Thesis defence: Ellinor Isgren
Opponent: Henny Osbahr (Dr., Associate Professor)
Agricultural modernization has massively increased global food supply, but at a high environmental cost. Today many are calling for an agricultural ‘paradigm shift’, including several mainstream institutions. But to what? In recent years, agroecology has gained credence as an alternative approach that seeks to understand and manage farms as complex agroecosystems. From a development perspective, it is argued to not only hold potential for sustainable agriculture, but also as a model for inclusive development thanks to its particular applicability in sites dominated by small-scale low-capital farming. Uganda is one of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa where much hope is currently placed in gricultural development for poverty alleviation, economic growth and food security. Yet despite its promise to resolve tensions between development and environmental sustainability, agroecology remains largely ignored.
The aim of this thesis is to understand if and how agroecology has potential to constitute a desirable and viable alternative pathway of agricultural development, and to provide insights about its achievability in Uganda. I do so by employing a research strategy rooted in critical modernity, critical realism and emancipatory social science, and by combining fieldwork methods and secondary material via an interdisciplinary approach. The thesis is structured around three interlinked tasks. First, I provide a critique of conventional agricultural modernization where I identify limitations and contradictions internal to this model of development, and explain the emergence and persistence of the particularly problematic form of agrarian politics in Uganda under the NRM regime. Second, I scrutinize the claim that agroecology offers a sustainable and viable model of agricultural development, and argue that there is convincing evidence for its potential to do so. When analyzing how this alternative is being implemented in Uganda today, and by whom, I find that agroecology is typically pursued by actors in civil society and academia as a form of smallholder-oriented ‘modernization from below’. Agroecology contributes by providing principles for sustainable and locally adapted agriculture. However, I also find substantial barriers to agroecology that are structural in kind, and require more overt confrontation of ‘modernization from above’. Third, therefore, I analyze the conditions for political engagement and broader mobilization for agroecology within Ugandan civil society, by looking at its historical formation and current strategies at national and local level.
Beyond insights about the specific dynamics of agrarian change in Uganda, the thesis makes two main contributions: 1) it theorizes agroecology and its role in agricultural development, thus taking steps forward towards rethinking agricultural modernity, and 2) it advances the maturing field of sustainability science by using emancipatory social science to promote its critical problem-solving agenda.