Agroecology is receiving increasing attention for its potential to reconcile environmental, sustainability and food production goals, through restoring the health of agricultural ecosystems and increasing the resilience of farms to future challenges.
This study examines five different agroecological approaches that are currently practised in Scotland to determine their potential to support the delivery of policy targets relating to climate change, biodiversity, and food production. The approaches are: agroforestry, low-input systems, organic, integrated farm management (IFM) and regenerative agriculture.
- The five models investigated showed considerable overlap in the farming practices typically adopted and there was no fixed boundary between these models. The models were also not mutually exclusive (e.g. an organic farm may also practise agroforestry).
- Regenerative agriculture, integrated farm management (IFM) and organic farming had the widest range of practices considered as ‘core’ reflecting their broad scope and ‘toolbox’ approach to select practices appropriate to specific locations and circumstances.
- Agroecological approaches are strongly knowledge focused with the farmer as the central decision-maker. A prescriptive set of practices for each model, therefore, goes against the grain. Farming system, geographical location, resource availability, constraints, mindset and priorities of the farmer, all influence the practices adopted under any specific agroecological model.
- A farm-scale shift towards an agroecological model requires expertise, commitment and, in some instances, significant investment. With a typical delay before agronomic benefits are realised, farms need the financial capacity to buffer the economic costs of transitioning.
- Labelling or certification to increase the market value of agroecological produce may incentivise farmers to adopt agroecological approaches. However, ensuring consumer demand and willingness to pay presents a challenge.
- Outcome-based approaches, whether for certification or agri-environment purposes, require robust, user-friendly metrics, to enable farmers to monitor and benchmark performance and adapt management to optimise outcomes.
- The five agroecological models have the potential to reduce adverse environmental impacts associated with intensive agricultural production at the farm level.
- While agroforestry and IFM were perceived to match yields attained in conventional systems, organic, regenerative agriculture and low-input systems were perceived to be lower yielding. However, all models were perceived to increase farm resilience and stabilise yields either slightly (low input and organic) or intermediately (agroforestry, regenerative, IFM).
- The potential of agroecological approaches to deliver environmental outcomes depends on efficiently using land and external inputs.
- Identifying synergies and trade-offs is vital to help us design agroecological systems that optimise economic, food security and indeed social outcomes. There is a lack of system-based research that concurrently explores evidence for a diversity of outcomes in the Scottish context.