Mainstreaming Agroecology: is this the future of farming?

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology held an event yesterday at the Palace of Westminster to launch the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security’s report “Mainstreaming Agroecology: Implications for Global Food and Farming Systems”. The event, chaired by Baroness Miller of Chiltern Domer, sought to raise awareness and understanding of agroecology amongst parliamentarians, with the aim of embedding agroecological principals and policies within all relevant departments of government.

Agroecology is concerned with instilling ecological integrity into agricultural practices. It is not associated with any one particular farming method, but attempts to replicate the processes of nature while maintaining sustainable socioeconomic benefits. The term itself has experienced something of an identity crisis over the last several decades, with different interest groups redefining the term to support their own ends. Since the 1990’s, agroecology has been associated with a holistic approach, where farming is considered in the context of the communities who depend on it. As the failings of industrialised agriculture become more pronounced, agroecology as defined here is gaining ground.

Agroecological practices have already been adopted by many small hold farms around the world. These practices include the use of home-made organic fertilisers, plant based insecticides, mixed cultivation and intercropping. In Havana, the capital of Cuba, small and medium scale urban farms employing agroecological methods produce around 90% of the fresh produce consumed within the city. Productivity data compiled on these small hold urban farms found their efficiency ratio to be 15-30, while industrial farms in the UK and USA average 1.5, meaning in some instances these small farms are 20 times more efficient than industrial farms. Not only are these systems more efficient, but they are more resilient too, with polyculture and agroforestry systems proving far better equipped to withstand extreme climate events than monocultures. The challenge for those championing agroecology is how to upscale these successes to compete on the level of industrial farming.

The message from CAFS at yesterday’s meeting was clear; to achieve large scale adoption of agroecology in the UK would require a revision of the current agricultural science and technology framework. Criticism was aimed at the allocation of public and private funds towards bio-tech and what CAFS called reductionist research, while the interdisciplinary research proposed by the CAFS is made all the more difficult by the structural constraints within public research institutes. At the moment only about 2% of the public agri-technology research budget is spent on agroecology (versus 15% on GM crops and 13% on marker assisted breeding). Since such fundamental and applied research in biology, chemistry and genetics has provided the basis for most industrial agricultural practices, CAFS argues that science must now try harder to support and deliver sustainable methods or natural resource management.

The report also proposes the development of locally controlled food systems based around sound scientific knowledge and bio-cultural diversity, meaning there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy. CAFS noted that the type of knowledge required is not currently offered by mainstream research institutions; as such the report states “we need to move away from the existing top-down and increasingly corporate controlled research system to an approach which devolves more responsibility and decision-making power to farmers, consumers and citizens for the production of social and ecological knowledge”.

The idea of including farmers, consumers and citizens in defining research priorities could prove difficult, but if successful, market mechanism and consumer behaviours feeding back into the design of agricultural practices could streamline agroecological practices. Indeed, farmers knowledge can be extremely useful in informing research and practices. This kind of shared learning approach is used around the world within peasant and citizen movements that are capable of generating new and inclusive learning derived from farming practices; BASE UK is one such group.

The final message from CAFS was that there is no point ‘tinkering around the edges’ of industrial agriculture. Installing sustainable practices into unsustainable systems will do nothing to address the underlying frailties of such systems. To consider the science in isolation is to miss the point; placing more importance on furthering the social movement in support of agroecology is also needed.