Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to provide a socio-ecological counter account of the role that agroecology plays in supporting the sustainable livelihoods of a co-operative of smallholder coffee farmers, where very little value is created at their end of the coffee commodity chain. Agroecology may be defined as the science that provides the ecological principles and concepts for the design and management of productive agricultural ecosystems that conserve natural resources.
Design/methodology/approach: This study uses a case study design of a coffee-producing co-operative in India using data collected from participant observation, focus groups and unstructured interviews with indigenous smallholder farmers. It combines the science of agroecology with the labour theory of value as a theoretical framework.
Findings: An agroecological approach supports agricultural biodiversity, while promoting sustainable livelihoods since members of the co-operative are able to reduce their use of external inputs. However, an agroecological transformation is curtailed by the continued dependence on corporate value chains. A framework using the labour theory of value is used to explain the extraction of surplus value from the labour of both the smallholder farmers as well as nature. This study provides evidence of the role of government policy and practice in perpetuating the status quo by not promoting either research on agroecology or direct consumer to producer value chains while providing subsidies for the inputs of industrial agriculture.
Originality/value: There have been very few studies that have provided an account of the limited value generated in agricultural commodity chains for smallholder farmers due to the need to purchase the inputs of industrial agriculture supported by government subsidies. This study extends the field of accounting for biodiversity into agriculture using the science of agroecology to explain the role played by biodiversity in increasing the amount of value generated by smallholder farmers. By utilising the labour theory of value, the authors have introduced the notion of the labour power of nature as represented by the environmental services that nature provides.