The Alchemy of Agroecology

When you hear the word “weed”, what do you think of?

Digging In
Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
Catalyzing Connections
Decoding Questions
  • Description: What do you see/hear/feel when watching the video?
  • Personal Connection: How does Fulvio’s story connect to your personal experience?
  • Common Themes: What social issues/themes emerge from our personal stories? Is there a common issue that we share?
  • Social Analysis: How did this situation/issue come to be? What are the historical and social processes that created this situation?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? What can I/we do?
Specific Questions
Hands-On Activities

Make a salad or a tea with edible local weeds. What did you discover? How does it taste? How does it make you feel? What can you find out about the weeds’medicinal properties?

Try an experiment similar to the one you see Fulvio demonstrating in the video. Make a hole in a container, as he did. Pick a common weed from your area, like comfrey. Put it inside the container with a rock to hold it down. Wait for a few weeks, to see if it turns to liquid.

You can also do research on the main ingredients in organic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Get advice on what is needed in your garden soil and for the plants you want to grow. See if you can find the appropriate weeds needed.

Intergenerational and Intercultural Dialogue

Migrant labour: Fulvio moves back and forth to work in Mexico and in Canada, and acts as a consultant to organic farmers in other Central American countries. When we visited Fulvio at Plan B Organic Farm Canada in 2016, he told us:

“We are trying to connect farmers with Indigenous people, and build the connection between Ontario and Mexico.”

– Fulvio Gioanetto

Since 2014, his son-in-law Miguel (appearing in the video gathering weeds in the forest) has also worked on this farm in the summer, through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Migrant labour is a central feature of agriculture in the neoliberal era.

Back home in Nurio, Michoacán, Fulvio is teaching his two sons, Bryan and Jorge, along with two other Purépecha youth, Santiago and Isidro, to farm organically and produce natural inputs. He describes his deep commitment to youth:

“I started working with youth like Santiago, on the one hand, so that they would value traditional knowledge and not lose it; and secondly, because there is a lot of racism against Indigenous people.”

– Fulvio Gioanetto

What are the pressures on rural youth, and Indigenous youth in particular, to leave the countryside and move to the city? How can today’s farmers keep young people farming?

Fulvio and Maria involve their whole family in the production of these natural inputs. The women and youth help gather the raw material, cook, and store the liquid produce in containers. These productions support about 30 members of their extended family. Maria is the business manager, and women play a key role in the gathering and brewing of the product.

Conversations between Legacies Collaborators

There have been some interesting debates between Legacies partners about the use of organic inputs. Organic farmer Dianne Kretschmar experimented with one of Fulvio and Maria’s herbicides. This was her response:

“I’m basically disinclined to use herbicide, whether it’s organic or local plants or anything. Because I don’t think the issues we have in farming are to kill things. I think it’s more to understand the interconnectedness, and something that we’re doing wrong. It comes back more to management practices of the farmer than a potion to kill things.
I did talk to Fulvio about that herbicide. He said, yeah, it’s a contact herbicide. If you get any on the beets, it will kill the beets, too. It’s too potent, what does it do to the micro-organisms?”

– Dianne Krestchmar

Individual and Collective Action

Why would a big company be interested in buying the formula for the herbicides that Fulvio and his family produce? Why do they resist selling their formulae to big companies?

At the end of the video, Fulvio concludes “Food sovereignty is healthy food for everybody.” What personal changes and systemic changes are needed to make food sovereignty a reality?

Continuing the Conversation
Continuing the Conversation
Harriet Friedmann

Harriet Friedmann is a retired professor of interdisciplinary food studies. She writes and lectures internationally on political ecology of food and works with the Toronto Food Policy Council, food movements, and international organisations to change the food system.

Fulvio Gioanetto is one of the new practitioners linking formal science with Indigenous and practical knowledge. He also connects places that seem very different in Canada and Mexico. Two points stand out for me in this video. One is how Fulvio links different kinds of knowledge. The second is what “local” means, and how that relates to “markets.”

Fulvio shows us “how easy it is” to use plants that have been discarded and disdained by industrial agriculture – so-called “weeds” – to make fertilizers and pesticides. He says, “If you need science, use a book!” Fulvio is a trained agronomist as well as an agroecologist, so he is familiar with both industrial and ecological farming. In this video he demonstrates how to combine formal science with practical knowledge. This shows that experts can work collaboratively with farmers, whether experienced or new farmers just starting out. And now everyone can learn more easily on the internet. It opens the possibility of citizen science, in which farmers can define problems and contribute data to investigate them. Imagine farmers in a region with an insect problem sharing data, even photos, on smartphones! This kind of citizen science is being done for wildlife; why not for farming?

It is helpful to think about Indigenous knowledge as place-based but interconnected across places. Colonial empires and industrial agriculture suppressed local knowledge and practices everywhere, in Europe as well as in colonies. For instance, stinging nettles, which are native to parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa, were used for centuries as medicine, as attractor for pollinating insects, as animal feed, and as fibres for textiles. People in different places discovered these uses despite stings from touching the plant! In each place they gave nettles a distinct name, which can reasonably be called “Indigenous,” such as “hot and sharp biting plants.” As colonial empires moved plants from one part of the world to another, a standard system of Latin names developed (for nettles, Urtica dioica). With industrial agriculture nettles came to be considered a weed in both Europe and the colonies, even though some gardeners and farmers continued to use nettles as well as tea. Agroecologists in many parts of the world can now recover its uses. Now Fulvio takes knowledge from one place to another. This is a very different kind of “global” connection from the top-down one that makes every place the same and turns that knowledge into private property.

What do these ways of being “global” imply for “markets”? It might be easy to conclude that food sovereignty means no markets at all. However, Fulvio and his partner Maria make natural farming inputs and medicines to sell locally. This is efficient and helps everyone, the sellers and the buyers. The challenge is to keep these exchanges at the proper scale. It is the chemical manufacturers who create “global” markets that disrupt the circular, place-based relations that Fulvio demonstrates in both Mexico and Canada. Part of agroecology is reshaping markets, so that farmers, people making natural inputs, and people preparing and buying food all connect at the proper scale. People with specialized skills can exchange them, and growers, cooks, and eaters in distant places can learn from each other.

Digging Deeper
Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Books and Articles

When you hear the word “weed”, what do you think of? As Fulvio Gioanetto suggests in this video, we have learned to think about weeds as ‘bad’, reflecting a Eurocentric way of thinking, predominant in industrial monocultural agricultural production. In fact, weeds can refer to all kinds of wild plants growing naturally within an ecosystem. And they can have many positives uses, from healing illnesses as medicinal plants to being transformed into natural fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides.

To activate Spanish subtitles, click on the CC icon.

Fulvio is an Italian-born ethnobotanist trained in Europe but living within the autonomous Purépecha community of Nurio in the state of Michaocán, Mexico, where he has been creating natural inputs from ‘weeds.’ His Purépecha wife Maria Blas, a medicinal plant expert and healer, organizes women in their village to gather the plants and manages the selling of the natural fertilizers and herbicides to local campesinos, or farmers.

Fulvio has spent his life developing his practice and sharing his knowledge through intercultural and intergenerational relations. In this video, you will see him passing on knowledge to his son-in-law Miguel in the forests of Central Mexico, while also teaching his sons how to create natural fertilizers on a farm in southern Ontario in Canada. For Fulvio, this is an important part of ‘food sovereignty’, in that it frees campesinos from being indebted by buying expensive and often toxic inputs year after year. When local materials are used, a local economy is being built.

He sees this approach to farming as an important part of agroecology, farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.” It applies ecological principles to the design of farming systems; uses a whole-systems approach to farming and food systems; and links ecology, culture, economics and society to create healthy environments, food production and communities.

Fulvio teaches his son Bryan about medicinal uses of wild carrot at an organic farm in Ontario, Canada

This video can serve as a catalyst to explore the meaning of food sovereignty and agroecology, and the related themes of functional biodiversity, migrant labour, biopiracy, fertilizer debt and local alternatives, and Indigenous knowledge and identity.