| Miguel Ángel Núñez Venezuelanalysis | MR Online Miguel Ángel Núñez (Venezuelanalysis)

Open science and agroecology: A Conversation with Miguel Ángel Núñez

Originally published: Venezuelananlysis on April 26, 2024 (more by Venezuelananlysis)  |

Miguel Ángel Núñez has devoted much of his life to studying traditional agriculture methods, including the small-scale agricultural plots called “konucos” associated with traditional farming practices. Konucos are highly diversified, employ sustainable methods, and can have relatively high crop yields. Núñez is author of La ciencia del konuco y su visión integral [The Science of the Konuco and Its Integral Vision, IMMECA]. He works in association with the Science and Technology Ministry.

Cira Pascual Marquina: You argue that reviving traditional practices such as the konuco is key to ensuring survival in the Anthropocene Era. To begin our conversation, can you explain the need to shift to agroecology in the Anthropocene?

Miguel Ángel Núñez: We live in the Anthropocene Era, an age of structural civilizational crisis linked to modernity. This civilizational crisis comes with an imperative: we must forge a new societal order.

Corporate food production is one of the defining elements of our time, and I argue that the konuco is a viable alternative. That’s why I recently published La ciencia del konuco y su visión integral [The Science of the Konuco and Its Integral Vision], a comprehensive study into live campesino practices, open science, and, of course, the konuco.

Here in Venezuela, our situation—shaped to a certain degree by the constraints of the U.S. blockade—calls into question conventional food production methods that are tethered to corporate agribusiness. At the same time, there have been significant scientific advances in campesino production, reshaping paradigms and lifestyles.

I want to highlight the non-predatory food production systems that not only bolster food production quantitatively and qualitatively, but also address the issue of local, national, and even Latin American food sovereignty.

Venezuela’s most emblematic primary food production method is the konuco. With the 462 agri-food species that are employed in konucos, the method expresses the region’s biodiversity. Most importantly, because of both social and territorial character, it yields abundant food through non-exploitative methods.

Contrary to assertions portraying Venezuela as food-dependent, I argue that campesino agriculture has never ceased to be an integral part of our social fabric and provides most of the food we eat. What’s more, amidst a multifaceted crisis—that includes a civilizational emergency, an economic embargo, sanctions against Venezuela, resource scarcity, and a recent pandemic—Venezuelan campesinos, with the support of the Bolivarian government, have not only sustained but raised primary food production, ensuring the sustenance for the pueblo.

In Venezuela, the konuco is alive and well, serving as the cornerstone of primary food production. However, official recognition of the konuco and campesino agriculture is still a pending task.

| Conventional farming vs campesino farming Voces Urgentes and Thinktalk | MR Online

Conventional farming vs campesino farming (Voces Urgentes and Thinktalk)

CPM: Indeed, a prevalent discourse depicts Venezuela as an oil-producing, rentier country with a “port-based” economy. In your book, you aim to debunk this notion.

MAN: For decades the prevailing idea was that Venezuela, because it is an oil-producing country, was fully dependent on food imports. It turns out that this is not true. Some recent studies show that 92% of the food that Venezuela consumes is domestically produced. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have supermarkets and specialty shops offering imported and processed foods—which incidentally are neither healthy nor sustainable.

Venezuela is tremendously biodiverse, comprising 17 eco-territories, each with various eco-regions. Every landscape hosts its kind of konuco, ranging from savannah konuco to coastal konuco, from the Andean to the Amazonian one.

Now, one could ask: why is the konuco so important? It’s key to understand that the konuco developed in such a way that it preserves the ecosystem, while delivering high, diversified yields. For instance, konucos in Turimiquire—a hydrographic basin spanning Sucre, Anzoátegui, and Monagas states—contribute significantly to food production, while safeguarding a strategic ecosystem.

Family agriculture revolves around agro-biodiversity. Substantial evidence points to the soundness of that kind of agriculture not only in terms of sustainability but also in its potential to scale up. In 2019, before the pandemic, a study conducted by the Ministry of Science and Technology identified 64 open-air campesino markets in Caracas. By 2021, this number more than quadrupled to 265 markets in the same territory. Thus, the reach of campesino production in Venezuela is wide and expanding.

CPM: What about the use of conventional inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, etc.?

MAN: The blockade kept us from getting fertilizers and other conventional inputs. Now, if the markets are full of fruit and vegetables, where do those products come from? Do they come from Colombia? No, they come from Venezuela. Colombia has recently faced similar challenges regarding access to fertilizers due to criminal interference that blocked the production at Monómeros [a Venezuelan-owned conventional fertilizer plant in Colombia].

This leads us to believe that there is a shift towards agroecological, organic farming and that the results are good. Indeed, the evidence points to a transition to agroecological practices, which has far-reaching implications not only for Venezuela, but all across Latin America.

As we build a new societal order, we must pay more attention to trends emerging in campesino economies. Historically, we’ve also been misled into believing that the bulk of the food we eat comes from corporations. This is not the case around the world, and in Venezuelan, there are both cultural and external factors that have paved the way for breaking with the use of conventional inputs in primary food production.

CPM: When you refer to “primary food production,” that includes both small-scale campesinoproduction and that of the agro-industries. Is that correct?

MAN: Indeed. It’s crucial to underscore that there are approximately 1.5 billion campesinos worldwide. They supply around 75% of primary food production. Generally, they rely less on toxic inputs. Additionally, an interesting trend has emerged due to the Ukraine war: numerous urea plants there have halted production. Since Ukraine was a top exporter of conventional inputs, we have also seen a decline in chemical fertilizer use not only in Venezuela but globally.

We are witnessing a new scientific-agricultural paradigm emerge that includes eco-sustainable practices such as the konuco. The konuco originates in indigenous practices and is practically the only food-production mode that sustains both food production and biodiversity.

Of course, the konuco is not exclusive to Venezuela: similar practices exist throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, from the “chinampa” in Mexico to the “milpa” in Colombia.

These agroecological practices involve the conscious—essentially scientific—protection of agrobiodiversity and the environment. A 4000 square-meter konuco can include up to 42 crops, while smaller ones will often have 18 to 20 crops. Diversification, which is one of the six principles of agroecology, is realized in the konuco.

CPM: Can you explain the essential characteristics of a konuco?

MAN: Yes! The konuco is an expression of local self-sufficiency and it is key to food sovereignty. That is why the West’s technological rationality and corporate interests try to keep these practices at bay and call them “inefficient.”

The Campesino-Scientific Alliance, an initiative born from grassroots movements in Mérida and linked to the Science and Technology Ministry, recognizes the scientific value of ancestral and campesino practices, including the konuco. After all, campesino production is what has kept us alive in the worst of times.

The Alliance includes PROINPA, a campesino organization producing seed potatoes to promote food sovereignty, along with many other initiatives around the country that are pursuing the same path.

CPM: What more can you tell usabout the Campesino-Scientific Alliance?

MAN: Let me do it by talking about one initiative underway: the Alliance currently works with more than 5000 campesino families transitioning to agroecological practices around the country, facilitating the sustainable cultivation of various crops including cocoa, garlic, and coffee.

But how does it really work? In this initiative, campesino knowledge and researcher expertise are joined together, and the results have been extraordinary. The Alliance promotes conviviality and exchange between producers and researchers. It also actively promotes campesino science.

In Venezuela, agroecology is growing hand in hand with the Alliance. Statistics from the Science and Technology Ministry, the Communes Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, Pueblo a Pueblo, and Frente Francisco de Miranda show that approximately 140,000 hectares are under agroecological production.

| Venezuelan konuco Archives | MR Online

Venezuelan konuco (Archives)

CPM: Going into specifics, how is agroecology realized on the konuco?

MAN: Agroecology has six principles and research shows that all six principles are realized in the konuco.

The first principle is agrobiodiversity. This principle recognizes the importance of fostering soil microorganisms, crop diversification, etc. The second principle is complementarity, which highlights the interconnectedness among the different components of agricultural ecosystems, from plants to animals to microorganisms. The third principle emphasizes the importance of biological processes to ensure productive soils, including nutrient cycling and soil fertility management.

The fourth principle underscores the importance of reciprocity between human and non-human nature to ensure long-term sustainability. The fifth principle focuses on the recognition of cultural diversity and traditional knowledge and practices. Finally, the sixth principle is equity, emphasizing efficient resource management and collective decision-making.

All the principles are, of course, interlinked, and they are all realized in the konuco.

Studies demonstrate that in an agro-diverse agroecological plot like the konuco, thirty-five kilocalories can be harvested for every kilocalorie of energy invested. This compares very favorably with the ratio we find in agroindustrial processes, which ranges from three to one or ten to one.

In Venezuela, the effects of climate change are exacerbated by the U.S. blockade, and both are pushing us away from agrochemicals. There are two more factors, however, that drive the transition. First are the ancestral practices of the konuco, which survived the onslaught of conventional farming and the so-called “green revolution.” The second is the Campesino-Scientific Alliance.

CPM: If conventional agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and insecticides, became more available again, would people go back to them?

MAN: Although some campesinos could go back to using agrochemicals, I believe that most will stick to agroecological practices. However, to advance these further, we need to actively promote alternatives. Right now, the Science and Technology Ministry is promoting the cultivation of 30 thousand hectares of corn in Guárico state using seeds treated with a non-toxic biological compound to combat fall armyworm infestation. This will reduce the reliance on agrochemicals. The Federal Government Council is also supporting similar initiatives.

Based on our experience, most campesinos who move away from agrochemicals for whatever reason, become committed to agroecological methods.

There are, however, two factors that are important to ensure a resilient transition. First, producers should overcome the western mindset that is functional to the interests of agro-corporations. Second, the producers need to have social security. Social security programs bring stability to the campesino, making them less inclined to use glyphosate, urea, and other chemical inputs.

CPM: How does the Campesino-Scientific Alliance promote open science?

MAN: The Campesino-Scientific Alliance is an open science project based on the principles of agroecology, including integration and solidarity, but also principles such as transdisciplinarity. We organize our work based on the idea of “saber-conciencia” [a wordplay on knowledge, consciousness, and science], which recognizes both academic research and campesino knowledge.

However, I should add that open science for us extends beyond food production: the Science and Technology Ministry promotes interdisciplinary teams to address the challenges stemming from the U.S. blockade, including the recovery and maintenance of medical equipment such as incubators, x-ray machines, and microscopes.

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