Feeding local communities without destroying the planet is one of this century’s most intractable global challenges. While sometimes generating short-term increases in production, industrial approaches to food and agriculture are now understood to cause rising levels of ecological degradation, climate change, inequality, declining livelihoods on farms, growing food and nutrition insecurity and violence.
In this context, farmers’ organisations, citizens, social movements and some researchers across the world are calling for a new paradigm shift in our agriculture and food systems based on the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty.
Under the framework of DARE, a European Commission-funded project on horizontal learning approaches and good practices on sustainable food and farming systems, project partners have debated on a particular strategy to push for this social transformation: the democratization of agricultural research. As part of this debate on current governance models for agricultural research, partners called for changes both within the institutionalized public research system and also the area of farmer- and citizen-led research and innovation.
The agendas of public funding bodies, universities and other research institutions are being driven by corporate interests and must be reclaimed by citizens and farmers to be transformed to serve the public good.
The practice and politics of research and science in food and agriculture are increasingly determined by the interests of large-scale, corporate, export-oriented agriculture. This means that commercialisable science and technocratic innovation are prioritised, while the invaluable expertise and knowledge on environmentally and culturally appropriate food production held by farmers, citizens, small and medium-sized enterprises, indigenous peoples, fisherfolk and social movements is marginalised.
To overlook this grassroots knowledge is to miss out on the experience and innovation essential to the development of sustainable food systems. The wealth of knowledge generated in fields, community supported agriculture schemes, markets, farmer groups and civil society organisations is largely unrecognized by and evolves outside of formal institutions. Yet it is key to tackling many of the complex and interlinked environmental and social challenges that underlie our current food crisis.
Agriculture research and innovation needs to be democratized to serve the interests of a more just and resilient future for food and society. This means building trust between people with different perspectives. New knowledge, innovation and social change are most effective when based on dialogue and sharing of experiences. The knowledge of professional researchers should be combined with the knowledges of farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples; and small businesses and civil society groups.
This statement is thus a call for a transformation in the ways that research is governed, and a challenge to the institutional structures of dominant agriculture knowledge and research systems in Europe. Democratizing agricultural research in Europe depends on citizens setting and overseeing the agenda for research and innovation.
We must DARE to democratize agriculture research and knowledge to acknowledge the important knowledge that exists outside of science and academia and to harness the potential that arises from combining the rich types of knowledge in a continuously co-creative paradigm which has the potential to address the complex social and ecological problems we face today and in the future. This statement calls for a two-pronged strategy to democratizing knowledge for agroecology and food sovereignty:
 The DARE project was led by the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR). Its partners were Fondazione Italiana per la Ricerca in Agricoltura Biologica e Biodinamica (FIRAB) in Italy, Biodiversité, Échanges et Diffusion d’Expériences (BEDE) in France and the Fédération romande d’agriculture contractuelle de proximité (FRACP) in Switzerland.