Since the industrial revolution and World Wars, food production has swiftly moved towards an
industrial farming model focused on profit, yield and competition.
As a result the average UK farm has grown in size and has become less diverse – relying on vast monocultures or enclosed factory farming systems. Human labour has slowly been replaced by machines and globally our food systems’ inputs have generally increased in terms of energy use, fossil fuels, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. The graph below highlights this upwards trend in annual energy input and nitrogen fertiliser of the 58 main crop-producing countries since the 1980s.
Industrial food businesses are currently rewarded by an economic system that values economic efficiency and does not internalise the true costs of production. In essence, they don’t currently pay for their negative impacts e,g, water pollution, ill health caused by pesticides, damaged soils, fragmented rural communities and disruption caused by climate change.
However, if we were to look at our current food system through the lens of energy rather than yields or profit, it becomes clear that it is massively energy inefficient. For example, the US food and farming system requires an input of around 12 calories for every 1 it gets out.
Putting ecology back into agriculture
Continuing down the industrial farming path is inherently unsustainable as it depletes the very resources it relies on. Luckily for us, throughout human history we can find examples of food and farming systems that are more in tune with nature.
Agroecology describes an approach to farming where ecological principles (our understanding of how healthy ecosystems operate) are applied to the design of farms and our wider food systems. It describes an approach that balances care for the environment, with care for the social and economic dimensions of our food systems.
What science says
Although tricky to measure, a growing body of evidence highlights how agroecological farming systems can feed the world whilst enhancing carbon sequestration, building soil health, increasing biodiversity and moving away from fossil fuels.
As a result, agroecology’s role in feeding us now and in the future is recognised by people globally and has become part of mainstream policy discourses on food and farming. For example, agroecology is advocated for by the international peasant farmer movement, La Via Campesina and the French government has embedded agroecology within their own food policy. The report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2009) also promotes agroecology as a replacement for the industrial farming model.
In 2017 FAO Director-General, Graziano da Silva, stated “we need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process. ”
In summary, ‘agroecological family farmers can become “the backbone of food security in Europe” Jyoti Fernandes, family farmer and Landworkers’ Alliance member .
Good land stewards
The Gaia Foundation’s ‘We Feed The World ’ exhibition beautifully highlights case studies and the stories of agroecological farmers from around the world– those that strive to produce food in a way that is culturally appropriate and maintains (and in some cases enhances), the health of the land, animals and communities they work with. The ‘Agroecology In Action’ report similarly highlights case studies from around the UK.
Underlying these stories are common approaches: farms are small-medium in scale and are adapted to meet the needs of the local bio-cultural context. They are diverse in terms of what they grow and how the harvest is stored, preserved and shared. Farms are built around human skills and labour, with the support of appropriate technology and machines where needed. As opposed to using artificial fertilisers and pesticides, they choose to feed the soil organically; striving to create a balanced farming ecosystem where pests and disease are kept in check by healthy plants and natural predators.
Not only do these farms play a central role in feeding their local communities and offering local jobs, they also offer solutions to the multiple crises we face: from climate change, biodiversity loss and the pollution of our rivers and oceans, to declining soil health and public health.
They are role models for good land stewards.
What practices should we support
Dr Rod Everett, an ecological farmer based at Backsbottom Farm in Lancashire, has reflected on his years of experience to propose a resilient food checklist.
Rod’s checklist advocates: supporting local seed varieties adapted to local climatic conditions; building natural soil fertility; encouraging regenerative farming systems that build soil health; taking measures to support animal health; shifting the whole food system away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.
He encourages the creation of a system that provides workers (from field to fork) with a regular ongoing living wage that is enough to support a family lifestyle from generation to generation without the need for subsidies. He advocates for a system that supports cooperation rather than competition and invests in ecological farmers.
In terms of human health, the checklist encourages us to think about producing food that supports excellent human health throughout the year – food that is fresh, whole and contains no residual agro-chemicals. He also suggests that the food we eat should provide mental and emotional stimulation.