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:
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.
“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.”
“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”.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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
Scottish Government Arable Climate Change Evidence Report:
Agroecology - what it is and what it has to offer by Laura Silici:
Civil Eats - 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
Edinvale Farm https://youtu.be/_LYvFLpujhY
How the Soil Microbial Community Operates:
Soil Association ‘That’s Agroecology’ video playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLiWAozVmDLEm4bb1m82kdtDb4vhdhwIUs
NatureScot - The Role of Agroecology: