Socio-ecological Transformation of Agriculture and Food Systems
On a planet with limited resources, our unsustainable way of life, geared towards infinite growth has resulted in multiple, simultaneous, and interrelated crises. According to some scientific predictions, human civilisation could crumble by 2050 if we don’t take drastic actions to stop climate change now. It is therefore essential to understand that humanity needs to overcome this development path that leads to social and environmental tragedies and move towards more resilient, socially just and ecologically sustainable systems.
Athina Koutsouki is a PhD Candidate in Agricultural Economics.
A sustainable future requires change and transformation. For many leftist theorists the associated cultural, socio-ecological, or technical changes are summarised under the term of “socio-ecological transformation”. The concept of socio-ecological transformation combines alternative approaches and understandings of development with the purpose of changing living and working conditions, production, and lifestyles. The main goal is to address social and ecological issues alongside each other and bring together movements and actors in opposition to the reigning capitalist growth and development model. The socio-ecological transformation offers a coherent way to reconnect nature and society. Therefore, it requires the participation of the people and the development of networks between all involved actors within and across national borders .
In this effort to brake national boundaries and strengthen collective struggles, 25 students and experts of various disciplines, from Germany and Vietnam, participated in a knowledge exchange program to learn about climate change, sustainable initiatives, and community actions. The program “Vietnam-Germany Exchange on Socioecological Challenges” which was organised by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (RLS) and the Center for the Development of Community Initiatives and the Environment (C&E), took place in August-September 2022 in Germany and March 2023 in Vietnam. We shared knowledge, experiences, and ideas on current socio-ecological transformation approaches in Germany and Vietnam. Energy, transportation, agriculture, tourism, and gender inequality were in the spotlight of the program. We combined theory with practice and bridged local actions with global movements. Through interactive presentations, case studies, field trip excursions and team building activities we learned from each other and linked the knowledge of the past with the innovations of today.
As an agronomist-environmental scientist myself, I focus on the complex socioeconomic and environmental aspects of agriculture and food production systems. Agriculture is essential for human survival. It is an important economic sector that affects our nutrition and quality of life. It also possesses the power to harm or heal as the interactions between agriculture and the environment are complex and mutual.
The Power of Agriculture and Food Systems
A great diversity of agriculture and food systems have been developed through the years and have radically transformed human societies all around the globe. Complex geological, topographic, and climatic conditions along with regional land use activities and customs have shaped the landscapes and influenced the development of biodiversity rich habitats. Traditional low intensity farming practices, closely adapted to the local environmental, social, and economic conditions, have contributed significantly to this process.
The rapid modernization and mechanisation of agricultural production worldwide in the second half of the 20th century has led to the rapid decline of traditional farming systems and family farms. Industrialised, neoliberal, global-scale agricultural systems have contributed to a wide range of socio-ecological problems including environmental degradation, loss of ecosystem resilience and the demise of local food systems. Today, agriculture and food systems are responsible for well over a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, 80% of global deforestation, approximately 60% of global terrestrial biodiversity loss and a range of other urgent environmental, social and health issues . Simultaneously, the extreme weather events of the last years, all linked to climate change, have direct impacts on food systems, food security and resilience of rural communities.
The need to make agriculture more ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable has become more prominent than ever before in our history. Acknowledging this need, new social forms of agriculture have arisen with the aim to make a substantial contribution in improving sustainability and transforming the agriculture and food systems. Forest or community gardens, community supported agriculture, vertical farming, social farming, and regenerative agriculture are only some of the numerous new movements and innovations that attempt to change consumer behaviour and achieve substantial social, ecological, and economic goals.
Experiences from Germany
European and German agricultural policies have evolved throughout the years to meet changing economic circumstances and citizens’ requirements and needs. Increasing production has always been an important goal, but today environmental and social targets are gradually gaining prominence. However, despite the multiple reforms, the current agricultural policy in Europe and Germany hasn’t achieved its goals. It maintains an expensive, unsustainable system where farmers are extremely dependent on public subsidies, profit margins are low, the prices for farm products are very volatile and the number of small-scale farmers has sharply declined.
Agricultural policies need to be thoroughly revised and socio-ecological challenges related to agriculture and food systems need to be addressed systematically. New forms and types of land management, farming practices and market relationships should be supported.
Numerous niche innovations and movements have emerged in recent years with great potential to contribute to the necessary socio-ecological transformation of agriculture and food systems. During the program we focused on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), an alternative system of distribution based on community values and solidarity that can contribute to the transformation of the food system.
CSA is a direct partnership between a group of consumers and producer(s) whereby the risks, responsibilities and rewards of farming activities are shared through long-term agreements. Generally operating on small, local scale, CSA aims at providing quality food produced in an agroecological way. This way:
- consumers get fresh food from a nearby farm, produced by farmers who they know,
- farmers get good working conditions and produce for people they know,
- production practices are based on ecological principles and most CSA operations are organically farmed.
The concept of Community Supported Agriculture was first developed in Japan in the early 1970s and at about the same time began to grow in Europe. The first CSA farm in Germany, Buschberghof, was founded in 1988 and in the following fifteen years only three further CSAs were set up. Between 2003 and 2007, the number doubled to eight CSAs. After this, and with the establishment of a national network, the movement grew very dynamically. Today, approximately 90 CSA farms are operating, and another 100 farms are in preparation . The dynamics of the German CSA movement are of high interest as we see that the need of people to reconnect with nature and improve their nutrition and food consumption is growing exponentially fast.
We visited Hofkollektiv Bienenwerder, a CSA farm, located in the region of Brandenburg in the east of Berlin. The farm was grounded in 2004 and is organized without a hierarchical structure. The food is organic, the decisions are collective and the motto on their website reads: “No Masters, No Servants”.
We walked through the organic vegetable cultivations, we met the cows, goats, horses, chickens, and ducks of the farm and we tasted delicious homemade snacks and herbal tea. Around 12 to 15 people from different generations live, work and study on the farm. They shared with us the principles of solidarity agriculture, their way of life and political struggles.
The farm’s organic vegetables are delivered directly to consumers in the surrounding areas and in Berlin, as well as to collectively-run organic shops in the city. Consumers usually pay a fixed monthly amount all year long, for which they receive vegetables, herbs, and other agricultural products. In this way, even if there is a poor harvest, something bound to happen more often due to climate change, the farmers can survive financially. The ambition of Hofkollektiv Bienenwerder is to make organic food at an affordable price.
The farm is involved in a wide range of different topics related to nature conservation and landscape management. They try out alternative cultivation methods, they promote the conservation of endangered livestock breeds and the preservation of old vegetable varieties. They organise regular workshops and seminars to bring their work and knowledge closer to other farmers and interested people from the city. Equally important is their active participation in campaigns, activities, and protests, together with other farmers, for a more sustainable agriculture and food sector.
Experiences from Vietnam
The agricultural sector in Vietnam has undergone a massive transformation over the past thirty years and played an important role in the development of the country. The sector is dominated by small, part-time household farms and primary agriculture continues to play a very important role in employment and livelihoods. Agricultural growth has been achieved through expansion and intensification of land use and other natural resources, and the excessive use of fertilizer and agrochemicals. The country has achieved explosive growth in agricultural exports and now ranks among the top five global exporters in products as diverse as rice, coffee, shrimp, cashews, and pepper .
Intensification of production and poor waste management practices have caused negative environmental impacts. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are rising drastically and have become three times higher than those caused by the industrial sector in Vietnam. Traditional ecological farming systems, integrating both perennial and annual plants, herbs, and vegetables are in sharp decline. At the same time, the agro-food sector faces significant resilience challenges from climate change impacts including sea level rises, droughts, and severe storm events .
With the aim to restore a harmonious nature-human balance and interaction, various initiatives have been emerged within the last years. They combine selected climate-smart agriculture practices and technologies for production systems with traditional knowledge and techniques. In Vietnam, we had the chance to visit two initiatives that bring communities together and use ecological and local values to combat environmental degradation, social inequalities, and cultural loss.
Thanh Dong Organic Farm
Thanh Dong Organic Farm was founded in 2013 in the Cam Thanh countryside, near the ancient town of Hoi An in central Vietnam. The farm is run by a cooperative of 10 families and is the first organic farm in the region. The initiative has been supported by the municipal council, NGOs, the University of Da Nang and most importantly by the farmers of the local community.
In an area of over 10.000 square meters, surrounded by a tall fence from elephant grass, the farmers of the cooperative cultivate a wide range of vegetables, herbs and flowers using organic and natural farming methods. In close cooperation with the University of Da Nang, the farmers have been trained in organic methods and techniques and today they make their own chemical-free fertilizers and pesticides using all natural materials like chilis, onions, manure, etc. Their products are certified to confirm that they meet the organic standards, and the packaging label lists the name of the farmer and date of harvest for improved traceability. They ship their products every morning to organic shops in the nearby big cities, but they also offer tours in the farm and cooking classes. The highlight of our visit to the farm was learning how the cooperative helped farmers to increase their income and create a healthy environment for themselves and the produce they grow.
Taboo Bamboo Workshop
It is said when tradition meets modernity, wonders can happen. This phrase pops up in my mind when I am thinking about the Taboo Bamboo Workshop. A sustainable bamboo craft and preservation centre in the middle of the Cam Thanh nipa palm forest, near Hoi An city.
The Taboo Bamboo Workshop was established in 2012 by Vo Tan Tan and is the first sustainable, zero-waste, low-carbon bamboo production site in Hoi An. Tan, together with his skilled craftsmen create unique, innovative bamboo products. All the designs and creations are handmade, using traditional production techniques passed down from generation to generation. Furniture, toys for children, household commodities and decorative items, cases for smartphones and even bamboo bicycles can be found there. Besides creating and selling products, the Taboo workshop offers a bamboo craft tour, where visitors can learn about the story of the local bamboo craft and make their own bamboo souvenirs. The vision of the Taboo workshop is to preserve the traditional bamboo craft as a fundamental part of the cultural heritage and raise public awareness on the environmental values of traditional bamboo processing and harvesting methods.
For hundreds of years, traditional bamboo craftwork has evolved in harmony with nature and provided an important source for building materials, utility items and income for local people. However, due to the ongoing urbanisation and massive development of touristic places and activities in the region, traditional occupations have been abandoned. Along this process, the rural landscape and cultural identity of the local communities has been changed rapidly. Today, the development of mass and poorly managed touristic activities has resulted not only in significant environmental pollution but also in the creation of conflict and unfair competition among the villagers, damaging the neighbourhood relationships and social structures.
Conclusion: From Zero to Hero
Successful socio-ecological initiatives and movements against global trends and capitalistic behaviour have indicated that change can happen. Dedicated people with innovative ideas and visions have challenged the hegemonic hierarchies of the current unsustainable, production and consumption system. Sometimes, against all odds, they attempt to restore environmental degradation, social inequalities, and cultural loss building on ecological and social values. It is an effort that we all should embrace and actively participate to rebuild sustainable rural economies, increase rural prosperity, ensure access to nutritious food, and protect our nature. For achieving positive and tangible results the social-ecological transformation of the agriculture and food sector needs to be a collective action on a global scale.
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