Farmers are Scientists: The Practice, Science and Movement of Agroecology

How can traditional farming techniques, honed over millennia, help enable substantial and sustainable increases in global access to food?

An interdisciplinary approach is required to face the challenge of increasing global access to food substantially and sustainably. Society will need to do this using the same land base with less fossil fuels, water and chemical inputs within a scenario of climate change, social unrest and financial crisis. Alongside these great challenges are great opportunities: traditional farming knowledges which groups of humans the world over have been developing. These techniques are often tried, tested and optimised over millennia with a philosophy of land stewardship and care, where impacts and resilience are assessed on a timescale (multiple human generations) unprecedented in modern farming techniques.

What did the project involve? 

The project aimed to form a network in order to co-develop participatory research into how we can create productive food systems that are environmentally, economically and socially just. Using an agroecological approach the researchers hoped to bring together agroecological practitioners, of varying scales, and their traditional farming knowledge with a cross-disciplinary group of academics and non-academic experts in order to identify and co-create future projects relevant across scales.

The project began with an open enquiry between participants around the topic of agroecology. Participants were asked to introduce themselves and what’s growing in your farm / your research. What they understand by agroecology and what they hope to get from the network. The aim was to build relationships, start conversations and to aid the co-creation of workshops and a network.

Most frequent words in responses to the open enquiry ‘What do you understand by agroecology’ (top 2% of all words across 18 responses from network)

Despite planning two practical in-person workshops, restrictions on social gatherings at the time led the team to plan and deliver two facilitated online workshops instead. In the online workshops, the interdisciplinary team brought together researchers and farmers to set intentions & foster relationships. The group assessed the challenges, opportunities and enablers of an agroecological food system. The workshops involved a group discussion on the above and decisions on research priorities for agroecology in the South-West of the UK. The workshops comprised of approximately 25 participants from the South-West:

  • 30% Agroecological farmers and practitioners covering a broad spectrum of holding sizes and practices. They were brought together through the practice of agroecology and the intent to see more and be involved with farmer-led agroecological research.
  • 60% Academics (half life/environmental scientists & half social scientists) from a broad range of disciplines and academic institutions in the South West UK. They were brought together through a common interest in food systems and a willingness to co-create research with a diverse range of stakeholders.
  • 10% Non-Academic experts who brought understanding of topics such as knowledge transfers, traditional knowledge, and group decision making.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Jaskiran Kaur Chohan (Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol) is a political ecologist with an interdisciplinary background in the Social Sciences. Her research has often focused on Colombian agriculture and how rural communities construct sustainable alternatives to mainstream development and the obstacles they face.
  • Rob Owen (Holistic Restoration / University of Exeter) explores how natural systems regulate themselves and he is also part of a project producing participatory research with a network of Kenyan farmers who are implementing agroforestry.
  • Matthew Tarnowski (Biological Sciences, University of Bristol) s a transdisciplinary microbiologist.

What were the results?

This ideas exchange initiated an ongoing project that will continue to create impact and produce outcomes beyond the workshops funded by the Brigstow Institute. One such outcome was the establishment of the South West Agroecology Network. This network focuses on addressing the research gaps identified in the online workshops in the context of agroecology in the South-West.

The open enquiry enabled network members to share what they understood by agroecology. Themes in the open enquiry indicated that a common understanding of agroecology throughout the network is that it is a practice, a movement, a science, and knowledge about healthy agriculture and food systems. The online workshops allowed participants to dive deeper into their understanding of agroecology and what they want to get from the network. The workshops culminated in sharing ideas of research gaps in agroecology in this region. The whole group voted on research priorities and selected the top four to focus upon. The research priorities identified for agroecology in South-West UK are: collaborative processes, access to land, re-imagining land management beliefs and behaviours, and ecological literacy. These research themes have since been elaborated upon by the South West Agroecology Network.

After the workshops all participants had been introduced to the science, practice and movement that is agroecology. Through planning the workshops, this project created sustained relationships of University of Bristol staff with staff from other schools, departments and disciplines within the University of Bristol, academics from other universities and institutes within the South West UK, practitioners who are pioneering innovative farming methods and already conducting farm-based trials and non-academic experts. These interactions allowed collaborations to emerge that could cross disciplines, institutions and sectors.

Some connections mapped by the network.

The outcomes of this ideas exchange encouraged research and endorsement of existing agroecological technologies, development of new agroecological technologies, development of new knowledge exchange programmes, new funding bids written, collaboration on existing projects, collaboratively written papers and articles, development of specific cross disciplinary working groups, bringing together staff and students from different institutions around specific problems, the development of new teaching materials and the development of new collaborative techniques.