-going reliance on partial mechanisation, and constrains localised and reciprocal
    Date of Award2022
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorJames Bennett (Supervisor), Moya Kneafsey (Supervisor) & Michael Jahi Chappell (Supervisor)

    Cite this