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Agroecology – Facilitating Mindset Change in Scotland

Author: Kirsty Tait, Sustainable Farming Lead in Scotland

Along with the global population, Scotland is in a period of significant agricultural and land-use transition, driven by the legally binding target of reducing emissions from agriculture by 31% within the next ten years. Simultaneously, we face a biodiversity crisis and the need to prepare our landscapes for a changing climate whilst navigating rising input costs and threats of food and fuel shortages caused by the war in Ukraine.

Already, this mounting pressure has had an impact on Scotland. Research recently published by the Scottish Land Commission found that farmland values rose by 31.2% in Scotland in 2021 against 6.2% across the UK due to emerging carbon and natural capital value and high timber prices. At the same time, The Trussell Trust reported an 81% increase in the need for food banks in their networks over the past five years. This surge of interest in Scotland’s land has driven up prices and increased the risks of widening rural inequality. Growing food insecurity figures reveal a systemic food crisis and a vulnerable system needing reform.

How Scotland tackles this climate of instability requires an integrated approach that meets the needs of its nation whilst addressing interconnected challenges on local and global levels. We need a solution that achieves sustainable food and agricultural systems capable of restoring ecosystems while increasing the resilience of farms to future natural or economic shocks and contributing to food security. One such solution which is steadily growing in recognition is agroecology. 

What is agroecology?

Agroecology is based on applying ecological principles to farming in sustainable and nature-friendly ways. Ecology focuses on the interactions between plants, animals, people and the environment. Agroecology focuses on applying ecological concepts to optimise and bring balance to these interactions.

Why now?

Agroecology is only just creeping into the mainstream in Scotland. Still, we have many farmers, crofters and growers working with nature here in Scotland, as our membership of the Nature Friendly Farming Network testifies.  What is changing is this growing recognition of agroecology as a solution.

“Agroecological approaches to farm management have significant potential to help Scotland tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity decline whilst building resilience into our food production systems. Additionally, through improving ecosystem health and economic/crop diversification, agroecology can help ensure that agricultural production systems are resilient to future challenges.” – ‘The potential for an agroecological approach in Scotland: Policy Brief’ 

NFFN Scotland came together in a unique partnership of organisations to run an agroecological knowledge exchange programme funded by the Scottish Government through the Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund (KTIF.)  Between January and March 2022, we worked with Nourish Scotland, Landworkers’ Alliance, The Food and farming Countryside Commission, Pasture for Life and Soil Association Scotland to run 15 learning events – 10 held on farms/crofts and five online. 

One of the fundamental aspects of agroecology is how traditional and community-level knowledge of farmers and crofters is central to finding practical solutions to local and global challenges, such as biodiversity loss and climate change.  Through this project, 28 participants hosted events with over 300 attendees sharing their knowledge, ideas and hopes for the future. 

Crofting Systems 

NFFN Scotland jointly facilitated three on-croft on the Isle of Lewis, Isle of Skye and Wester Ross with support from RSPB Scotland and promoted by the Scottish Crofting Federation. Crofting’s low-input and high nature value approach is vital for preserving some key species, and crofters have a unique opportunity to increase biodiversity across Scotland if the right support is available.

The first on-croft event was hosted by crofter Domhnall Macsween and Shona Morrison (RSPB Scotland) on the Isle of Lewis with discussions & demonstrations of NoFence collar technology. As part of the Corncrake Calling project, Domhnall has worked with RSPB Scotland to trial NoFence technology for conservation grazing at the Loch Stiapabhat reserve.

For the next event, we joined Helen O’Keefe and Tessa Dorrian in Elphin for an on-croft session exploring the opportunities and challenges of running a crofting township food hub.  Helen and Tessa run The Green Bowl, a group of crofters and non-crofters in Elphin and Knockan (NW Sutherland), working together to market, sell and distribute locally grown food to their community. Seven producers sell a range of meat (beef, pork and mutton), eggs, honey, vegetables, fruit, herbs, bread and other baking. Most sales are online, with weekly home deliveries to customers around Ullapool or pickups from Elphin. In the summer, they have a small farm shop, selling to tourists and residents. The session began in the Elphin Tearooms with a presentation and discussion, followed by a locally-sourced lunch with produce from The Green Bowl. The day finished with a tour around the township & individual crofts.

Crofter and NFFN Scotland Vice-Chair, Phil Knott hosted the final session on his croft at Wildlife Croft Skye, Drumfearn, Isle of Skye. This session looked at increasing fertility by working the croft regeneratively using nature-based solutions, especially with good pasture and woodland management. Phil was keen to demonstrate that biodiversity and food production aren’t mutually exclusive and that nature is a crucial ally. Everyone contributed their own stories and experiences as we looked at meadows, ponds, scrub, woodland and orchards.

As we enter the formal consultation of our new Agriculture Bill in Scotland, NFFN Scotland hopes farming and crofting in these ways will be supported by the next tranche of agricultural payments and grants. 

Agroecology: Facilitating Mindset Change Film Series

As one participant said: “There’s nothing like going into the field and seeing it and feeling it.”

As part of the project, we produced a series of short films capturing some of these farmer/crofter stories to document this stage of our agroecological transition in Scotland.

Watch all five films here:

What’s next

This project’s partners are committed to continuing to deliver this knowledge exchange programme and support farmers, crofters and growers at all stages of their agroecological journeys in Scotland.  We agree with the findings of a recent report that said: “Better recognition of current agroecological farming efforts and improved support (i.e. financial, knowledge) could encourage wider adoption of agroecological transitions.” –  The adoption of agroecological principles in Scottish farming and their contribution towards agricultural sustainability and resilience. 

Please get in touch if you are interested in finding out more and getting involved: kirsty.tait@nffn.org.uk