Finding the Middle Ground: Social–ecological Farming as a Solution to a Polarized Debate

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Arjan Wijnstra cuts grass with his Fjord horses.

Our global food system has two opposing faces. It has almost one billion people suffering from hunger, while nearly the same number suffers from obesity. This is also a world where people struggle daily to obtain enough food, and where people waste more than that same amount every day. Global warming and extreme weather events are expected to increase the volatility of ecosystems and thereby stunt the productivity of agriculture. One recent study estimates that even a 1°C increase in global temperature will reduce wheat yields worldwide by six percent.1 The question of how to secure global food production is thus as pertinent as ever. Yet, the proposed solutions are often contradictory, creating a polarized debate represented by stark trade-offs.

Maintaining global food security is for some primarily a technical question of doubling or tripling food production.2 Solutions such as precision agriculture that use satellite technology for maximum efficiency and sustainable intensification that aims to increase food production on existing farmland are not really solutions – they don’t address the issue of the vast levels of fossil fuels needed to produce a limited number of crops and animal varieties.3,4 The loss of agricultural diversity in turn contributes to global food insecurity as harvests become increasingly vulnerable to price fluctuations and extreme weather events. And often, it is the poorer members of the global population that suffer from spikes in food prices.5 Faced with these ecological and social issues, some agronomists urge a return to small-scale and diversified food production.6,7

These opposing visions in the debate over the future of food production are mirrored in a bipolar structure of agriculture worldwide, which includes a small number of very large modernized farms with high levels of specialized output and a larger group of small scale, family-owned, mixed-output farms. In the general debate, these groups and associated visions for agrarian development are often pitted against each other: small-scale versus large-scale agriculture,8 sharing versus sparing land for ‘nature,9 industrial versus family farming, agroecology versus biotechnology. But these stark contrasts blur when we move down to consider how individual farmers are creating working solutions by patching together traditional and modern knowledge and tools to create a social–ecological balance between land, plants and animals, farm households, and rural and urban communities.10,11

Farming is an inherently context-dependent and hybrid coproduction between humans and ecological resources and services. One example of this is the use of horse power, a seemingly out-of-date technology that’s being rediscovered in the Netherlands as a way to help farmers find a balance between economic, social, and environmental needs.

Take the farm of Arjan and Natasja between Vorden and Ruurlo in Eastern Netherlands. Arjan and Natasja rely on horses to power farming on their small eight-hectare plot where they produce milk, cheese, butter, meat, and fruit for the local community (they also have careers as professional photographers and journalists.) The Fjord ponies make hay (including moving, turning and tedding, windrowing, and carting), spread manure, seed and plant, haul loads, and do other odd transportation jobs. By going back to horses, Arjan and Natasja are not going back in time, because horse-drawn equipment has kept up with time. Thanks to the work of Amish farmers in the United States, tools and machines for horses have continuously been innovated and improved. They still use the tractor for jobs that require a lot of power (baling hay) or speed (getting the hay in the barn when rain is coming), and working the plots that are located at some distance from the farm. The combination of modern and traditional technology has obvious economic and material benefits, but there are also more intangible reasons why Arjan and Natasja like working with the Fjords, explained Arjan:

They are really the solution to problems we faced with higher costs of fuel and the compaction of our soils due to the use of heavy machines. The horses cost very little because they live off the land they work, and horse feet do far less damage to soft ground compared to a 3.5-ton tractor. And of course we like horses. They give a tremendous pleasure working with them, and a sense of purpose, of farming right. And we became fed up with having to deal with machinery that we couldn’t fix ourselves. Horse-drawn equipment is relatively simple in design. It can be repaired with our own tools and know-how.

Horses, in this example, offer a solution that’s perhaps not optimal from an economist’s point of view—it requires long working hours against a modest income—and it is context-specific solution. This means, in other words, that a return to horses is surely no overall cure for the problems that come with our current food production.

But rather, what this example highlights is how integrating and connecting modern and traditional ways of farming can be a local solution to global problems.12–15

Dome/ Earth Net Foundation
Mathana Aphaimool works on organic seed production on her family farm in Maetha village, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

There are other farming solutions that bring the same philosophy to an urban setting. Over 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and this is expected to double by 2050,16 as more young people all over the world fail to see a future in farming and move to urban centers. In Thailand, some of the factors that drive young people off the land are lack of job opportunities, back-breaking work for very little pay, and the promise of an easier life in the cities.17 A group of young Thai women have sought to buck this trend by connecting urban and rural landscapes to produce food that is safe, organic, and sustainable.

Kanya Duchita and Mathana Aphaimool both left their rural homes to move to Bangkok where they pursued university degrees and landed good jobs in the nongovernmental sector. Yet, city life did not suit them very well. They spent all their free time commuting, the money they earned was used on food, which they found neither delicious nor nutritious, and they missed being in nature.

After a few years, both moved back to the communities in which they were born to take over their families’ farms. Many young women followed Kanya and Mathana back to their villages and have established alternative opportunities for on-farm livelihoods. On their farms, they now combine modern marketing techniques and agronomy that they were taught at university with centuries-old knowledge passed down through their families.

Today, Kanya goes to her agroforestry plot every day to collect various foodstuffs that she and her family and friends eat, and which she trades with her neighbors for rice—something her family has done for generations. Unlike her ancestors, she not only farms for food; the agroforestry plot also supplies her organic ingredients to make natural beauty products, which she sells for additional income. Moreover, she also helps run the Wanakaset (agroforestry) Learning Centre.

Mathana currently runs a small community farm in Chang Mai and has initiated a local seed-saving bank together with a center of learning and knowledge exchange. The center attracts visitors from as far as Europe, who come to learn about the techniques of organic farming. This solution offers organic products for regional consumption, has ecological benefits compared to the intensive conventional rice farming, and creates a strong sense of social and cultural identity for a place and group of farmers.

Both the Dutch and Thai examples show how farmers can escape the polarized dichotomy that congeals the debate on global food security and the future of farming. The examples demonstrate that the differences between traditional and modern, small and large-scale farming, or family and corporate farming are not as incommensurable as often is believed.

Framing agrarian development as a global question invites black-and-white answers. What we are missing in this debate is an appreciation of farming and agriculture as the hybrid and improvised results of coproduction between local, social, and ecological resources.19 What we need is more attention to the diversity and hybridity of solutions. Solutions of middle-ground farming are never optimal but come with different trade-offs.20 Which solution works is highly context-dependent, making the assessment of the global performance of agrarian development a recurrent empirical and local investigation.


Jamila Haider is grateful for funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no. 283950 SES-LINK. Wiebren Boonstra is supported by the FORMAS Project Grant (No. 2013-1293) ‘Working knowledge in Swedish coastal fishery—Making cultural capital visible for sustainable use of coastal sea and landscapes.’ Mistra supported this research through a core grant to the Stockholm Resilience Centre.


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