Farmers need financial help to adopt agroecology​​​​​​​

A range of environmentally friendly practices can help farmers meet policy targets relating to climate change, biodiversity and food production – but farms need to have the financial capacity to buffer the economic costs in transitioning.

Lead author Dr Lorna Cole
Lead author Dr Lorna Cole

That was the finding of a new study which looked at a range of so-called agroecological practices – including regenerative farming, organic systems, integrated farm management (IFM), agroforestry and low input farming.

Researchers at the SRUC said that agroecology encompassed food security, environmental and social goals by helping to restore the health of agricultural ecosystems and increase the resilience of farms to future challenges.Comparing five agroecological approaches which are currently practised in Scotland, the work was carried out for ClimateXChange, Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change, which provides independent research to support Scottish Government policy-making on climate change adaptation and the net-zero transition.The researchers found there was considerable overlap in the different farming practices adopted, which depended on the farming system, geographical location, resource availability, and mindset and priorities of the farmer.Regenerative agriculture, IFM and organic farming were found to have the widest range of practices considered as ‘core’, reflecting their broad scope and ‘toolbox’ approach to select practices appropriate to specific locations and circumstances.The report was based on the views of a wide-ranging panel of experts, including farmers, advisors, researchers and policy makers – and admitted that some of the approaches such as regenerative agriculture had no legal or regulatory definition, making it difficult for certification and policy development.

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But while agroforestry and IFM were perceived to match yields attained in conventional systems, those using organic, regenerative agriculture and low-input systems carried an expectation that such systems would be lower yielding. However, despite this perceived loss in yield, profit margin was thought to be higher in regenerative and organic systems due to a lower reliance on expensive inputs.

However all models were perceived to increase farm resilience and stabilise yields either slightly (low input and organic) or intermediately (agroforestry, regenerative, IFM).The report highlighted the need for farms to have the financial capacity to buffer the economic costs of transitioning and suggested the use of labelling or certification to increase the market value ofagroecological produce to incentivise farmers to adopt these approaches – although it was unknown how acceptable this would be to consumers.

“While a farm-scale shift towards an agroecological model requires expertise, commitment and, in some instances, significant investment, a more gradual but widespread adoption of specific agroecological practices – such as cover crops and hedgerow restoration – in conventional systems should not be undervalued,” said lead author Dr Lorna Cole.

“While climate change, biodiversity and food security are often viewed as separate challenges, they are inherently interlinked – but agroecological approaches to farming focus on increasing efficiency and regenerating ecosystem health bringing these three challenges together under a single umbrella.“Agroecology can help buffer against weather extremes, hikes in input costs, changing market conditions, increasing the resilience of farms,” she added.

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