Last month, we took a look at the National Food Strategy, which offered our Government a comprehensive to-do list for creating a sustainable food system—a non-negotiable in the race to prevent ecological meltdown. One of the key takeaways was that restoring natural habitats and biodiversity is essential, and agroecology is a big part of that. It’s the only way we bring back balance where we’ve stripped the land bare and compromised its ability to feed us in the years to come.
We can all help support a transition to agroecological farming simply by switching up our weekly shop. We’ll explain how in just a tick.
With November’s COP26 summit looming large, we’re holding our collective breath to see whether or not global governments step up to the plate when it comes to facing the climate crisis, or whether they’ll just continue to pay lip service to the problem. With food production in its current form accounting for somewhere in the region of 30% of global emissions, it’s more than a little worrying that it’s not one of the hottest topics on the agenda at the conference. And that’s why all of us doing our bit is even more urgent.
So, what is agroecology?
There is plenty of debate around this word, one of the main reasons being that there’s no one clear definition of what agroecology is. And, unlike organic or biodynamic growing, there are no legal standards that set a nature-friendly baseline for production practices. For that reason, we need to be cautious of claims being made for agroecology and who is making them. At its best, agroecology is more than farming. It encompasses a transformative approach to food supply chains from farm to fork. See the FAO 2018 definition here.
The theory is that agroecological farming methods work in harmony with the natural world rather than in conflict with it. Agroecology can involve creating areas of native wild habitat—woodland, heath and grassy meadows—within our agricultural lands, which provide a home for a rich variety of species and reintroduce diverse biomass into the soils. Organic principles are often part and parcel of agroecology, but unless you know the farmer and their production methods well enough, organic or biodynamic certification needs to underpin the line of trusted relationships between you and the person who grows your food. Better Food Traders makes sure that members are sourcing from growers who have the interests of people and planet at heart, with organic certification and agroecological practice identified, supported and celebrated.
Agroforestry, farming with trees involved, is a big part of new approaches to agroecology, and there are two types: silvo-pastoral and silvo-arable. Silvo-pastoral involves animals being grazed on tree-covered areas of farmland, which has the double benefit of enriching the soils with natural ‘fertiliser’ from cows and sheep while providing food and shelter for the herds. Silvo-arable, on the other hand, is where crops are planted underneath trees to promote biodiversity by providing a habitat for native species, in turn, creating healthier soils.
The core aims of switching to agroecological farming are:
- To halt and reverse the effects of climate change
- To work with, not against, nature
- To empower farmers and their communities to become change-makers
What are the benefits of agroecology?
A food system based around natural balance is better for everyone and everything. Here’s a breakdown of the biggest benefits.
It’s better for the soil – deep, stabilising tree roots in agroforestry approaches, bolster the soils and help protect them from erosion. Meanwhile, natural fertilisers enrich the microbiome, and the removal of toxic pesticides promotes microscopic biodiversity and encourages water retention, which in turn supports the growth of plants and trees.
It’s better for wildlife – since industrialised farming was introduced, we’ve stripped our land of most of its native vegetation and robbed many of our country’s diverse species of their homes. By replanting trees and introducing diversity back into crop fields in place of soil-sterilising monocultures, we’ll see the return of native species that had been pushed to the last fringes.
It’s better for us – the industrialised farming model has contributed to soil degradation, catastrophic climatic events, hunger and obesity affecting every corner of the globe. But we can all demand better by supporting the antidote to the current food system; healthy, locally produced organic fruit and veg grown by independent and ethical farmers. It’s better for us, and it has the added benefit of providing local jobs and building a resilient food infrastructure. And with veg box schemes popping up all over the country, it’s never been easier!
It’s better for the planet – it rebuilds healthy soils, helps mitigate drought and flooding, places the emphasis of food production back on smallholdings thereby reducing the carbon footprint of our food, and it locks up existing carbon in that healthy soil and in the roots of trees. In all these ways, agroecology can put the brakes on climate change and help to restabilise our planet’s fragile ecosystem.
And how can we make agroecology the norm?
Well, we can start by changing how and where we shop for our food. Here at Better Food Traders, we’re creating a nationwide community of like-minded independent businesses and farmers who are already providing delicious, healthy food using planet-friendly principles, as well as helping their communities to understand more about food systems. But this way of farming, trading and building communities around food needs to move from the margins to the mainstream and at a rapid pace if we’re to undo the environmental harms that the industrialised food system has done.
Next month, we’ll find out whether world leaders have listened to any of the science. In the meantime, we can all play our own small part by supporting a local Better Food Trader and sending a clear message to those in charge: Enough is enough.