Agroecology for climate, nature and health

Agroecology for climate, nature and health

I’ve just submitted evidence on behalf of the Soil Association to an Inquiry being held by the Parliamentary group for agroecology. The Inquiry is looking at whether agroecology should be considered a 'nature-based solution' (NBS) and I’m arguing that it should be. 

Agroecological systems, like organic, produce healthy diets for all in a sustainable way that works with nature and tackles climate change.

Acknowledging agroecology as a 'nature-based solution' would speed up progress towards the Government’s targets for boosting biodiversity and stabilising the climate. It would also encourage a faster shift to more sustainable farming practices - this is critical when you consider the short timeline we are working to when tackling the climate, nature and health crises. Just this week, the British Ecological Society launched a major review of what land uses stack up best as 'nature-based solutions' -  it is clearly a hot topic receiving interest from multiple angles. 

The term 'nature-based solution' is fairly new, and generally refers to tackling societal challenges in ways that work with the grain of nature. There’s a good definition of 'nature-based solution' from Oxford University that identified them as “actions that involve the protectionrestoration or management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems; the sustainable management of aquatic systems and working lands such as croplands or timberlands; or the creation of novel ecosystems in and around cities. They are actions that are underpinned by biodiversity and are designed and implemented with the full engagement and consent of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.”

'Nature-based solution' is often used to describe land uses that tackle climate change by locking away carbon or adapting to rising sea levels while at the same time providing habitats for wildlife (so not vast conifer plantations, or concrete walls to stop rivers flooding). 

Aerial view of agroforestry system

We need farms that take a whole system approach to boosting nature and tackling climate change

It's easy to spot some 'nature-based solutions' – community tree planting around towns or allowing river floodplains to function naturally again. The British Ecological Society publication identifies a whole load of farming practices that can help too:

But in my submission to the parliamentary agroecology group, I suggest that we need to go further than a series of isolated, piecemeal actions in farmland and take a whole system view. This is partly because we need to reverse decades of government and market drivers that have been pushing in the opposite direction, which has led to a focus on repairing the damage rather than setting out a bold new nature-based direction.

Take the current trend towards meat produced through intensive feedlot animal rearing. Ironically this is often touted as a solution to climate change because the animals put on weight rapidly in their pens and more meat can be produced more cheaply and more quickly. It is sometimes argued that this intensive animal rearing allows for natural areas to be created by way of compensation – although I’ve yet to see a mechanism by which this actually happens. It certainly can’t be argued that intensive animal rearing is in itself a nature-based solution. And it doesn’t suddenly become a nature-based solution if a woodland is planted next to it.

So what I explore in my evidence to the parliamentary group is whether there are packages of agricultural activity that can be delivered across the piece for the climate AND for nature – whilst providing direct benefits for people at the same time, such as improving human health. Such approaches would embrace sequestering carbon in soils, minimising pesticide use to ensure diverse ecosystems are functioning both above and below ground, using legumes to fix nitrogen within rotations, focussing on ruminant livestock to manage species-rich grasslands and recycle nutrients, incorporating trees and hedges into the farmed landscape and so on.

Can agroecological farming provide solutions?

Agroecological farming, such as organic, is an approach to farming that incorporates all of these and more, and is, therefore, the frontrunner farming system for consideration as a 'Nature-Based Solution'. This is much preferable to a piecemeal approach which trades off climate and biodiversity impacts from farming in one place with nature-based activities elsewhere.

Such an approach would also make a major contribution to creating wider landscapes that are hospitable for nature, rather than an isolated series of sites that are carrying the burden for the climate and nature. It also implies that our dietary choices can have a direct impact on 'Nature-Based Solutions' – the work we are doing through our Ten Year for Agroecology project is clearly demonstrating that a shift to the sort of agriculture that is good for biodiversity and the climate needs to run in parallel with a shift to healthier and more sustainable diets.

Getting a better handle on the metrics around farming systems and their impact on nature, climate and society is now a priority along with a recognition that verified agroecological farming such as organic should be included as a nature-based solution. We will be calling for this as part of our top priorities for the Government.

For all of us as citizens, we have a role to play as well. You can contribute to creating nature-based solutions by helping local environmental projects, and by doing something as simple as supporting agroecological farming when you decide what to put on your plate at home. Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date with environmental news and ways in which you can support our work (including getting your hands dirty).