Given our dysfunctional global food systems, which generate hunger, obesity and food waste, agroecology presents an alternative which addresses the sustainability of food systems within social, cultural, economic, environmental and political systems. So why has it not yet become a mainstream model of food production?
The Transitions to Agroecological Food Systems project is investigating potential pathways to more sustainable food systems through agroecology in three countries: the UK, Nicaragua and Senegal.
As well as their varied climate and food systems, these countries provide useful insights into such pathways because of the differences in how agroecology is perceived and used: in Senegal agroecology is primarily for local (mostly household) consumption because the majority of farmers are small-scale subsistence farmers, whereas in the UK and in Nicaragua, farmers and food producers are concerned with how to make agroecological farming sufficiently profitable and how it relates to the wider food system.
The common theme across all three countries is concerned with increasing awareness of agroecology among producers, consumers, and other actors within the wider food system.
Farmers identify the key issues and establish our research questions
The project began by establishing a panel, or jury, of farmers in each focus country. Using participatory methods, researchers worked with these juries to determine what the key issues might be for transitioning to agroecological food systems in their context, and what research questions should be investigated by in-country partners: the Landworkers Alliance (LWA) in the UK, the Farmer to Farmer Programme at the Nicaraguan Farmers Union (PCAC-UNAG) in Nicaragua, and Forum Pour Un Developpement Durable Endogene (FODDE) in Senegal.
“Agroecology is not only the Future, but the Past” explain farmers in Casamance
In Senegal, members of the farmers’ jury gathered from across Casamance, a region in southern Senegal, for a series of workshops.
In this region as well as throughout much of Senegal, agroecology is more than part of a food system; it represents the local culture, a way of life, a traditional knowledge which is passed from generation to generation.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the farmers involved in this project are deeply committed to preserving their traditional knowledge and farming practices. They understand that it is better for human and animal health, better for the environment, and can provide a good livelihood source through increased yields and diverse crops.
However, agroecology sits in opposition to conventional farming which draws on ‘improved’ (often hybrid) seeds and the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The farmers’ jury concluded that the government-backed model of conventional agriculture is threatening their traditional culture and heritage. As they explained to us, agroecology is not only the future for Casamance but it is also the past.
Central to the outcomes of this project is the dedication and motivation of the farmers involved. As people who produce, sell, and consume local food, they are in the best position to influence change and take action to drive a transition to agroecological food systems in Casamance.
During the workshops, they developed a series of action plans which involve elements of preserving and building on traditional cultural practices and indigenous knowledge.
For example, the farmers’ jury hope that traditional oral communicators will be involved in promoting agroecology to the wider public through community radio broadcasts while farmer organisations will establish local schemes for multiplying traditional peasant seeds so that traditional varieties are more widely available. They have already established a network of organisations and stakeholders to take actions for this transition, and have begun farmer exchanges to share technical expertise.
The farmers are working to reclaim their cultural heritage for agroecological food systems in Casamance, and Senegal more widely (see my next blog post).