On Tuesday 15 February, I went along to the launch of the all-party parliamentary group on Agroecology.  Agroecology is the science of sustainable agriculture.  It studies the interaction between plants, animals, humans and the environment.  an increased emphasis on research into agroecology emerged as one of the recommendations from the Royal Society’s 2009 Reaping the benefits report.

The speakers were Dame Ellen MacArthur and Colin Tudge.  The former is a world-record breaking yachtswoman turned sustainability guru.  She is the founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.  The latter is a biologist turned writer, and founder of the Campaign for Real Farming.

Dame Ellen MacArthur has become a forceful advocate of circular economics and innovative solutions for sustainability.  Many months on a small boat acutely demonstrated the limitations of a finite resource base.

Colin Tudge argues that food should in principle never run out, because the global population is expected to peak at 9 billion in 2050, and that total agricultural land area should be more than sufficient to grow all the food we should ever need.  Feeding people ought therefore to be easy, and that we should be able to “feed everyone who is ever liable to be born to the highest standards both of nutrition and gastronomy”, without “wrecking the world”.  He states that 70% of the world’s food is currently produced by small farms.

The problem, he urges, is that large-scale food industry is driven by minimum diversity, maximum input, yield, and ultimately turnover, which runs contrary to natural systems that are maximally integrated and diverse, and (by default) driven by minimum input.

He goes on to argue that the misconception that food will run out has encouraged the development and search for technological solutions to the problem; citing the recent Future of Food and Farming report as an example of this trend in policy thinking.

Global food production, distribution and security are not easy issues.  And some would argue that it would be better to focus instead on shifting the West’s unsustainable pattern of consumption – indeed, radical agricultural reform of the kind proposed by Colin Tudge is not possible without a sea-change in the way people eat.

But perhaps this is overlooking the point.  As a discipline, and as a growing movement within the UK farming community, agroecology puts a spotlight on the difficult relationship between human consumption, food production and environmental degradation.  It advocates a unified approach to farming, land use and ecosystem preservation.  Crucially, agroecology argues that human food and natural environmental interests are actually very closely aligned, and that the treatment of either as externalities ultimately jeopardises both.

The role of agriculture in an increasingly populated world is being considered in the upcoming Royal Society report: People and the Planet.

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