By Sidney Ortun Flament, MPH, ISECN Professional Development Editor
While our food system is showing its limits, farming women and men continue to develop solutions to build a new model of producing and consuming food. It is important to put them in the spotlight, to encourage dialogue among them and with citizens to create synergies.
For several years, the intensive agriculture model has been showing its limits: soils get tired and eroded, farming practices have far from negligible consequences for both our health and the environment and also need more and more phytosanitary products to ensure yields. It is necessary to think about a new agriculture more respectful of the environment and needing less finite resources, know-how rich, combining modernity and traditional methods. An agriculture that stimulates and collaborates with soil, plots and ecosystem biodiversity. In turn, recreating a link between farm and fork, producers and consumers, countryside and cities.
Meanwhile, unemployment is growing, farms are disappearing (e.g. 200 farms per week in France), and there is a clear issue of generational renewal in farming.
Agroecology: an alternative way to enter the food system maintaining environment, health and society sustainability
Agroecology is a science and a social movement that combines cultural anthropology, humane and social ecology, public health and agronomy. This discipline does a critical review of farming industrialization and the conventional food system. It identifies the weaknesses of agriculture intensification concerning the environment (biodiversity loss, erosion, air and water contamination, greenhouse gases), economy (loss of farms viability) and public health (several pesticides molecules are endocrinal disrupters or potentially carcinogenic substances, biodiversity loss and soils erosion can modify the ecosystem and favor the development of disease vectors such as mosquitoes and ticks). It highlights the obvious correlation that exists between our health, what we eat and how we farm. Agroecology, as it pertains to farming production, embraces permaculture, organic farming and biodynamy principles etc. Agroecology also emphasizes the need of recovering traditional methods to develop sustainable farming through smaller farms with diversified productions, including a synergy with plants and animals and oriented to local markets, shortening the distribution channel.
In this context of general crisis, some courageous individuals decided to change their life in order to become farmers. We call them “new peasants”. Many of them choose agroecology as an alternative way to enter the food system, promoting both social and environmental sustainability along with food sovereignty and security. “An healthy soil is a requisite for a good nutrition”.
Not formatted by a farming family tradition, and based on their experience in other disciplines, new-peasants often turn out to be very innovative: they diversify their activities (tourism, co-working spaces), modify their distribution type (direct selling) and farming practices (plants association, no tilling). They can bring fresh ideas to agriculture by working with existing/traditional farmers to challenge the mainstream farming system.
They create employment, maintain the landscape, reactivate local markets, revive rural areas, raise consumers’ awareness and promote social rehabilitation of long term unemployed persons or persons with disabilities. Louise, who’s 50, used to be a nurse in a children’s hospital and decided to raise animals (goats, pigs and alpacas) on a small farm in a suburban area on a land lent by the municipality. She produces goat cheese and each weekend welcomes autistic children: “I was tired of living in the city, working in the hospital was too hard, I ended up discharging my batteries. Now, my nursing career really helps me to take care of the animals and particularly of the children who come to spend the day with the animals. It’s fascinating to see how they interact, how the animals keep the children focused and calm.” Louise combines the rearing with a vegetable garden for self-consumption and to provide the canteen for the local school: “I am always surprised to see how little the children (and often their parents) know about vegetables and animals, I think it is indispensable to reconnect them to the earth in order to build a future generation aware of the agricultural and food issues and willing to eat and even produce good products, both for our health and environment.”
Noelia, 34, who was a social educator in the south of Spain, is going to start a multifunctional micro-farm project combining laying hens with vegetables plot and beehives: “Hens feed on the vegetables waste, their droppings are a really good fertilizer for the vegetables, they lay eggs with a deep yellow egg yolk, meanwhile the bees pollinate the flours of vegetable garden and make a delicious honey, the consumers eat good and healthy vegetables and then bring their waste for my compost…and so on, …all the entities of the farm interact, the waste of ones are the resources of the others, nothing is lost everything is transformed!”
We should thank the farmers and the peasants who work hard daily to bring us quality products, to meet one of our basic needs and to feed us. “I want my consumers to be grateful, this would be a real driving force for me”, explains Owen, who, after working several years in England as a researcher in epidemiology, wants to restore old varieties of cereals, which are more nutritious than modern ones, and bake them to sell bread to schools and local markets in his home region.
This is a new urban–rural link, and a growing counter force to the dominant trend of rural outmigration. Many retiring farmers do not have a son or daughter who wants to take over the business. Simultaneously, many people are looking for land to start a new farm. More support and additional government interventions are needed to bring the two together, to support this movement further and to revitalize rural areas.
Neo-Agri association was founded to facilitate such crucial knowledge sharing and networking among new peasants and between them and established farmers.
Neo-Agri main missions are:
– Restore the image of the agricultural profession and bring back people to farming
– Support and assist the new-peasants
– Facilitate networking and co-construction from field to plate
– Promote agro-ecology for an agricultural transition