South West Agroecology Network
How does ecological literacy affect the ability of humans to comprehend and interact with current crises? How does access to land affect the uptake of agroecology in the South West? What is the role of collaborative processes in supporting and promoting agroecological systems?
How does ecological literacy affect the ability of humans to comprehend and interact with current crises? How does access to land affect the uptake of agroecology in the South West? What are the deep-set beliefs and behaviours of farmers and academics preventing our food system from making an agroecological transition? What is the role of collaborative processes in supporting and promoting agroecological systems?
Agroecology offers opportunities for agriculture and the food system to adapt in this moment of climate, social, economic and cultural transition. This project arose from a previous Brigstow Ideas Exchange ‘Farmers are Scientists: The Practice, Science and Movement of Agroecology’, which brought together 20 agroecology researchers & practitioners in South-West UK for an open enquiry and online workshops to identify agroecology research priorities in the region. The South West Agroecology Network develops upon this work by bringing researchers together to delve into four research questions related to the transition to environmentally, socially, economically and politically just food systems through which residents can live well in relationship with land.
What did the project involve?
This Ideas Exchange brought together interdisciplinary researchers and agroecology practitioners to discuss four research themes identified by the network. The group met at Gothelney Farm in Somerset and worked together to identify priority areas within each research question for the next steps of research, which are outlined below.
Ecological Literacy: How does ecological literacy affect the ability of humans to comprehend and interact with current crises?
Once rooted in ecologies, our food systems have been replaced by exploitative agricultural practices. In the workshops, practitioners highlighted that increasing ecological literacy could reconfigure normative (‘normal’) expectations and behaviours to value agroecology. Ecological literacy considers how to embed our lives, habits, processes and language within ecological systems. On-farm events celebrating food and agroecological knowledge could build community connections. Through communicating on-farm research and socialising research projects (e.g., via citizen science), farmers and researchers could work together to increase ecological knowledge and build community. Communication of core agroecological principles such as seed sovereignty on digital platforms could increase cultural knowledge of agroecology.
Access to Land: How does access to land affect the uptake of agroecology in the South West? What is preventing this access and how could this be overcome?
Farming populations lack diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity and this creates socially, politically and environmentally unsustainable farming systems. Engaging landowners, prospective farmers and organisations focussing on land rights could enable an understanding of what is preventing access to land and how this is affecting the uptake of agroecology in the South-West. Further research priorities are influencing policy, mapping farms and researchers, accessibility and power dynamics.
The workshop provided an opportunity for farmers and researchers in the South-West to begin collaborating.
Beliefs and Behaviours: What are the deep-set beliefs and behaviours of farmers and academics preventing our food system from making an agroecological transition?
Researching forms of thinking through interviews and literature reviews could identify beliefs and behaviours preventing our regional food system from transitioning to agroecology.
Collaboration: What is the role of collaborative processes in supporting and promoting agroecological systems?
Regionally, agroecological activities are supported, and ideas shared, through networks and peer to peer learning. Connecting conventional and agroecological farmers to encourage collaboration in transitioning to agroecology in the South-West. Meta-analysis of agroecological farmers and researchers, and models for routes to market, could aid new entrant farmers. For academia, could ‘un-siloing’ research through transdisciplinarity broaden the research agenda and influence policy?
The theme of collaborative processes was brought alive at the in-person meeting. In the lead up, some network members had undertaken online sociocracy training. At the in-person meeting, sociocracy was used as a methodology to explore the research questions and to reach consensus on the research priorities. Finally, we decided upon organisational ‘circles’: funding, membership, knowledge exchange and transdisciplinary research.
Sociocracy ‘circles’ for the network: resulting from co-created research on ‘collaborative processes’.
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) is a transdisciplinary microbiologist.
- Rosa Beesley (Centre for Agroecology Water and Resilience) is a post-graduate at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) with experience facilitating diverse groups in urban food systems and growing with The Matthew Tree Project.
- Jim Scown (English, Communication and Philosophy, University of Cardiff) brings methods and expertise from his prior research in environmental history focused on histories and literatures of soil and land.
What were the results?
The South West Agroecology Network has created connections between researchers and agroecology practitioners in the South-West. Priorities for the four research themes were identified. The network focussed on the collaborative processes theme by practicing the use of sociocracy to organise and co-create at the in-person meeting. The website will continue as a platform for sharing digital media around agroecology in South-West UK. Communicating farmer-led research and events in the region presents an opportunity to continue collaboration and to focus on the research themes of ecological literacy, access to land and agroecological beliefs and behaviours.
This ideas exchange played a small role in inspiring network members to go on to initiate further agroecology themed research. For example, Dr. Jaskiran Chohan is part of a team working on peasant and popular feminism, researching the co-construction of sustainability, with a particular focus on agroecology, and peace in Colombia. Dr. Matt Tarnowski works on a farmer-led research project looking into farming with fungi in Wales. Rob Owen is part of a team working on re-learning indigeneity in the UK. Rosa Beesley works at Grow Wilder, a beacon for agroecology in Bristol, and Jim Scown co-leads farmer transition at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Collectively, our network continues to research how we can co-create abundant, agroecological futures on planet earth.