Can growing food really help face the waves of crises we face today? This article shares the brilliant ways transforming our food systems can impact the world.
Can growing food really help face the waves of crises we face today? There’s a movement emerging that answers with a loud ‘Yes!’. It is tucked away in community gardens feeding people and creating sanctuaries for wildlife in our cities, in the country where community-supported agriculture and new models of agroforestry are pioneering regenerative ways of growing food at scale, and in the boundaries between, where cooperative market gardens bring together the best of both.
The movement goes by many names depending on scale, ambition and philosophy. Some call it Permaculture, Regenerative Agriculture, Biodynamic or Natural Farming. All are part of what we can call agroecology, and all reject the premise of the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ of the last 70 years that we need vast quantities of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and genetically modified crops to feed ourselves. The people doing it, however, see their work as about much more than growing food. The crises of climate change, ecological destruction, health, inequality and poverty show clearly that something fundamental about how we organise society needs to change. While it’s not clear exactly how this transformation will evolve, this movement gestures towards a new system entirely.
The change starts with the land and ripples outwards. Fundamentally, agroecology means building up the fertility of the land rather than depleting it. It means protecting and adding to soil health, creating habitats for wildlife and breaking industrial agriculture’s dependence on pesticides and artificial fertilisers. It also often also involves alternative ethical approaches to growing that include acknowledging and respecting the whole ecosystem, supporting existing relationships to thrive and shifting our relationship with the rest of the living world from an extractive one to a collaborative one.
Can we live off agroecology?
These approaches get the goods in terms of yield, human health and ecosystem resilience. On small, carefully managed plots, you find far higher yields than on industrial-scale sites (1). A healthier soil food web also means higher nutrient density in crops, something we have lost up to 40% of in the last century (2). Small-scale community growers also grow a much higher range of plant varieties. The range of foods available to us in supermarkets is minuscule compared to the diversity of varieties that we could grow. We have 3,000 known varieties of apples cultivated on the British Isles, for example, whereas most supermarkets sell 3 or 4 New Zealand varieties (3). This is how community food production maintains our genetic diversity of plants. In countries already facing dramatic weather events caused by climate change, there is significant evidence showing agroecological farms are much more resilient (4).
Agroecology offers a desperately needed answer to the crisis in ecosystem diversity. We have seen an average of 70% decline in wildlife in the last 50 years (5), and a 64% decline in insects in the last 20 (6). By growing flowers for pollinators, and including wild areas in the garden where insects can live, local growing might be able to bolster these numbers. Below ground, our soil ecosystems are also in need of support. Not only does industrial-scale ploughing of fields and dependence on fertiliser emit large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, but it also degrades the soil food web on which our plants depend. Some estimates have predicted that if we don’t start practising regenerative agriculture at scale our soils might only have 60 years left of harvests in them (7).
Food, class inequality and social transformation
Many in this movement are also motivated by the injustices surrounding who has access to healthy, sustainably grown, organic food. As of January 2023, almost 20% of people in the UK are experiencing food insecurity. That’s struggling to access mass-produced, non-organic, non-regeneratively farmed fruit and veg. There is little data on access to good quality food, grown well, but with some organic ranges double the price of non-organic, you can see how food is an issue deeply related to class inequality (8). Some studies have shown how urban agriculture can help mitigate food inequality and open up access, and many growers offer tiered solidarity pricing systems (9). Yet there are limits to how much this can help without transforming the wider system that produces the inequality in the first place.
At the same time, agroecology has the potential to create cultural conditions that might incubate significant challenges to this wider system. Reconnecting with the cycles of life – the source of our sustenance – often changes the way people think of themselves, their place and their role in the world. This kind of ecological consciousness-raising could lead to deeper social transformations.
For instance, one of our biggest barriers to system change is a widespread sense of powerlessness. Rediscovering how to grow food is a potent antidote to this. The modern world is complicated: decisions that shape our lives are made elsewhere, technology has become so intricate that we cannot know how it works, and often we work in large businesses over which we have little control. This experience of alienation often ripples out into a wider sense that we are too dependent on the current system to change it.
Learning to provide nourishment for ourselves, our communities and the ecosystem leaves people with a new feeling of capability and empowerment. It unlocks the feeling that we don’t need to rely on a destructive food system, and that, by working together we can start to disentangle ourselves from some of the larger harmful systems that operate in the world. Successful movements across the world draw much of their strength from reclaiming control over their food. In my experience with community gardening, connecting with the land unlocks a powerful confidence.
Healing ourselves and our communities
In a similar vein, connecting with the plants and ecosystems that produce food can be a deeply healing process. The process of nurturing other life, the calm of a garden, and the gentle physical exercise can nourish damaged parts of ourselves. This is the premise of the growing practice of Horticultural Therapy (10). As our physical and mental health improves, so does our sense of what we deserve. As seasoned community organiser’s tell us, raising expectations is key to changing society (18).
Paying close attention to the cycles and relationships of life in the garden can also inspire other ways of relating to one another. One perennial example that people notice upon entering the world of growing, is just how much you have to give away. Every spring, communities of local growers will organise seed swaps and events to share plants, labour and harvests. The abundance of the natural world can guide us into sharing more generously with each other.
This ethic of sharing might start as a small, friendly gesture, but could it be part of a wholesale cultural shift? Robin Wall Kimmerer, indigenous scholar of the Potawatomi in North America, describes the way that the gifts of the living world shaped her people’s culture of generosity, gratitude and abundance (11). As Woman Stands Shining (Pat McCabe) of the Diné puts it “the earth’s economy is radical abundance and fearless generosity” (19). Many writers and theorists of alternative economies suggest that economies based on sharing and gift-giving -rather than hoarding and scarcity – will be vital to staying within planetary boundaries (12). It all suggests that agroecological projects could be producing embryonic versions of a very different kind of economy.
Is this actually feasible?
So, growing food can transform these larger systems that shape our lives. But there are also limits to what any project can achieve alone. Trying to grow food for the community, something that has an enormous range of positive impacts, is difficult in our current economic system. In 2020 a report showed that 60% of young people trying to enter the world of agroecological growing could not access the land they needed to do so (13). As author and land-rights campaigner Guy Shrubsole has pointed out, the UK has some of the most unequal distribution of land in the world with 1% of people owning 50% of the land (14). Entering the world of agroecology makes visible these otherwise invisible issues of power and access.
This difficult reality doesn’t have to lead to resignation. There are many examples worldwide of people coming together to challenge similar systemic issues. One of the most successful, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil has shown how organising around food sovereignty can be the seed out of which a whole new system can grow. Across large parts of the country, 350,000 families have reclaimed abandoned and mismanaged land, built 400 cooperative enterprises and demonstrated just how exactly we can create viable alternative economies starting literally from the ground up (20).
But this doesn’t happen automatically. Agroecology and regenerative agriculture aren’t intrinsically transformative, they contain radical potentials (15). As one scholar puts it, “the question is whether agroecology will be stripped of all but its most simplistic technical content and left as an empty concept that can mean almost anything to anyone, much as happened decades earlier with ‘sustainable development’”. Their conclusion is that the transformative nature of agroecology needs to be fought for. Another scholar, Emma Cardwell, professor of economic geography at Lancaster University, makes the persuasive point that the English agroecological movement can learn a lot about directing its energies towards lasting systemic change from the Latin American iterations of it (16).
The MST went on to co-found the global movement for land justice, known as La Via Campesina. In the UK, the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) is our own branch. The LWA gives a voice to our agroecological movement and is our channel through which to effect long-term structural change. And it depends on all of the small-scale, carefully crafted community food-growing projects that offer persuasive examples for how things could and should be different.
- McDougall R, Kristiansen P, Rader R. Small-scale urban agriculture results in high yields but requires judicious management of inputs to achieve sustainability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2019;116(1):129-134. doi:10.1073/pnas.1809707115
- Lovell R. How modern food can regain its nutrients. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/follow-the-food-test/why-modern-food-lost-its-nutrients/
- Laura. The British apple and its orchard heritage. Crumbs on the Table. Published October 5, 2019. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://www.crumbsonthetable.co.uk/the-british-apple-and-its-orchard-heritage/
- Lakhani N, Chang A, Liu R, Witherspoon A. Our food system isn’t ready for the climate crisis. the Guardian. Published April 14, 2022. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/food/ng-interactive/2022/apr/14/climate-crisis-food-systems-not-ready-biodiversity
- 69% average decline in wildlife populations since 1970, says new WWF report. World Wildlife Fund. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://www.worldwildlife.org/press-releases/69-average-decline-in-wildlife-populations-since-1970-says-new-wwf-report
- Barkham P. Flying insect numbers plunge 64% since 2004, UK survey finds. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/dec/15/flying-insect-numbers-plunge-64-since-2004-uk-survey-finds. Published December 15, 2022. Accessed May 12, 2023.
- Gray R. Why soil is disappearing from farms. Accessed May 12, 2023. http://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/follow-the-food/why-soil-is-disappearing-from-farms/
- Patel RM Raj. Inflamed.; 2022. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/321259/inflamed-by-patel-rupa-marya-and-raj/9780141995236
- Meenar MR, Hoover BM. Community Food Security via Urban Agriculture: Understanding People, Place, Economy, and Accessibility from a Food Justice Perspective. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. 2012;3(1):143-160. doi:10.5304/jafscd.2012.031.013
- Davis H. A path to wellbeing: the growing world of gardening therapy. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2018/jul/26/a-path-to-wellbeing-the-growing-world-of-gardening-therapy. Published July 26, 2018. Accessed May 12, 2023.
- Kimmerer RW. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants a Book by.; 2020. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://uk.bookshop.org/p/books/braiding-sweetgrass-indigenous-wisdom-scientific-knowledge-and-the-teachings-of-plants-robin-wall-kimmerer/2981482
- Kimmerer RW. The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance – Robin Wall Kimmerer. Emergence Magazine. Published October 26, 2022. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/the-serviceberry/
- Eisenstein C: “In a gift economy the more you give, the richer you are” – video. the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2012/jul/30/charles-eisenstein-gift-economy. Published July 30, 2012. Accessed May 12, 2023.
- Heath YB. New Report: The Attraction of Agroecology. Landworkers Alliance. Published August 19, 2022. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://landworkersalliance.org.uk/new-report-the-attraction-pf-agroecology-2022/
- Shrubsole G. Who owns England? Who owns England? Published February 9, 2023. Accessed May 12, 2023. https://whoownsengland.org/
- Giraldo OF, Rosset PM. Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements. The Journal of Peasant Studies. 2018;45(3):545-564. doi:10.1080/03066150.2017.1353496
- Cardwell E. Their agriculture, our agriculture: applying critical Latin American agroecological thought to England / Sua agricultura, nossa agricultura: aplicando o pensamento agroecológico crítico da América Latina à Inglaterra / Su agricultura, nuestra agricultura: aplicando el pensamiento agroecológico crítico latinoamericano a Inglaterra. REVISTA NERA. 2022;25(64). doi:10.47946/rnera.v25i64.9521
- Verso. 2014. “Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell).” May 6, 2014. https://www.versobooks.com/en-gb/products/2276-raising-expectations-and-raising-hell.
- TreeSisters. 2020. “Reforest Our Future: A Panel Discussion ~ Woman Stands Shining (Pat McCabe) on Money.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqgjgUuGi4E.
- “Home | Friends of the MST.” n.d. https://www.mstbrazil.org/.