Agroecology in the UK

This is intended as a brief summary of the development of agroecology here in the UK. It is a relatively new theme for farming and is only just beginning to frame the discourse on the future of agricultural practices in this country. However, it is a powerful tool in the campaign for a healthier more holistic approach to farming and as such it is under threat of being manipulated and twisted to suit the vested interests in the dominant industrial system of agriculture. It has the force and rigour of a developing scientific discipline but up until now it has also been part of a movement for social justice that does not favour technocratic top down solutions to the challenges of creating a model of food production that is not based upon the tacit consent of exploitation.

Recent Reports, including UN Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter’s investigation into the Right to Food and the 2008 IAASTD report, which was compiled by a number of governments and research institutions, have pushed ‘agroecology’ into the mainstream debate over the development of the agricultural sector. These reports stress the need for a more environmentally aware agriculture, which can promote biodiversity, boost soil health, conserve water and mitigate climate change.

However, for many years now there has been an awareness of the need  to understand the interdependent relationships of an agriculture system with its surrounding environment . The organic movement was the first attempt to thematise this perspective but other schools of thought have responded to this challenge. Biodynamic farming follows a holistic conception of the farm as an organism and could be described as a very intentionally intensive approach to farming. Permaculture offers a very inclusive design process for integrated systems with a reflection of social awareness and responsibility within those systems. These movements have arisen through a response, at times antagonistic, to industrial agriculture of conventional farming.

The institutional responses to agroecology can be summarised very briefly but what we need to understand is how agroecology as a practice and a movement is taking shape on the ground. So let us begin by looking at the organisations that are using agroecology to further their interests and then we can begin to formulate a strategy to synthesise these efforts to help those producers already working with agroecological methods.

Conventry University and Rothamsted Research are both claiming to be carrying out agroecology research. It is instructive to look at the differences in their direction and their connections to other organisation. However, we do not think it is yet time to comment on these institutes so we will limit ourselves to a simple description of their activities. It is our hope that this article will create a response on which we can better understand the narrative that is emerging. Who controls that narrative is as always a question of who wants to control it. We are only concerned with the integrity of the movement and its legacy in the recent history of resistance to such controlling forces in the global south.

The Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry University aims to promote “agricultural and food production practices, which are economically sound, socially just and promote long-term protection of natural resources.”

They claim that, “Whereas the previous industrialized approach to agriculture was based on the science of chemistry, we recognize that our farming systems are bounded by the extent of our understanding of natural organisms and systems.”

They intend, “to conduct critical, rigorous and relevant research which will contribute to the development of agricultural and food production practices, which are economically sound, socially just and promote long-term protection of natural resources. To do this they will bring “together social and natural scientists whose collective research expertise in the fields of agriculture and food spans several decades.” And focus, “this collective experience into a range of exciting new applied research activities, including the provision of tailored consultancy services, research supervision, and research dissemination through teaching and course development in the realm of sustainable agriculture and food.

Their research themes are:

  • Transition Technologies
  • Routes to Market
  • Stabilisation Agriculture
  • Food and Communities

In 2009, CAFS became a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). There is an interview with Julia Wright, deputy director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Farming Online

Romamsted Research also claim to be conducting scientific research into agroeoclogy. Led by Dr Angela Karp they state that their, “mission is to understand the ecological mechanisms that deliver sustainable crop production. We have expertise in movement and spatial ecology of pests and pollinators, above and below-ground functional biodiversity and weed ecology. The Department specialises in experimental and quantitative ecology and produces high impact research from plot to continental scales. Our science is supported by a unique combination of facilities including the Rothamsted Insect Survey (National Capability), eight ‘Classical’ experiments as well as a 330 ha research farm, unique Vertical Looking and Harmonic Radars and insect behaviour and field labs. Over 30 staff and students are clustered into five research groups.

There current research themes are:

  • Pollination ecology,
  • Weed ecology,
  • Soil ecology,
  • Microbial ecology,
  • Insect survey,
  • Insect migration and spatial ecology

The political interests in the public discussion around agroecology are being steered through Westminster by an All Party Parliamentary Group on agroecology. In February 2011 Chris Smaje and Cordelia Rowlatt of Vallis Veg wrote a briefing paper that marked the foundation of the APPG on agroecology. The briefing covers trade policy, farm and farmer support, environmental public goods, and public health.

Chaired by Baroness Sue Miller of Chilthorne Domer it has the support of 20 MPs from the main and opposition parties. They have regular meetings which are of course open for public attendance  On the 6th December the APPG held a seminar on soil. The key speaker was Nic Lampkin, Director of the Organic Research Centre. Other speakers included Prof. Mark Kibblewhite, Cranfield University Dr Bob Rees, Scottish Agricultural College, Prof. Phil Haygarth, Lancaster University, Prof. Louise Heathwaite, Lancaster University, Mark Hodkinson, Independent Agronomist. The notes from the meeting and the letter of recommendation to the secretary of state will be available soon through their website. Also available on the website is an info graphic download on agroecology.

One of the most active grassroot political responses to agroecology has come from the UK Food Group “the leading UK network for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on global food and agriculture issues”. Patrick Mulvaney, an outspoken advocate of agroeoclogy and chair of UK Food Group has been instrumental in creating the UK Agroecology Alliance, “a new grouping of like minded UK based organisations seeking to make agroecology the norm for production and to address the UK dependency on imports of basics such as animal feed. A summary of the UK Agroecology Alliance can be downloaded here.

They are looking for more people to work collaboratively to achieve the political momentum to make agroecology the mainstream form of food production and land management in the UK and to re‐build rural communities by revitalising land and water based enterprises based on agroecological principles  The Alliance has the support of the following organisations :  UK Food Group, Campaign for Real Farming, Permaculture Alliance, the Scottish crofter’s Federation, Pesticides Action Network UK, Econexus, GM Freeze, Practical Action, Soil Association, War on Want.

In July this year the UK group on Food Sovereignty was launched at Organiclea in London. During a 2 day long process of collating ideas and intentions for the promulgation of food sovereignty in the UK an interest in promoting agroecology was expressed but as yet this has yet to materialise into a coherent research proposal.

Last Month a constitution for the Via Campesina UK group was ratified at its inaugural meeting in Bristol. The group will be officially launched in the spring and will be looking for producers to join in support of the interests of small-scale agroecological farmers.

Reclaim the Fields (RTF) has been active in the UK for over two years. More established on the continent here it has yet to gain the strength and confidence within its network to be a genuine challenge to the existing systemic constraints to agrarian reform. However, it doesn’t aspire to be a ‘network’ in the conventional sense but rather a ‘constellation’ of different groups in, if you will, different fields. Nevertheless, last year saw gatherings in spring and summer the launch of WWOLF a skill sharing initiative that challenges the complacency within the established culture WWOOF UK with regard to elements of exploitation and privilege.

Internationally, through Reclaim the Fields, the network Beyond Our Backyards (BoB) has developed to facilitate discussion and information sharing between the myriad of groups that make up the  RTF-constellation. They state that, “Collective action is a necessary step in supporting the development and outreach of the ideas of agroecology, food sovereignty and degrowth. BoB invites “agroecologists” from all spheres of action – academics, political activists, farmers, food eaters – to converge and act together for social change.

The BoB portal “provides an open network aimed at developing structures and processes for exchanging experiences, learning and advancing knowledge. By joining and using this network you can support your local initiative, group or project with new collaboration and project management tools. By increasing the connection between our agroecological initiatives or research, we can build synergies and increase our understanding of the role and potential of our actions and imagination in the transformation of politics, economics and the society we form part of.”

These initiatives are a promising addition to the possible culture that will emerge from the correct re-appropriation of the food production systems on which we depend. But the real inspiration comes from the farmers and growers that are affecting this change through their every day dedication and hard work. For ourselves here at Yorkley Court Community Farm these include farms such as Five Penny Farm, Chagfood, Land Matters, Grow Heathrow, Highbury Farm, Swansea biochar, Fordhall Farm, Tinkers Bubble, Keveral farm, Vallis veg, Steward Woodland Community, Organiclea, Clerveux, and Lammas just to mention a few. We hope that with the combined efforts of Food Sovereignty UK and Via Campesina UK we will see the rise of an agroecology alliance to lead the way in the transformation of agriculture to a truly regenerative culture of farming.

If you are a small-scale agricultural producer interested in agroecology please contact us here at YCCF, yorkleycourt@gmail.com or Patrick Mulvaney, patrickmulvany@clara.co.uk.

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