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Agroecology for resilient food systems – an inspirational day at SLU Alnarp

Agroecology students, professors, and guest lecturer Pablo Tittonell at Alnarp’s Agroecology Farm.
Photo: Marika Kronberg

On 19 May, on a hot and humid afternoon (by Swedish standards), it was time for the annual Agroecology Day to take place at the Alnarp campus of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. After two years of digital adaptations to the pandemic, agroecology enthusiasts once again had the chance to meet physically to discuss important issues. This year, the event was co-organised by SLU staff, headed by prof. Teun Dekker at the Department of Plant Protection Biology and a group of master’s students in agroecology who are also running Alnarp’s Agroecology Farm. The symposium’s theme was Ecosystem resilience for farm resilience, and to everyone’s delight, the renowned Argentinian researcher Pablo Tittonell was the guest speaker.

A holistic view on the agricultural system

At noon, just as the students returned from having given Tittonell a tour of their agroecology farm, SIANI’s intern arrived in Alnarp. The rapeseed fields surrounding the campus were bright yellow and the air carried a scent of lilac. A handkerchief tree was in full bloom right outside the campus restaurant, where the students invited Tittonell for lunch. This was a great opportunity to get to know each other better and discuss everyone’s favourite topic – agroecology. According to the policy brief Becoming an agroecologist, agroecology is about designing locally adapted and controlled farming systems that build on the functions of natural ecosystems, including agrobiodiversity, natural pest control and local nutrient cycling. As a holistic study of the agricultural system, agroecology deals with the effects of growing food from environmental, economic, and social standpoints.

Exchanging ideas from different perspectives

During the lunch discussion, the students expressed frustration over the fact that many people have difficulties grasping the concept. “Could agroecology be seen as a lens?” Tittonell considerately interposed with his views on the questions discussed. The group agreed on the benefit of having prior knowledge of agronomy or another academic discipline before going into agroecology. Or, as Tittonell put it: “You need to understand the system to be able to criticise it.” Co-creation of knowledge, both scientific and experiential, is important in agroecology. As an illustration of the multidisciplinary nature of agroecology, the students around the table had previously studied arts, economics, ethnology, and biology, respectively. In addition, the programme has a strong international focus, and the nationalities represented among the students were Switzerland, the UK, Germany, and Sweden.

The agroecology master’s students Caroline and Lily discussing with Pablo Tittonell.
Photo: Marika Kronberg

From soil microbiology to entire landscapes

It was time to seat for the symposium on-site or in front of Zoom. The symposium featured an introduction by Aneth David; her presentation was that a framework is needed to guide farmers on how to approach practices for soil health maintenance and restoration. The dynamic Pablo Tittonell then took the stage. Apart from explaining the merits of agroecology, he also highlighted the importance of understanding complexity in agroecosystems, having a slide full of calculations containing Greek letters to illustrate this, making the audience laugh. Teun Dekker discussed his research on the push-pull technology for pest management.

Pablo Tittonell presenting at the Agroecology Day symposium.
Photo: Marika Kronberg

Alnarp’s Agroecology Farm as a case study

Lastly, the students, Caroline and Lily, presented Alnarp’s Agroecology Farm as a case example and point of departure for discussions around how small farms can transform and become sustainable and resilient. Alnarp’s Agroecology Farm was started in 2021 by a group of passionate agroecology students to make it easier for them to gain farming skills and as a way of testing theory in practice. In a short time, two plots of land have already been established of 400 m2 and 800 m2 each. Taking a critical stance on the farm, the students shared reflections on the status of the project. Despite all the dedication and effort, the conclusion was that there is still a long way to go until the farm is sustainable.

Furthermore, the low connectivity is a problem, as large monocultures surround the farm. “How do we move from an island to a sea?” Tittonell came with good advice and tried to invigorate the group.

Caroline and Lily presenting Alnarp’s Agroecology Farm as a case study at the symposium.
Photo: Marika Kronberg

Dedicated students confronted with reality

After the symposium, Pablo Tittonell, professors, and students headed off to the farm again, this time for a photo session. The atmosphere was cheerful, and Tittonell was the first to dive to the ground to animate the photo and illustrate the close connection to the earth and the soil that they all share. For the next picture everyone grabbed some of the abundant radishes. Ready to harvest two weeks earlier than expected, the students were concerned about taking care of the radishes. Through the project, the ideological students, devoted to making food systems sustainable, have been confronted with reality. However, strengthened by Tittonell’s advice, the students seemed reassured that they are on the right track. With a bit of patience, the farm has good potential to become sustainable and resilient through the care of the generations of students that will come.

Pablo Tittonell, agroecology professors and students at Alnarp’s Agroecology Farm.
Photo: Marika Kronberg

The group with some of the radishes ready to harvest on the farm.
Photo: Marika Kronberg