The COVID-19 pandemic lays bare the ways in which unchecked consumption and unsustainable production can jeopardize life as we know it. Now, while what were previously day-to-day functions are paused, the time is ripe for a reckoning with our relationship to the sustainability of production and consumption networks in which all living organisms are enmeshed.
This moment highlights also the primacy of preserving delicate ecological systems in the way agricultural production takes place, evaluating the global supply systems which brought crisis to the fore, and reconfiguring the economic relationships which underlie these exchanges. Many experts now feel, in the words of ecological designer John Todd, that “the natural world is threatened by our inability to integrate our agriculture and industry within the great planetary cycles.” One way to depart from unsustainable practices is to build social and economic systems which liberate farmers to generate food in ways that restore biodiverse, rich cultivation cycles.
The regenerative agricultural movement and agroecological practices, while not synonymous, both point broadly to restorative and healthful metabolic interactions between soil, crops, and cultivators. More specifically, the term regenerative agriculture refers to “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change” by bolstering soil and biodiversity with holistic land management. Such regenerative techniques go hand-in-hand with agroecology practices.
Agroecology encompasses a plethora of scientific, cultural, political, and historical meanings. It was popularized in the early 1990s by the growth of the international Vía Campesina peasant movement, chiefly in Latin America and then elsewhere. The movement, which organizes its members under the umbrella of small-scale, sustainable agriculture, notably coined the term food sovereignty and named it as a pillar of its work. Campesina movement champions say agroecological practices are central to these farmers’ way of life and the wellbeing of society at large.
This way of producing food, agroecologists said on Bioneers Radio, “produces healthy, diverse foods and economic self-sufficiency while restoring landscapes,” thereby also breaking ties with corporate conglomerates which have come to dominate much of agricultural food production. These corporate giants occupy approximately 80 percent of global cropland by area, though 50-75 percent of the world’s food continues to be produced by small-scale, subsistence farmers. Having prioritized their national economies and the highest-yield potential of the land, many countries’ soil, health, and community economies have suffered. Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley, says prioritizing profits from large-scale agriculture crop exports over agroecology leads to monoculture, a loss of seed varieties, and “negative impacts on public health, ecosystem integrity, food quality, and in many cases disruption of traditional rural livelihoods, while accelerating indebtedness among thousands of farmers.”
Policy patchwork hinders growth in Europe
The European agricultural landscape is no exception to this trend—if anything, European Union policies have systematically fostered its growth. Two forces are at work here: European institutions reinforce the speculative market (meaning large-scale agribusiness thrives as a result), and young, landless farmers who would be disposed to engage in regenerative agriculture struggle to enter the job field, discouraged by the rising cost of land.
At the level of the European Union, agricultural land is governed by several somewhat contradictory policies. The result is prolific land-grabbing, corporate land concentrations, speculative practices, and closed doors to would-be small-scale agriculturalists. While country-level policies (and corresponding land prices) vary considerably, the overall trend in Europe is one of a dissociation between the productive capacity of agricultural land from the price of the land itself. Recognizing this, in 2004 the European Council and Parliament passed a set of policy guidelines which recognized the primacy of access to land for the achievement of a number of human rights standards but land access advocates Access to Land say “though these guidelines have been endorsed, very little recognition is afforded to them.” Meanwhile, land grabbing proliferates in Eastern Europe, where land prices are not yet as high as in Western Europe. While institutions like the European Economic and Social Committee on Land Grabbing have issued calls to cease large companies’ increased ownership of large swaths of land, sometimes by buying shares or ownership of land-holding companies, these strategies, among others, mean that just 3 percent of agricultural businesses in Europe control upwards of half the agricultural land on the continent. While land grabbing and concentration has been well-documented by institutions like the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (COMAGRI) of the European Parliament, and the Transnational Institute, calls for governance reform have gone largely unheeded.
While the European Union ostensibly supports sustainable farming practices, it undoes its own efforts in the form of its Common Agricultural Policy. Subsidies paid through this program are allocated on a per-hectare basis, rewarding corporations’ large-scale concentrations of agricultural land while also generating increases in the price of land. The effect is that small-scale farmers invested in their localities are not rewarded for committing to agroecological, regenerative practices. Rather, they are financially prevented from doing so, as half of these farmers receive less than 500 Euros annually.
This means that farmers are more likely to age in place, unable and unwilling to pass along their farms to younger apprentices, and that the race to the bottom has few policy brakes in place. By Eurostat’s most recent measures, not even 6 percent of farmers were younger than 35, and more than 54 percent of farmers were older than 55. New farmers also face barriers, including a lack of training, mounting land prices, slow turnover, and insufficient subsidies from EU institutions to support agricultural practice that enriches local economies and soil health. Vía Campesina, Terre de Liens, and other European Access to Land movements have added their voices to a petition to the European Parliament, calling for policy reform.
New economies for liberated agriculture
These crossroads call for renewed economic underpinnings which prize commoning, reward regenerative tactics instead of reprimanding small-scale farmers for using them, and cultivate community economies richly imbued with values leading to the best possible human and environmental livelihoods. Seeing the necessity of these changes, some localities have set criteria which foster non-exploitative aims. The city of Amsterdam, for example, has declared that it will embrace the ‘doughnut economics’ model pioneered by economist Kate Raworth for transforming the city’s priorities and actions. Yet in lieu of a universal political response, other mechanisms for removing land from speculative land markets have the potential to secure tenure of use for small-scale farmers such that regenerative agriculture and agroecology are paramount.
Community Land Trusts offer a way to reconcile the dual exploitation which harms both the metabolic systems of soil and the livelihoods of landless farmers. They may do so by ensuring permanent access to localities and delineating certain land use stipulations which promote carbon sequestration, avoid monoculture, or support the growth of organic produce. Trust models are as varied and widely-applicable as the social and ecological demands that they seek to meet. They have been used across the globe as a means of securing rural land for conservation, in urban spaces for social housing, and even as a mechanism for integrating informal settlements. In the European context, Terre de Liens models how a land trust may integrate with other socio-economic policies on the national level (in the case of France, by acting as a recipient of “solidarity funds” allocated by employees toward investment portfolios of their choosing). Yet, on the European level, funding support for rural agricultural trusts is largely absent. While the Sustainable Housing for Inclusive and Cohesive Cities initiative provides funding and resources to European trusts, the program is strictly urban.
The practice of land gifting offers a mechanism for creating regenerative agriculture trusts and growing them over time. At the time of a farmer’s retirement or during a moment of transition, should the land not be passed to descendants or sold on the open market, gifting land into a community trust ensures the area will be shielded from speculative land practices. Over time, the trust can come to occupy a greater and greater portion of land in a given locality, giving the community itself control over cultivation practices it wishes to be preserved—practices which correspond to the locality’s embedded histories, use of diverse seeds, and sustainable farming techniques.
This restructuring of economic possibilities and identities would be facilitated by political progress in support of agroecologist farmers at the European or country level. If European institutions reorient their funding priorities and political will toward a form of agricultural production which is at once supportive of local economies and denouncing of speculative practices, they may align with communities’ existing efforts to do so in the form of land trusts. Using trusts, and by turning the political tide away from capitalistic exploitation of the land, farmers may be liberated from prohibitive financial barriers to practice regenerative, restorative land cultivation. This is not only an opportunity to liberate a new generation of farmers to grow in this fashion—it is also perhaps a grave necessity, as this moment urgently brings to light. Without mechanisms in place to do so, small-scale agroecology farmers invested in their communities may be disproportionately vulnerable to price volatility and bare-bones social protections; yet, these farmers also stand to be front-runners in fortifying community economies and beginning the long-haul work of fostering truly restorative, regenerative ecologies. We might consider ourselves charged with partaking in this long trajectory and in advocating for the restructured economic realities required to bring about the conditions for a new kind of growth.