Whilst the transformation of agriculture in the last century did see in much in the way of social and productivity progress, it must be acknowledged that current conventional agriculture practices are unsustainable.
In recent years, various reports have highlighted our dependence on fossil fuels, a massive decline in biodiversity, a loss of crop diversity, the rate of soil erosion and degradation and its impact on our longer term productivity, water pollution, the association between intensive livestock rearing and antibiotic resistance, and the impact on farmers themselves in terms of personal financial sustainability and wellbeing.
As the 21st century progresses we are faced with issues including climate change, Brexit, growing populations looking at the rural landscape to provide not just food but housing and recreation, and the increasing problem of diet-related ill health in the UK. The need for a new approach is clear.
The Dartington Hall Trust aspires to position our estate at the forefront of experimental land use as an exemplar of diversity and rural regeneration. We’ve started to realise this aspiration through our first Land Use Review, but now we’re honing our delivery and delivery system to focus on agroecology as delivered through a permaculture design process. This approach forms the basis of Land Use Review II.
So why agroecology? Agroecology refers to the “use of ecological concepts and principles for the design and management of sustainable agriculture systems” (Altieri 1995). Essentially, if conventional farming is currently very monoculture, then agroecology endeavours to create a polyculture – replicating local ecosystems with the intention of boosting both agricultural output but also biodiversity.
It’s a system which perceives value in complexity, diversification, collaboration, combining scientific and traditional knowledge with experimental learning, and is community orientated. Which is why we feel agroecology sits very well Dartington’s overarching purpose of facilitating a ‘many-sided’ life for all.
It’s also a reflection on the last few years of the Land Use Review, where we have seen that those projects which take a more agroecological approach are often the most resilient and productive – not just in food output or commercial terms but also in social value. We want to recognise those successes and create a supportive environmental for such projects to continue, experiment, progress and be replicated.
Our intention is to use a permaculture design approach to delivering a more agroecological estate. It’s an approach which shares values with agroecology, but also makes clear space for people. Use of the permaculture principles to inform our design process will enable us to deliver non-agriculture functions, not just caring for our biodiversity but also our community of visitors, residents and staff, endeavouring to create the appropriate landscape for them to enjoy and find benefit from.
We are open to finding answers in surprising places – and are not wedded to any fixed idea or outcome. Our primary aim is to involve our community in the process of developing a framework for the future. We know that experimentation means that there will be pitfalls that we will need to navigate and problems we need to solve – and we hope that others will learn from our mistakes as much as they will from our successes.
Now you’ve read about the ‘why’, please take a moment to help us choose a mission statement, or visit our co-creation portal to have your say on how we actually bring this approach to life across our land and estate.