How Agroecology Can Support Food Security

16/05/2012 09:59 BST | Updated 15/07/2012 10:12 BST

The Environmental Audit Committee has published its Sustainable Food report, following an inquiry into Britain's food supply system.

The report warns that there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether genetically modified food produce can play a role in improving the supply of food, and calls for a long-term debate about how we can ensure the security of our food supply.

We need to acknowledge that food security is not just a third world problem. Food prices rose by 4.6% between March 2011 and March 2012. However, as most of us are able to afford to eat well, this fuels a perception that food security is not a problem in the UK. The key issue actually lies in how food security is interconnected with other serious issues.

The rise in food prices was largely responsible for pushing up the overall rate of inflation in the UK to 3.5% in March - this stalls progress towards the Bank of England's target, and takes money out of other sectors of the economy.

International food security also affects UK economic recovery. Increasing food prices are one of the biggest threats to the economies of China and India, both of which drive the UK's economic fortunes. There are about 60 countries which are classified as having an extreme or high risk of food related insecurity - conflicts overseas can jeopardise British trade.

At Coventry University we have a long track record for high-quality applied research in agroecology and food security, and based on our studies agroecology is an approach we would certainly advocate to help ensure food security - although at the same time we recognise that agroecology alone will not solve the growing problem of food security in the UK.

Agroecology is a range of simple farming techniques that improve crop yield by promoting naturally beneficial (and more cost effective) interactions between soil, nutrients, crops, pollinators, trees and livestock. Conventional ways to increase food production, such as using high-yielding crops, high levels of soluble fertilisers and pesticides, do not benefit the poorest farmers who cannot keep up with the increasingly high and unpredictable costs of these methods.

There are barriers to agroecological approaches being adopted more widely. In short there is lack of knowledge and access to information, and a lack of resources and technology. But there is a need to create more 'resilient' food systems, in the UK and worldwide, that is why we have established what we are calling a 'Grand Challenge Initiative' in collaboration with charity Garden Organic around Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security.

If we are going to mainstream agroecology - and in turn support the bigger challenge of ensuring food security - changes are required in relation to government policy, economic structuring, research, institutions and practice. In particular, and as always, business-as-usual won't wash. To make these changes requires a major re-education drive at all levels.

As well as this new knowledge (and possibly a more spiritual unfolding), the right intention or political will is also required, and this means introducing regulation in support of agroecology unless everyone is already singing to the same hymn sheet. If the priority is to increase companies' share prices, that is not the same hymn sheet as a priority to increase soil fertility and thereby producing more food.

None of this is new, strange or secret, of course. However, there is a strange phenomena in terms of the very opposing perspectives that are taken toward farming. Put simply, and to coin a term, either you are for nature or against it. There is little middle ground in terms of whether a specific farming practice is life promoting or life degrading. Agroecological production is about the promotion of life. So-called 'conventional' agriculture is definitely not.