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The Journal of Peasant Studies

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Nature's matrix: linking agriculture,

conservation and food sovereignty
Jennifer Blesh
Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Development Sociology,
Cornell University
Published online: 05 Sep 2013.

To cite this article: Jennifer Blesh (2013) Nature's matrix: linking agriculture,
conservation and food sovereignty, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 40:4, 786-790, DOI:

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786 Book reviews

compromises must be understood as always having been the secondary effects of labor’s
asymmetrical capacity to manifest its potential as ‘the not capital’ and capital’s need to con-
stantly neutralize and obviate that potential (Marx 1939[1983]). Re-framing his analysis in
this vein, the imperative that would emerge from Selwyn’s important treatment of the his-
torical and contemporary tensions among the Rural Workers’ Union, the State and capital
would move beyond whether and how workers might ‘co-determine’ development, or attain
class compromise, to the ever-increasingly necessary question of rethinking worker
struggle itself, following Beverly Silver (2003, 179), as ‘the struggle not just against
one’s own exploitation and exclusion, but for an international regime that truly subordinates
profits to the livelihood of all’.

Bair, J. 2009. Frontiers of commodity chain research. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hopkins, T. and E. Wallerstein. 1986. Commodity chains in the world economy prior to 1800.
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Review, 10(1), 157–170.

Marx, K. 1939 [1983]. Grundrisse: the foundations of the critique of political economy. London:
Marx, K. 1990. Capital: a critique of political economy, Volume One. London: Penguin.
Marx, K. 1991. Capital: a critique of political economy, Volume Three. London: Penguin.
Silver, B. 2003. Forces of labor: workers’ movements and globalization since 1870. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Brenda Baletti
Post-doctoral Fellow, Thompson Writing Program, Duke University
© 2013, Brenda Baletti

Nature’s matrix: linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty, by Ivette Per-
fecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright, London, Earthscan, 2009, x + 242 pp., US$35
(paperback), ISBN 978-1-84407-782-3

In Nature’s matrix, Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright convincingly argue
that preserving the wealth of global biodiversity will not be as simple as setting aside land for
conservation. Instead, a landscape-level approach to natural resource management grounded
in ecological principles is needed, which, as the title suggests, must account for the quality of
the ‘matrix’ in which remaining fragments of ‘natural’ habitat are located. This is good
news. It turns out, at least in the Global South, that this matrix is dominated by agricultural
land. As awareness continues to grow about the interlinked crises of the global food system
(climate change, peak oil, rising food prices, eutrophication of surface waters and soil
erosion, to name a few) this work offers a compelling and timely argument for the need
to fundamentally redesign food systems to achieve multifunctional, socioecological out-
comes. Further, Nature’s matrix is part of a growing body of evidence that food production
and natural resource conservation are not mutually exclusive activities (IAASTD 2008, De
Schutter 2011). Integrating the two is a necessary, and attainable, goal.
The book begins with one of its strongest arguments – applying current ecological
theory to inform effective approaches for biodiversity conservation. The key to species
survival sits at the level of what is known as a metapopulation: the larger unit comprised
The Journal of Peasant Studies 787

of smaller subpopulations of individuals of a given species. Extinction is a normal eco-

logical process that happens all the time – locally, or in patches. Metapopulation theory
states that what ensures the survival of a species at a global level is whether migration
rates to new suitable habitats exceed local extinction rates. The authors argue that the
dominant approach taken by governments and conservation organizations of preserving
habitats in fragments (typically excluding people) is therefore flawed since it neglects
the importance of migration processes (how species will travel between habitat
patches). Successful conservation requires a more holistic lens that accounts for the land-
scapes in which islands of natural habitat are located. Thus, Perfecto et al. point out that
nature includes agroecosystems and other managed ecosystems because they: (1) make up
the majority of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, (2) contain a proportion of the world’s
remaining biodiversity and (3) provide the corridors through which biodiversity must
move to survive. At this level, they assert, new questions become important for manage-
ment, such as the following: is a given corridor (e.g. patchwork of agroecosystems) a suit-
able (e.g. diverse enough, free of chemicals toxic to the species in question) migration
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route to new habitat?

Not surprisingly, ‘nature’s matrix’ is socioecological. The ecological characteristics of
matrices matter, and so does their political ecology. As the authors put it, flawed conserva-
tion policies result from ‘ignorance of fundamental ecosystem processes and the role of
humans in them, and an arrogance asserting that current dominant political ideologies
are universal and sacrosanct’ (ix). By historicizing the problem of biodiversity conserva-
tion, the authors make the ontological point that humans and nature are not separate
realms. For instance, though early conservationists incorrectly viewed tropical landscapes
as ‘pristine’, we now know that indigenous cultures had a strong influence on their local and
regional environments, and vice versa. It is also widely acknowledged that colonial exploi-
tation left a large impact on these ecosystems.
Another strength of Nature’s matrix is the ease with which the authors bridge several
knowledge domains relevant to the problem. Natural scientists rarely delve into sociopo-
litical terrain, but these authors do it very well. Because the matrix, which is primarily
agricultural land, determines the possibilities for species migration to occur, they empha-
size the political economy of agriculture. The authors review the history of world agricul-
ture from pre-industrial to the rise of capitalist agriculture in Europe; they review the
emergence of the Green Revolution and its shift to the current neoliberal food regime
(McMichael 2009), where inputs are supplied and outputs are purchased by a handful
of transnational agribusinesses. And they contrast the dominant, industrial model with
smallholder agriculture in the Global South and the growing contemporary food sover-
eignty movement.
In their analysis of agricultural models, they make the important epistemological
argument that these coexisting and contrasting agricultural approaches are based on different
knowledge systems. Green Revolution agriculture is rooted primarily in western
techno-scientific knowledge. In contrast, agroecology integrates several knowledges – tra-
ditional/indigenous, the science of ecology and knowledge of farming systems. Smallholder
farming and agroecological management are analogous to a preventative health model, har-
nessing ecological processes to achieve long-term system resilience and multifunctional out-
comes (e.g. rice as ‘life and culture’, 183), whereas the industrial model is focused on
achieving high yields of commodities in the short term, leading to many well-documented
and externalized costs. They describe several examples of social resistance to the industrial
model including rubber tappers in the Amazon, and grassroots social movements that have
framed sustainable agriculture and access to land as key political issues, often through
788 Book reviews

direct-action land reform. Today’s convergence of neoliberal politics and ecological crises
leads them to conclude that ‘Keynesianism is no longer available to us, largely because of
ecological fundamentals’ (128). That is, solutions to the global crises of neoliberalism
must account for background environmental realities such as biodiversity loss and climate
change in addition to social equality. However, we can locate hope in contemporary rural
social movements that seek to do precisely that through new socioecological conceptualiz-
ations of sustainable development.
The argument is therefore that biodiversity conservation, food production and food
sovereignty (i.e. the rights of food producers and consumers) are all interconnected
goals. We can look to the agenda of food sovereignty social movements for information
on the types of agroecosystems that form a high quality matrix. The authors write that

a long-term plan for biodiversity conservation needs to…work at the landscape level, not only
to focus on preservation of the patches of native vegetation that remain, but also to construct a
landscape that is ‘migration friendly’. Such a landscape is most likely to emerge from the appli-
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cation of agro-ecological principles. (133)

This conclusion raises important questions which I would argue deserve more attention:
can we assume that the majority of smallholders and food sovereignty movement members
are successfully using agroecological practices and promoting a diversified matrix? What
are the outcomes of these practices for ecosystems, social justice and food production?
What explains variability in management and its outcomes? And, most importantly, how
can the most promising alternatives scale up?
Though the authors point to the problems of binary categorizations such as industrial-
agroecological, more work is needed to unpack such dichotomies because doing so will
likely provide insights relevant to the question of scaling up. For example, as Perfecto
et al. note, two of the book’s in-depth case studies of biodiverse agroecosystems –
coffee agroecosystems in Latin America and cacao production in Brazil – are not staple
food crops. Perennial, export-oriented, luxury crops may lend themselves to agroforestry
and/or production in polycultures, but it is equally important to address the dominant com-
ponent of global agricultural landscapes, which is annual grain crops. Their third case study
briefly addresses rice and maize production, and they note that more attention to cultivation
of annuals is needed.
Learning from successful models of agroecological production can inform more wide-
spread change in agriculture and biodiversity conservation. Large-scale change will also
require accounting for and understanding the forces at multiple levels of organization
that shape the complex gradient of actually existing agricultural practices. For example,
many ‘middle-range’ factors drive variability in agricultural management. One case dis-
cussed in Nature’s matrix is the Brazilian social movement O Movimento dos Trabalha-
dores Rurais Sem Terra (MST – the rural landless worker’s movement). At a national
level, the MST promotes agroecological production in its land reform settlements;
however, contrary to the ideal model represented by the MST leadership, settlements
display quite disparate agroecological forms in different locations and adoption of these
practices is complex and variable. In my research with the MST in Mato Grosso, Brazil
(Blesh and Wittman 2013), a state located in the heart of industrial export production
in the cerrado biome, smallholder farmers face a suite of barriers to success in agroeco-
logical production, including limited access to water, a lack of stable markets and infra-
structure to access existing markets, a lack of appropriately-scaled machinery, limited
access to credit, and weak knowledge systems – in part because the cerrado is an
The Journal of Peasant Studies 789

agricultural frontier and farmers from other regions of Brazil have limited experience with
the cerrado’s biophysical conditions, but also due to the absence of technical assistance
and educational opportunities. Factors spanning from farm to international levels sustain
the dominant matrix of industrial production in the cerrado and limit the expansion of
agroecological management. Such case studies demonstrate that policies to scale up agroe-
cological production and link food systems to natural resource conservation must attend to
a complex constellation of biophysical, political, sociotechnical and epistemological
This multidimensionality of agrifood systems leads to another important question: what
is biodiversity’s actual function? Specifically, in agroecosystems, how can biodiversity be
managed to achieve particular socioecological outcomes? The relationship between biodi-
versity and ecosystem function is a hotly debated topic in the ecology literature, and the
authors of Nature’s matrix have extensive expertise in this area (e.g. Vandermeer 1989,
Hooper et al. 2005). In Nature’s matrix, the issue is addressed in their case studies of
coffee and cacao when describing how farmers manage ‘planned biodiversity’ with
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rotations and cropping systems. The authors provide several examples related to biological
control of pests, which illustrate that ecological interactions in agroecosystems are complex
and the mechanisms frequently unknown. They raise the biodiversity-ecosystem function
question as one of critical importance to farmers and farm-level management; however,
it is also important to explore the relevance of this relationship to their landscape level argu-
ment: how much and what kind of biodiversity is needed at a landscape level to sustain both
ecosystems and humans, by achieving production without polluting downstream
The large literature on biodiversity and ecosystem function in natural ecosystems
(e.g. Cardinale et al. 2006, Tilman et al. 2006) can inform agroecosystem management
at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Current literature on biodiversity and ecosystem
function tells us that biodiversity (or species richness) per se is not the most important
metric, but functional diversity is – the representation of species that perform different
ecological functions (e.g. DeHaan et al. 2010), such as enhancing nutrient cycling or
controlling pests. One explanation is that certain species affect ecological processes
more than others. In agroecosystems, a common example is the ability to improve
soil fertility by intercropping legumes with grasses (two different plant functional
groups) because grass-legume competition for soil nitrogen increases legume nitrogen
fixation. That is, as Nature’s matrix points out, designing high quality matrices is not
a simple question of adding more species to agroecosystems, but involves understanding
biological interactions and managing them to optimize the multiple goals of agricultural
Nature’s matrix is an ambitious and important contribution to the conversation about
management of natural resources and transformation of food systems. The authors use
ecological theory to demonstrate that ‘land sparing’, where land is set aside for biodiver-
sity conservation and ‘protected’ from human encroachment, is not a viable conservation
strategy. They break down problematic binaries such as people-nature and bridge disci-
plines to tackle integrated questions about managing ecosystems for social equality and
environmental sustainability. In doing so, they demonstrate that reconfiguring food
systems will require replacing neoliberal logics with a pluralistic frame that accounts
for multiple values and knowledges. However, it is also important to recognize that
innovation processes are socioecological and relational. Understanding and managing
tradeoffs to optimize the multiple goals of food systems is enormously complex.
More attention to the relationship between structure and agency as well as to the
790 Book reviews

meso- and landscape-level processes that drive socioecological transformation is

required to answer the question: how do we scale up the resistances in the global
food system?

Blesh, J. and H. Wittman. 2013. Land reform as a socioecological system: assessing food sovereignty
and resilience in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Paper presented at the Association of American
Geographers Annual Meeting. Los Angeles, April 9–13.
Cardinale, B.J., et al. 2006. Effects of biodiversity on the functioning of trophic groups and ecosys-
tems. Nature, 443, 989–992.
DeHaan, L.R., et al. 2010. Agricultural and biofuel implications of a species diversity experiment with
native perennial grassland plants. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 137, 33–38.
De Schutter, O. 2011. Agroecology and the right to food. Report submitted by the Special Rapporteur
on the Right to Food. New York: United Nations Human Rights Council.
Hooper, D.U., et al. 2005. Effects of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning: a consensus of current
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knowledge. Ecological Monographs, 75, 3–35.

IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for
Development). 2008. [online]. Available from: [Accessed May
McMichael, P. 2009. A food regime genealogy. Journal of Peasant Studies, 36(1), 139–169.
Tilman, D., P. Reich, and J. Knops. 2006. Biodiversity and ecosystem stability in a decade-long grass-
land experiment. Nature, 441, 629–632.
Vandermeer, J. 1989. The ecology of intercropping. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jennifer Blesh
Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University
© 2013, Jennifer Blesh

Rice biofortification: lessons for global science and development, by Sally Brooks,
New York, Earthscan, 2010, 192 pp., $US 35.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-84971-100-5

Don’t be fooled by the title. This book is of greater importance and broader relevance than
its unfortunately narrow title would lead readers to believe. Sally Brooks, an experienced
international development practitioner and an agile researcher, uses the case of rice biofor-
tification to argue for a more context-sensitive approach to ‘science for development’, as
well as for more attention to local diversity and complexity. Brooks is thus arguing
against the kind of universalist, top-down, upstream approaches she demonstrates are at
work in the relatively young science of biofortification. To be sure, such calls for complex-
ity and context are nothing new. But Brooks’s level-headed version of this argument is
newly important for at least three reasons, which are each explored in her text: first,
because of the recent hegemonic influence of the Millennium Development Goals
(MDG) that structure notions of impact and drive programmatic design; second, because
of the rise of Silicon Valley-style philanthropy, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foun-
dation (BMGF), and third, because of new pressures for urgent solutions to the so-called
global food crisis.
The strength of Brooks’s argument lies in her analysis and critique of built-in reduction-
ism; that is, the closing down of scientific debates and the ‘black-boxing’ of uncertainty and