Farmers and crofters are pioneering alternative ways of working the land - Dr Luz-Maria Lozada

Farming systems around the world are under pressure to keep producing food and other products for the growing global population while coping with external stresses such as conflicts, a changing climate, increased energy costs, or Covid-19 restrictions. The UK government is committed to meeting net zero carbon targets (by 2045 in Scotland), and agriculture will be a major player in reaching this goal. This needs to happen alongside the sustainable use of natural resources while also improving the environment, enhancing biodiversity and ecological functions.

Dr Luz-Maria Lozada is a scientist based at the James Hutton Institute.
Dr Luz-Maria Lozada is a scientist based at the James Hutton Institute.

These challenges may appear insurmountable, and yet some farmers and crofters across Scotland are already leading the way with their own innovations in farming and food production. Recent research by scientists at the James Hutton Institute, funded by SEFARI Gateway, in collaboration with the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society and Soil Association Scotland, asked land managers about their use of farming practices that aim to improve sustainability, and whether they felt these practices supported long-term land productivity and resilience amongst agricultural businesses in Scotland.

The research focused on agroecology as an alternative paradigm for agriculture and food systems. Agroecological systems integrate ecological and social principles into their design and management. Although the term agroecology is not yet widely used, it provides a broad and inclusive pathway to agricultural sustainability, embracing many alternative farming approaches and practices, including regenerative farming, organic farming, permaculture, and the Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) initiative.

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What does agroecology look like in Scottish farming? The online survey of nearly 200 respondents and ten face-to-face interviews revealed agroecological practices used commonly by land managers in Scotland, motivated to improve soil health and biodiversity and reduce inputs. These practices include managing soil cultivation, nutrient inputs, and drainage for efficient resource use and recycling waste products. Practices to restore biodiversity were moderately common, as were monitoring and cultural control of pests and diseases to promote resilience.

The research highlighted that most of the farmers and crofters that took part in the research had learned about new practices through their own research and experimentation, and many also consulted others in their farming networks. New farming entrants featured more strongly in adopting agroecological farming approaches and males were more likely than females to use paid advisory services, but both relied on peer support networks. Those who were clearly implementing agroecology as an overall farming approach recognised benefits for their local communities and saw themselves as agents of change in creating alternative food production systems that support rural livelihoods and promote healthy diets while adapting to and mitigating climate change.

As we enter an era of agricultural transition to protect the future resilience of our production systems, we can look to the farmers and crofters who are pioneering alternative ways of working using agroecology principles. While much needs to be done to support, inform and communicate this approach more broadly, there is growing ambition amongst farming communities and agricultural businesses to apply new approaches and lead the way in food system transformation.

Dr Luz-Maria Lozada co-wrote this piece with Dr Alison Karley; both are scientists based at the James Hutton Institute. For more information contact [email protected] or [email protected]

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