Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Scottish Routes to Action

By Lucianne Wardle

17th June 2021

We recently hosted the first #RoutestoAction workshop of the devolved inquiry series, ‘A Scottish Vision for Agroecology’, which explored the challenges and opportunities of a transition to agroecology in Scotland. The #RoutestoAction series aims to help build the evidence, ideas and community of practice for a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2030 - and we were joined by a fantastic mix of over 75 farmers, academics, NGOs, Government and members of civil society.

The session, chaired by Professor Lorna Dawson and Mat Roberts (FFCC Scotland Inquiry Co-chairs) with presentations from speakers Jim Booth (SAOS), Andrew Moir (Arable Climate Change Group), Ana Allamand (Soil Association Scotland) and Professor Christine Watson (SRUC) covered a huge amount of ground in 90 minutes, including:

  • The benefits of the co-operative model and why it works well in Scotland
  • The potential of cooperatives in supporting farmers adapt to agroecology
  • The importance of collaboration and knowledge sharing in progressing towards a more sustainable future
  • The Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling climate change and reducing GHGs through industry groups such as the Arable Climate Change Group
  • Key opportunities and barriers in Scottish arable farming’s transition to agroecology
  • The importance of peer-to-peer networks and facilitation in Scotland’s rural communities
  • Findings from Soil Association’s field labs running throughout Scotland
  • Sustainable cropping systems and their potential use in Scotland
  • Findings from FFCC’s latest report Farming Smarter
  • The mechanism of an agroecology development bank to support a transition to agroecology for Scottish farmers.

This blog discusses some of the evidence and ideas gathered from the panel speakers, the audience’s comments and questions. We are using this material to inform the second phase of our Farming for Change research, due out this summer.

What did we hear?
  • We’re facing a complex set of challenges. The current food system in the UK is broken and it is failing on many levels. We’ve seen a rise in food poverty, yet food is incredibly cheap. The UK is importing more than half our food, causing food security concerns. Farm income is heavily reliant on subsidies to retain any profit at all and the power in the supply chain rests not with the primary producer or the end consumer, but with the middle men – the retailers. The number one challenge we face is the climate emergency, for biodiversity, for the soil and for agriculture. We need new thinking, and the time is now. A post global pandemic world is a great opportunity to reset our economy – to tackle the inequality and to build a fairer, more just society. Agroecology can present the mechanism for that change.
  • The cooperative model has proven very successful in the Scottish context with a vibrant farm and rural co-op sector of over 25,000 members achieving a combined turnover of £1.5 billion. In Scotland, co-ops are active in all sectors including beef, dairy, pigs, lamb, grain, fruit and vegetables, potatoes, soft fruit, timber, aquaculture and agriculture machinery. Cooperatives are valuable enablers for agroecology, allowing farmers to apply agroecology principles to their operation with the support of other coop members. The stability of the cooperative and the values of education, knowledge transfer and support allows members to think about long term progress, respecting the environment and the soil.
  • A barrier in the transition to agroecology has been the mindset of farmers, growers and land managers. Change is happening, but this relies on knowledge transfer, education, support for research and development and direct support for farmers through financial schemes.
  • The key to spreading agroecological ideas and making real change in the land is engaged farmers and crofters. Having a range of outlets and ways to engage with farmers is critical to customise to the local conditions and reach the right audience. Soil Association run webinars and facilitated peer to peer learning and field labs to transfer knowledge, support farmers and share ideas.
  • Supporting farmers and crofters to plan as early as possible will be vital to ensuring long term financial sustainability and the ability to continue to produce good food, as well as deliver policy objectives for the natural environment, climate change, rural development and Scotland’s food and drink sector. We must provide the tools for farmers to make change happen.
  • In the transition to agroecology and a sustainable fairer food system, cooperation is essential. Cooperation is well aligned and complimentary to agroecology principles. Local ownership, adaptation to local conditions and the involvement of the primary producers is key.
  • There are many opportunities for agroecology but we need a greater integration of science and practice to make change happen more effectively, we need to incorporate and utilise technology better, and we must recognise the importance of collaboration and cooperative approaches at different scales.
  • Agroecological practices are increasingly achievable and realistic, and have been proven to make good business sense. With a flexible and open mindset, lots of businesses are increasing output from their land as a result of applying agroecological principles. If you make diversity integral to your farm, there are clear and measurable production benefits to be gained.
Comments from Jim Booth, SAOS

“Agroecology principles provide a great framework for sustainability in its broadest sense, but the most important thing is that they’re locally applied. It’s about generating a diversity of practices to suit local Scottish conditions. Along with environmental sustainability and protecting biodiversity, we must focus on economic sustainability. Without a vibrant farming community that is sustainably profitable, nothing can happen.”

“The benefits of the co-op model are well evidenced – it’s all about people, compared to investor-owned companies, which are all about capital. Cooperatives are about people coming together to achieve something they couldn’t achieve individually.”

“The timing is right for change. Cooperation is the enabler to share agroecology practices with farmers. To makes things happen we need leadership through local champions, and a sympathetic government policy, which is really important to fast track change.”

“Farmers see themselves of custodians of the land, and they want to leave the land in a better condition that what they’ve inherited, for the next generation. This is a willing audience, there is an appetite for change – they realise that their farming practices are unsustainable and developments have already begun.”

Comments from Andrew Moir, Arable Climate Change Group

“The Scottish Government has a remit to reduce emissions, and we have a really big part to play. In agriculture, we are the people that can (and do) make this happen. Given the right signals and opportunities, I think we’ll see that happen quite soon. Progress is under way, but needs to speed up.”

“There’s a great opportunity to use strategies to get to low carbon agriculture. Farmer led groups are generating a lot of valuable information and material which is influencing government. Farmers like myself are discovering that there are things we can do to reduce emissions.”

“I don’t think any farmers are against reducing synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, but the harsh reality is that we can’t afford to do that at the moment. I think we will move towards reducing them, but it would be good to give people the support to change these things and the choice to adapt to local conditions”.

Comments from Ana Allamand, Soil Association

“It’s lovely to imagine an idyllic farm that’s using nature but if it’s not allowing farmers a earn a livelihood, and it’s not providing people with the food that they need, it defeats the purpose. We must focus on productivity and profitability as well as sustainability.”

“If we want to make change, we need to start engaging with people who haven’t necessarily been exposed to these agroecological ideas before. For a long time, the farming model has not been based on agroecological methods, and there’s no point pretending that everyone knows about them. We need to provide the tools for everyone to start learning.”

“We must understand what’s happening on the ground and listen to the farmers themselves to understand the barriers and opportunities for agroecology. Providing a space for farmers to come together to discuss ideas generates solutions that are so much more valuable than one person could generate alone. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there that we must harness. Farmers working together is a force to reckon with.”

“Regional conditions and contexts are really important in how we engage and bring change. We must understand the local context before approaching farmers with cookie cutter solutions.”

“It’s really important that we give farmers the recognition they deserve. They need a central role in the transition to agroecology. They know their land and they want to look after it.”

Comments from Christine Watson, SRUC

“Diversifying food and farming systems are hugely important in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals and offer so much potential.”

“There are many simple changes you can make which will make a huge difference for instance if you take a monoculture and add one different crop, soil carbon will increase 3.6%, if you add a cover crop, soil carbon increases by 8.5%.”

“We can use crop diversification to drive change. If we diversify what we’re putting into the ground, that diversifies the organic matter input to soil which builds healthy soils but will also go on to impact other stages of the chain such as livestock diversification, supply chain diversification and ultimately dietary diversification.”

“We need to adapt the whole system in order to make the most of these agroecological methods, for instance, by simply altering the settings on a combine harvester, you can work more efficiently with crop mixtures [from intercropping], damage the grains less and increase the gross product.”

“Resilience is about building our soils and our farming systems so they can deal with what climate change is going to throw at them in the future. Agroecology has a lot to offer there. Regardless of how you think about this, whether you think at the field scale, the landscape scale, or the whole supply chain approach, one size simply doesn't fit all. We need a lot of approaches to increase our ability to adapt and to apply agroecological approaches going forward.”

Comments from Will Frazer, FFCC

“Agroecology is very knowledge intensive, there’s a lot of room for experimentation. We’re getting a huge amount of interest in these Routes to Action workshops because people are realising, they can test different approaches and techniques and find solutions which are tailored directly for their farm business, their context, their soils and that can be liberating and enlightening.”

“If we are going to feed the country through an agroecological food system, we need to be investing in that. We can get hung up on the need for subsidies in agriculture, but the case we want to put forward is that we need to be investing in it.”

“Agroecology is good business, whether that’s layering enterprises or synergies within your farm or through the ability to cut input costs and focus on profitability over yield, or to look at more local and diversified routes to market. There are many ways agroecological enterprises are flourishing but there are also challenges – if you’re a small farm, if you’re a tenant farmer, if you're trying to practice new techniques, or if you're a new entrant, then it is really hard to make that transition. We need a mission-led, state-led institute to help align finance to invest in agroecological practices. This will require capital and investment. Since we launched the report, we’ve had substantial interest from the community and the idea is being heard in many different arenas – we’re excited to push on with it.”

Questions from the Audience:

How is the current situation in Scotland with farm cooperatives compared to the rest of the UK or world?

“The modern co-op movement started in the UK in 1842, it’s been adopted throughout the world. A billion people across the world rely on cooperatives but now the UK is lagging behind the rest of the world. The reason for that is because of our agricultural policy post Second World War. We had statuary marketing boards so the need for cooperative wasn’t there until they were dissolved. Within the UK, in Scotland, SAOS has been in existence for 110 years, so there’s been that coop development and support in Scotland for a long time. In Scotland we’re at 30% [of farm businesses being involved with a cooperative group] and we’re always trying to improve. On the continent it would be something like 60-70%, cooperatives would be very common. We see coops in developing countries through to the most market driven economies. In America – a third of farmers are in coops and without them rural America would not survive.” – Jim Booth

It seems the research institutes here in Scotland are slow to recognise the benefits of Agroecology, what are your thoughts on this?

“There is a great amount of work going on in the SEFARI institutes – disease prevention, obesity and nutrition in relation to the quality of food, field plot experimentation, integrated pest management research, the diversity of plants and how that interacts with our diets. There’s a huge amount of work going on in Scotland, maybe we need to communicate that better.” – Lorna Dawson

“We’re working on the SEFARI fellowship around the benefits of cooperation, but we need to do more. There is a deficit in understanding. We need more collaboration and cooperation to achieve a bigger unbiased evidence base.” – Jim Booth

What nature-based solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss does Andrew and the group consider could be helpful in the arable sector in Scotland?

“We’re doing a lot here on our farm already – we have hedges, ponds, wildflower meadows, trees and woodland. Nature based solutions are proven to be beneficial for yields and for the ecology and the wildlife. We’ve been doing this for many years, it’s not new.” – Andrew Moir

Should field labs be part of what Scotland’s Farm Advisory Service offer?

“Field labs should be a part of everyone’s toolkit, they are absolutely fantastic. They do though require a lot of engagement and they need a great facilitator. You need someone to drive that process through the field lab process. It’s a great tool, but you need to think carefully about how you facilitate and engage in order to get the most valuable results.” – Ana Allamand

Are beans and oats competing for the same space? What is the role of legumes in intercropping?

“Legumes are able to fix its own nitrogen, so if you’re intercropping with a legume, the nitrogen supply in the soil is left for the other crop. Above ground, it’s important to remember the two crops develop at different times so they are occupying different spaces. Different varieties grow differently, and develop differently. The diversity of timing is so important.” – Christine Watson

Where could we integrate agroecology in policy?

“Agroecology could fit into so many different policy areas. It’s obviously important in land use policy. We need to think about regionally adapted policy going forward, are there areas where different crops or different approaches are particularly suited? Having a land use policy which allows us to diversify our systems to make the best use of the resources in the local context – whether that’s soil resources or the climate.” – Christine Watson

Research shared by the audience

Scottish Government Arable Climate Change Evidence Report:

www.gov.scot/publications/arable-climate-group-climate-change-evidence-report/

Agroecology - what it is and what it has to offer by Laura Silici:

https://pubs.iied.org/14629iied

Civil Eats - Is Agroecology Being Co-Opted by Big Ag?:

https://civileats.com/2021/04/20/is-agroecology-being-co-opted-by-big-ag/

Nature Friendly Farming Network Farming Videos:

Balbirnie Farms https://youtu.be/WZAYTTSLHsY

Wildlife Croft https://youtu.be/lv1carUR12w

Peelham Farm https://youtu.be/pF-qGUlp5R4

Williamwood Farm https://youtu.be/mvit_f-B_E4

Howemill https://youtu.be/sDy0Nt3hbW8

Edinvale Farm https://youtu.be/_LYvFLpujhY

How the Soil Microbial Community Operates:

https://www.soilfoodweb.com/learn-more/

Soil Association ‘That’s Agroecology’ video playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLiWAozVmDLEm4bb1m82kdtDb4vhdhwIUs

NatureScot - The Role of Agroecology:

https://www.nature.scot/professional-advice/land-and-sea-management/managing-land/farming-and-crofting/role-agroecology