The future of farming: how agroecology can transform the food system

August 26, 2022

Most of the food we find in the grocery store these days is produced as part of the industrial food system. We’re dependent on large-scale production of just a few varieties for everything from the vegetables we eat, to the cereal we feed our children. 

But it wasn’t always this way! For thousands of years, our food system relied on immense biodiversity. Farmers all over the world grew smaller, more diverse plots of food using seeds adapted to local and regional growing conditions. They nurtured soil health so that plants didn’t need chemical pesticides or fertilizers to survive. 

SeedChange’s partners – both globally and in Canada – continue to be stewards of this kind of life-giving seed diversity. They understand that locally adapted seeds grown using ecological methods are the key to cultivating a resilient food system. And they are committed to continuing to practice agroecology.  

What is agroecology? 

Recently, two of SeedChange’s directors (Beatriz Oliver, Director of International Programs, and Aabir Dey, Director of the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security) were featured on the podcast Talking Radical Radio to talk about these alternative visions for a healthy food system rooted in agroecology.

Agroecology is an approach to food production that works with nature in order to function. Agroecological farming systems use nature to keep the soil healthy, reduce the impact of pests, deliver nutrients to crops, and produce abundant food. 

Biodiversity is the key to food system resilience under agroecology. Having a biodiverse farm means that if you lose one variety of corn to a pest, you have other varieties that you can depend on. It also means that you can select seeds based on what is growing best, allowing for ongoing adaptation to changing growing conditions on your particular farm. 

Importantly, agroecology also has a political dimension, which Aabir explores in the interview: “There’s the ecological practical changes that need to happen but there’s also a very strong social and political dimension [to agroecology] that values farmers’ rights, access to seed, the wellbeing of communities, providing food sovereignty…all of that is tied into agroecology. ” 

Agroecology demands not only that the food system integrate more ecological techniques, but also that we recognize how farmers’ rights and ecological health are interconnected. 

How does agroecology differ from our current industrial food system? 

After World War II, agriculture on a global scale underwent a major shift. Governments and international financial institutions pushed for a shift towards crop varieties that produced higher yields, but only with help from heavy applications of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. This shift is often referred to as the Green Revolution. 

The Green Revolution transformed agriculture from a system of food production that worked with nature’s cycles to one with a huge negative environmental impact. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers deplete soil nutrients and increase our reliance on fossil fuels in farming. 

Many small and medium-scale farmers either went into debt to pay for these inputs, or had to sell their plots of land to large-scale producers who had enough capital to sustain this kind of model. It became difficult for farmers committed to traditional farming to make a living, forcing many to move to urban areas. 

Agroecology recognizes that industrial farming is not sustainable in the long term. At stake is the wellbeing of people forced to abandon their way of life and the wellbeing of the land they steward. 

What should the future of farming look like? 

Industrial and traditional farming present two different and competing visions for what the food system could look like. But as Beatriz presents in this interview, farmers at any scale can integrate more agroecological practices into their work: 

“Ideally both [farming systems] can move towards agroecology. The industrial approach can be agroecological. And agroecology, it’s not just for small farms. It can help in all farming systems. Agroecology is a model that can help transition away from harmful practices in agriculture.” 

Critically, a widespread shift towards agroecology demands that we also centre farmer leadership in shaping food and farming policies. 

““Farmers need to be at the table, they need to be the ones that are leading discussions on seed policies. They are the most affected. And for the partners we work with, their communities rely so much on farmer seed systems, and they require that state seed systems support and recognize what they do. In most cases, […] farmers’ rights are not recognized or supported in seed laws. On the contrary, the seed laws are restrictive, so farmers’ rights to freely save, exchange and sell their seeds is often limited.”

Beatriz Oliver, Director International Programs, SeedChange

SeedChange’s partners are leading the way

Our programs recognize that farmers are already leaders in their communities and globally when it comes to advocating for their rights and building a more just food system. 

““The farmers that are engaged with adopting those types of ecological practices are the ones that our program believes should be leading the way in terms of how the food and farming system needs to change.”

Aabir Dey, Canadian Field Program, SeedChange

Agroecological farming – in its practical and political dimensions – has the potential to transform our whole food system from the ground up. Our partners are engaging in this work every day by saving seed, creating diversity, and advocating for their rights.