We all eat food. Most of us every day. Most of us several times a day.
Food is undoubtedly one of the most constant and impactful aspects of our lives.
And the ways that we produce — and consume it — are impactful as well.
We all know about climate change. Agricultural activities (crop, livestock and fossil fuel) contribute approximately 25% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions — yet around 1/3 of all food is wasted.
15% of the world’s land surface area has been degraded by soil erosion and physical and chemical degradation, while even more is at risk.
Industrial agriculture is using more and more toxic chemicals to control weeds and pests, which put the environment, agricultural workers and consumers at risk.
Farmers now earn less in every dollar that we spend on food, despite rising costs of living, as big companies squeeze (and squeeze).
Rural communities are collapsing, the quality and diversity of food that we produce (and thus eat) is constantly decreasing, neoliberal policies have seen small farmers displaced coupled with a rapid rise in the rate of rural-urban migration.
The rural poor are poorer than ever before, food security issues are rife and malnutrition is one the rise.
Meanwhile, both producers and consumers are disenchanted and dissatisfied with the current state of the industry and the way it’s structured.
In short, many aspects of the way that we produce and consume food is not sustainable.
Something (i.e. a lot of things) needs to change.
Sustainable Agriculture Isn’t Simple
But it’s necessary. Very necessary.
Defining Sustainable Agriculture
I’ve defined sustainable agriculture before but I’ll do so here again, so that we’re all on the same page.
Sustainability is a multi-faceted condition. It requires sustainable development across environmental, economic and social-cultural concerns in order to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”.
Insofar as agriculture is concerned, sustainable development across each of these “three pillars” of sustainability must be achieved before it can be considered sustainable.
Having sustainable development across one, or even two, of these pillars does not make agriculture sustainable. They will not be able to prop society up.
Think of a stool with just two legs. If you put your weight on it in the wrong way, it will collapse and you will fall splayed upon the floor.
Agriculture is the stool upon which the tower of society was built. A missing pillar will produce much the same result — except there’s a lot more pain as a consequence.
Agroecology is definitely the buzz word of the moment for researchers grappling with the question: how can we sustainably feed a population of 9 billion and more in years to come?
That said, agroecology is more than just a buzz word.
A 2011 report found that agroecology has the potential to “double food production in entire regions within ten years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.”
It has strong theoretical underpinnings, and represents holistic and practical solutions to many of the social, environmental and economic problems that we face.
Agroecology is a paradigm that takes a systems approach to agricultural development, encompassing all aspects of production, distribution and consumption, striving for harmony and balance between each of them. Agroecology is inherently sustainable in its aims, execution and outcomes.
For many researchers, the transition to agroecology begins with the farmer fostering a deeper relationship with their soils. Soils are, after all, the structural foundation for any food production system. So when we first undertake an agroecological approach to farming, we are literally building a sustainable food system from the ground up.
Levels of Transition
At the 2014 Food and Agriculture (FAO) International Symposium, ‘Agroecology For Food Security and Nutrition’, Professor Stephen Gleissman presented a paper that detailed the transition phases that food systems move through as they gradually adopt agroecology and develop sustainably.
I’ve summarised these below, including some examples.
- Increase the efficiency of industrial/conventional practices whilst reducing consumption of external inputs that may be costly, environmentally damaging or scarce. An example of this would be using multi-cropping and optimising crop spacing to minimise land available for weed growth, thus reducing to need to spray with agrochemicals. Increased productivity is an added bonus.
- Replace industrial and/or conventional inputs with alternative practices that interact benevolently with the environment, and do not cause harm to farm workers or consumers. This might be achieved through the replacement of synthetic fertilisers (which can cause waterway pollution and soil acidification) with a nitrogen-fixing cover crop and/or livestock rotations.
- Overhaul the fundamental structures and functioning relationships of the agro-ecosystem so that it functions on a new set of ecological processes. This is where things really start to change. “Externalities” are eradicated through prevention. The system is intuitively redesigned to function coherently according to the seasons, soil conditions, topography etc. Everything from energy use (e.g. gravity-fed watering troughs) to agrobiodiversity (e.g. diversification of cropping systems) is considered.
- The establishment (or re-establishment) of direct connections between those who grow food and those who consume food. This requires effort off-farm and a much more drastic shift in thinking on the behalf of both the producer and the consumer. There must be a willingness on both sides to participate in local food networks first and foremost — global food networks are a later concern. Local food networks are the social and economic foundations of sustainable agriculture, driving long-term change through the economic and social incentives offered by food citizenship. Farmers markets, community-supported agriculture, regenerative agriculture, urban gardening, hospitality businesses that work closely with farmers, winemakers and coffee producers — even artists can be instrumental in facilitating the transition at this stage.
- Through the culmination of the collective efforts at each of the other four stages, a global food system based on equity, participation and justice is built. Earth’s life-support systems are inherently restored and protected. We’re not really even close to this yet — though there are examples of sectors of the agriculture industry that are achieving aspects of this at a collective, global level across transnational boundaries. Specialty coffee, through direct trade, is one example. Natural wine is another. Both are based on sustainable farm management practices, transparent and closely connected supply and demand networks, differentiation and citizenship — at first local and then global levels. But they still only represent a small portion of their respective industries and the food system in its entirety.
These transition steps may seem a little vague. They’re not a recipe but they’re as close as we can come to to a globally relevant process for agroecology.
There is no formula for an agroecological system.
Each agroecological system, starting with farming practices and continuing through to distribution and consumption will be specific and unique as a result of the resources, local conditions and existing structural frameworks available to them. Therefore, knowledge — local, intergenerational and intercultural — combined with ingenuity and creativity are central to a successful transition period, both locally and on a global scale.
Networks, rather than chains, with multiple points of contact and self-perpetuating feedback loops will arise through organic and intuitive manipulation as we become more and more familiar with those agroecological systems with which we interact. Like all relationships that blossom over time, they will intensify in their diversity and complexity, making them resilient to the test of time.
What you can do?
What resources do you have available to you? Are there any farmers that you can access and support in some way as they undertake the transition? Where do you spend your money when you dine out? Is it with a restaurant who shares a similar ethos around food? What local food networks are there that you might be able to participate in? If there are none, perhaps you can create one? What are your points of contact with farmers? How can you strengthen them and possibly include other people around you? As a producer, where is the place to start?
What are the small things that you can do that will create the foundations for bigger achievements?
These are all questions that I asked myself many years ago when it first dawned on me that I could make a positive contribution to the world through food.
And bit by bit, piece by piece, I have built myself a life that (I believe) contributes positively to the development of a global agroecological food system.
I didn’t choose this life because I’m an agroecologist. I’m an agroecologist because I was a science student who chose a certain path.
I didn’t choose this life because I work in the natural wine industry. I work in the natural wine industry because I was a sommelier who followed what my heart said was right.
I didn’t choose this life because I owned a restaurant. I owned a restaurant because I saw a disconnect between producers and consumers that I wanted to help fix.
The choices that I have made for the last 16 years can be attributed directly to a single choice that I made, though each is nuanced in its own shade.
I’m not encouraging you to make the same choices as me; that is not my point.
Rather, I would urge you to consider how food interacts with you in your personal life, your work and your community AND how you can manipulate each of these specific interactions to achieve the outcomes that you believe will bring benefit.
Using a systems approach to this analysis helps a lot.
I’ve heard people say that it’s not up to us as individuals to mitigate problems like climate change, biodiversity loss and rural poverty. It’s a matter for politicians, legislators and people with the power to make BIG decisions.
But consider this: doesn’t every big decision start with a small decision? Don’t we become leaders by the small actions that we take on a consistent basis?
Whether you’re a farmer, work in a connective food business or a consumer : you can build your sustainable food system, from the ground up, with the choices that you make every single day.