Sustainable agriculture and design: reflections on current challenges

Dr Vincent Walsh, founder of RegenfarmCo, Mycoloops and Herblabism, is an expert in the sustainable food and regenerative agriculture sectors. With a background in design, agricultural technologies and ecological support systems, Dr Walsh is an advocate for complexity, diversity and circularity. Here, he discusses how we can integrate future-proof solutions to ensure a more resilient, adaptable and sustainable agriculture sector in the UK.

“My interest in sustainable agriculture stems from my passion for understanding how the biosphere creates complexity in the natural world.

For example, more than 3.4 billion years ago the process of photosynthesis developed. This was the beginning of the Earth’s biosphere becoming circular; helping to establish an energetically ‘open’ and materially ‘closed’ ecological regenerative system.

Further, I think coming from a design background helps me to view things differently from more traditional approaches to farming. I think about design principles first and foremost, and I’m fascinated with how we can try and mimic and implement natural processes within contemporary agricultural systems.

After all, the biosphere has created intricate, resilient and adaptable ecosystems over billions of years which work perfectly, so why wouldn’t we use these as the foundation for future farming?

And even if we’ve largely forgotten our agrarian origins, we’ve clearly got the scientific knowledge and technical capabilities to create complex ecosystems which underpin food systems that are not only commercially viable, but also environmentally friendly.

By maintaining a monoculture approach – with little resilience or adaptability – we will simply continue to be tied to a dependency on pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. We need to move away from the status quo and implement strategies that will encourage the start of this transition.

That’s simply not sustainable.

Mitigating climate change

Coming out of COP27, we know that we are still on course for a +1.3°C global warming scenario. If we continue on that path for the next century, the effects will be devastating.

Even now the biosphere is hyperventilating in the same way humans would if deprived of oxygen. As a result, we see catastrophic events and unprecedented disruption around the world: the recent floods in Pakistan and uncontrollable wildfires in the U.S. and Australia to name a few. We need to be making changes now, and we need to implement them fast.

In terms of food production’s role in helping to mitigate the threat of climate change, we’ve known for a long time what needs to be done – innovate right at the farm. Starting with the very soil our farms stand on, recreating those complex biospheric ecosystems at farm level will be a key element in building a more sustainable agricultural future.

A cyclical food chain

But it’s crucial that we don’t forget the circularity element. Any high-functioning food growing and cultivation system must be able to upcycle and create more valuable products over time.

A good example of this is the vast amounts of waste food companies generate. From leftover produce to discarded packaging, such waste could have real value in other parts of the food chain, including the very farms where the ingredients originated.

There is also a need to develop more hyper-localised food chains, especially those that help to reduce the amount of transport needed to get both raw produce and packaged goods from A to B.

Through my collaborations with a number of major food companies, I can say that many are now making the effort to significantly reduce the volume of freight which is used across their supply chains. And while this is very encouraging, much more needs to be done, and I think there needs to be far more conversations between growers, manufacturers, retailers, and the hospitality industry, to identify where in their respective supply chains potential sustainability gains might lay.

This collaborative approach is equally needed across all areas of the food chain. Even with a total commitment to decarbonised cultivation, farmers and growers cannot implement such changes on their own, and neither can most food companies. The answer lies in partnerships, common goals, and adopting an integrated approach to get there.

A design-led approach

We also need to remember that one size will never fit all, and that we need to apply a bespoke, design-led approach – with diversity at its very heart – to ensure we maximise the ecological, nutritional and commercial return on every acre of land we are farming.

I’m not naïve about how hard it will be the for the farming and food industries to embrace the ambition – and to implement the innovation – needed to get us on the road to regenerative and sustainable farming. But my experience of developing and launching the Biohub at Ings Farm, a 37-hectare agroforestry demonstrator site in North Yorkshire, suggests that many in the food and farming world are ready for new ideas and adopting new ways of working.

The land which where the Biohub project is based was until very recently farmed by 78-year-old Derek Greenwood. Derek had worked this plot, and the surrounding fields, since he was a young boy and has only ever know the traditional post-war approach to UK farming.

Silver pasture system

However, his enthusiasm for what we are doing at the Biohub has been incredible, and he is actively supporting us as we transition from a sheep farming system to a regenerative silver pasture system.

The silver pasture approach is based on the integration of different production trees, shrubs and plants, and eventually livestock, which will help to create a balanced ecosystem. In turn this ecosystem will support the growing of perennial food crops that are suited to the UK’s climate, while simultaneously increasing the land’s capacity for carbon capture.

If we can get farmers like Derek excited about regenerative processes, and more commercial partners such as Levy UK and Quorn to support projects like the Biohub at Ings Farm, then we have a real chance to move towards a more sustainable and more resilient approach to UK farming.

Or in other words, if Derek is up for it, then what’s stopping the rest of us?

Visit RegenfarmCo, Mycoloops, or Herblabism to learn more!


Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.