My 17-hectare farm has rich grassland where I keep a small, traditional dairy herd, sheep under orchards, coppiced woodland and a market garden where we grow more than 40 varieties of fruit and vegetable. I started the farm with my family largely because we wanted healthy food and to supply fresh food to our local community.
Agroecology is farming that works with nature. It describes any farming system that doesn’t use agro-toxins, instead working with natural processes to produce diverse, nutritious food that’s distributed fairly. The goal of agroecology is to create a food and farming system that’s equitable, sustainable, nourishing and humane.
This methodology can achieve a huge number of things. It multiplies agro-diversity, which builds resilience in our food system through our rich heritage of seeds, plants, trees and livestock breeds; it provides respectable livelihoods on the land, maintaining the fabric of our communities and independent local businesses; it ensures that everyone, including the most disadvantaged in society, has access to nutritious food; it regenerates the soil by replacing synthetic fertilisers with compost and green manures; it fights climate change by maintaining grasslands and trees that sequester carbon; it restores biodiversity by creating habitats such as hedgerows and wildflower meadows; and it provides a sustainable home-grown food supply by protecting soils and natural resources.
As food-poverty and ecological crises become ever more pressing, world governments are increasingly acknowledging that agroecology should become the dominant model of food production globally. I started farming this way because I was determined to produce food in a way that protected the Earth for my children. But beyond that, this way of farming plays a key role in reversing the multiple crises our planet faces.
Over the past six years, I’ve been working with an organisation called La Via Campesina, which represents 200 million farmers worldwide, and have been involved in global discussions about the future of our food system with the Committee on Food Security.
Most of the narrative at the international level promotes industrial farming systems to produce large monocultures of crops. But there’s a pressing need for change. The International Panel on Climate Change report released in October 2018 advised that the food system contributes 25–30 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The most recent Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, published in May 2019, revealed that nearly a million species are on the verge of extinction. Other reports have described the loss of up to three quarters of our insect population, particularly in areas where agrochemicals are used for farming.
We currently produce enough food to feed ten billion people, more than enough for the current population of 7.5 billion. But according to the UN’s 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, hunger has risen for the third consecutive year (821 million people were affected in 2017), returning to levels of a decade ago.
The many advantages of agroecological approaches in reversing these trends were already recognised a decade ago by the World Bank and the UN. Their findings were re-substantiated by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food in a 2010 report, which made it clear that decisive action is required if this change is to take place. ‘This will not happen by chance,’ read the report. ‘It can only happen by design, through strategies and programmes backed by strong political will and informed by a right-to-food approach.’
This is an approach worth investing in because it genuinely can feed the world. A recent report from sustainable development think tank IDDRI models a wholesale transition to agroecology in Europe, based on phasing out pesticides, imported feed and synthetic fertilisers, and redeploying extensive grasslands and trees on farms. This transition could feed 530 million Europeans healthily while reducing Europe’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent.
Agroecological farming is already practised worldwide by peasant farmers and Indigenous peoples. Across Europe, agroecology pioneers, especially new entrants to farming, are working with nature in innovative ways. To further this transition we need an enlightened agricultural policy that, among other things, protects land rights. These farmers are planting the seeds of hope. If we have the courage and imagination to create a bold agroecology programme, we can create a food system that can feed everyone without destroying the intricate web of life on which we all depend.