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Understanding and improving the sustainability of agro-ecological farming systems in the EU

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Many agroecological futures are possible in Europe

New research demonstrates how sustainable farming not only benefits the environment but also empowers farmers and rural communities.

Food and Natural Resources

For most of history, agriculture was a local affair, with farmers producing only enough food to feed their family or to support the local community. But with industrialisation, urbanisation and a growing population, farming became increasingly intensive. While this achieved lower costs and increased production, these achievements were often made at the expense of the environment. Now, as the world grapples with the effects of climate change, there is an urgent need to rebalance our agricultural system with the right mix of sustainability and productivity. “In this sense, increasing the implementation of agroecological approaches is fundamental to ensuring sustainable food production in the future,” says Gerald Schwarz, a researcher at the Thünen Institute of Farm Economics. Helping to strike this balance is the EU-funded UNISECO (Understanding and improving the sustainability of agro-ecological farming systems in the EU) project. “Our aim was to strengthen the sustainability of European farming systems through co-constructing improved strategies and incentives for transitions towards agroecological farming,” explains Schwarz, who coordinated the project. Agroecology applies ecological concepts to farming. In particular, it promotes a type of farming that works to mitigate climate change, minimise agriculture’s impact on wildlife and nature, and empower farmers and communities to benefit from sustainability.

Tailoring solutions to local needs

According to Schwarz, the project’s main goal was to identify a portfolio of actions and policies for the transition to agroecology. “We wanted to provide concrete evidence of how farming can help Europe tackle the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss while also enabling sustainable food production and promoting vibrant rural economies,” he notes. To do this, researchers conducted case studies in 15 different European countries, each of which involved a different socio-economic, environmental and cultural context. Researchers also studied how the large-scale implementation of agroecological practices would impact both local farm economies and the European food system. The UNISECO project found that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for transitioning to sustainable farming. Instead, agroecology works best when tailored to local needs. “Our research showed that many agroecological futures are possible in Europe and, when embedded within wider changes in the food system, do not compromise our food security,” adds Schwarz. The project also showed how agroecology can benefit the environment by, for example, increasing species and habitat diversity. “Agroecology can also help mitigate climate change and improve our ability to adapt to its impact by promoting, for instance, humus formation and carbon sequestration in woody biomass,” remarks Schwarz.

Empowering rural communities

In addition to demonstrating the environmental benefits of agroecology, the project also worked to share knowledge about the economic opportunities of sustainable farming via a science-society-policy dialogue. “If agroecology is to succeed, we need to increase the capacity of local actors,” says Schwarz. “Although this starts with the farmer, it also needs to include landowners and other actors in rural communities and value chains.” Here, the project highlighted collaboration between farmers in such areas as shared storage, processing and marketing, and demonstrated community-level value chains that linked farmers with local restaurants, schools and retailers. “With more ‘skin in the game’, farmers have a direct connection to the success of the farming systems,” adds Schwarz. “They also stand to benefit more, thus ensuring that agroecological systems can grow with limited public support.” Although the project itself is now finished, farmers and other stakeholders can continue to leverage the wealth of knowledge that UNISECO produced via the Agro-Ecological Knowledge Hub.

Keywords

UNISECO, agroecology, sustainability, sustainable farming, farmers, rural communities, agriculture, climate change, food production, biodiversity

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