Knowledge for better food systems

FCRN Interview: The sustainability of traditional mixed farming systems, and healthy food for ill people


Dr Barbara Knowles is a biologist, with a Cambridge PhD on the biochemistry of biological insecticides, now working in science policy and communication, and on environmental projects in Romania. She is senior science policy adviser to the Society of Biology, and volunteer, sponsor and mentor to Pogány-havas Association in Transylvania. She is a founder of the UK Natural Capital Initiative. She received an MBE in 2014 for services to science communication and the environment.

Diagnosis with motor neurone disease in 2008 only increases her love of life and motivation. She loves Transylvania, flowering meadows, nature, friends, gardening, meeting people and learning something new every day.

In this interview she discusses issues concerning biodiversity, landscape preservation and farming practices in Transylvania with the FCRN.

Could you describe what the Pogány-havas Association is, what issues does it work with, what are its goals and what is your role in working with them? 

Pogány-havas Regional Association (www.poganyhavas.ro) is a regional development organisation serving a rural population of 22,000 people in the Eastern Carpathians, Transylvania, Romania. It was founded in 1999 by Hargita County Council and the local councils of six municipalities as well as local NGOs and entrepreneurs. It works on a range of projects to increase local incomes, preserve the region's cultural heritage, develop tourism and conserve the natural environment.

Its mission is “to improve the quality of life of locals by respecting natural values and traditions”. Its vision is that the people in the region receive more income thanks to actions based on local resources and traditions.

I met Rodics Gergely, director of Pogány-havas Association, in 2008, and was impressed by his vision for preserving the character of the landscape and its outstanding biodiversity while improving local incomes and quality of life. He explained that “milk is the key” to this landscape – a landscape created by traditional family farming and based around hay production and pastures for cows. Improve the value of the milk, and farmers will continue to manage the ‘high nature value’ landscape. The flower-rich mountain hay meadows are especially biodiverse, and threatened by abandonment or grazing by sheep.

I was looking for some meaningful environmental initiatives to support following my diagnosis with motor neurone disease that year.  I began by funding a Pogány-havas Association project to help small scale family farmers to improve the quality of their milk and increase its value by selling it through milk collection points run by farmers associations.

I became increasingly involved in supporting, mentoring and doing projects with the Association, and now live in a village in the Pogány-havas region volunteering for the Association while still working remotely for my job in London compiling a weekly science policy newsletter for the Society of Biology. These two activities are synergistic: food, farming, biodiversity, sustainable development and environment are the common themes, and indeed the reason for my membership of FCRN.

Can you say something about the region, and its geographical, social and economic context?

The Pogány-havas region comprises two distinct landscapes: Csík is a mountain basin characterised by a wide, open landscape encircled by mountains, while Gyimes is a mountain area with deep and narrow valleys. The two distinctive geographies lead to different traditional agricultural techniques and also host two Hungarian (and Hungarian speaking) cultural minorities, the Székely in Csík and the Csángó in Gyimes.

Csík is a fairly flat mountain basin with small strips of mixed arable and hay meadows around the villages, and pastures and mountain meadows at higher altitude further from the settlements. Typical traditional farmers have 2-3 cows which are grazed from May to October on the common pastures in a village herd, returning home every evening for milking in the stable. In the long cold winter months the cows remain in the barn eating hay. Cow’s milk is the main farming income for these semi-subsistence farmers, who usually also have a paid job. The family typically also has a vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens, a pig and a few sheep.

Gyimes has very little land flat enough for arable farming, and farmers here are more dependent on pastoralism. They keep 5-6 milk cows which are grazed all summer in mountain pastures in small groups, which are often managed cooperatively by a few families who share the work and produce. In the village are the vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens etc., as in Csík. Because the mountain-grazing cows don’t come home for milking, the milk is made into fresh cheese and the whey used to fatten pigs.

In both regions, sheep are kept all summer in the highest mountain pastures by a shepherd employed collectively by those who keep sheep in the village. They are milked three times a day for cheese.

This traditional system has many environmental, social and economic benefits and still supports over 3 million families in Romania with home grown food and a small income. Farming is labour intensive with few inputs, and therefore few polluting outputs. The system reuses waste products very efficiently and productively: animal manure for grasslands and gardens, whey and scraps for pigs and chickens, lucerne and meadow legumes like clover and sainfoin as fodder and green manure. [Lucerne is planted as a crop, while other leguminous meadow plants now occur naturally, but some may have been sown deliberately in meadows since medieval times for their fodder value.]

Although many farmers now have a tractor and small mowing machine, horses are still very commonly used for transport and pulling power. Indeed, on the steep slopes of Gyimes, horses can pull haystacks or carts of manure which no tractor could manage. And grass can be mown by scythe on even the steepest slopes, whereas this is not possible with mowers.

The extensive permanent pastures and hay meadows that still dominate this region are good carbon stores, as are the traditional wooden houses, fences and barns. We hope to quantify and value these carbon stores [and maybe other ecosystem services] in the region, and would welcome advice and simple methodologies from FCRN members.

How are these farming practices changing and what are the challenges -both environmentally, socio-economically and demographically?

Of course the influences of globalization and membership of the EU are having significant effects on the region, much greater than the forced collectivisation, industrialisation and population movements that took place under 35 years of Communism. EU-funded agri-environment and agriculture subsidies provide welcome extra income but sometimes they don’t reach the smallest farmers who collectively provide environmental benefits on a large scale.  Sometimes they also lead to perverse environmental outcomes: for example, agri-environment payments are the same for pastures and meadows but meadows are harder to manage – this makes it easier to allow grazing on your meadow which reduces its biodiversity. Hygiene regulations make traditional food products hard to produce or to sell legally – for example milk produced on mountains and in remote settlements can’t be refrigerated within the required time, and since local slaughterhouses didn’t meet EU requirements they have now all closed. Cheap imported food and foreign supermarkets outcompete local products and markets. Farming is hard work and young adults who are willing to work hard earn more as cheap labourers in western European farms than at home. Parents urge children to do well at school so that they don’t have to become farmers.

These challenges are probably common to remote rural communities everywhere in Europe, resulting in abandonment or intensification of land and rural depopulation.

But there are some reasons for optimism. Local identify and pride in this ethnic Hungarian population of Romania supports a growing market for regionally produced and branded foods, and some locally owned supermarkets. A small but significant group of young people with international experience or university education choose to return home and farm. Some urban families shop in farmers markets and pay a premium for local and regional food. Projects like ours are increasing the value of milk to the farmers and we can see that some farmers have therefore bought or bred more cows, so reversing the downward trend.

How is the Pogány-Havas working to address these issues?  Have you seen any successes?

We organized two seminars in the European Parliament with our MEP and other partners, and several local conferences and events.  These have highlighted the value of high nature farming and mountain hay meadows and the threats posed by EU and Romanian legislation and farming subsidy rules. We have also produced an award winning film as part of a project Mountain Hay Meadows - hot spots of biodiversity and traditional culture (A DVD is available – email barbara.knowles@yahoo.co.uk for more information). As a result of these and other high profile activities and events, including a visit by HRH the Prince of Wales, our credibility with policymakers has increased and we are hopeful that some of our recommendations will be included in the Romanian Rural Development Plan.

As described above we have increased the value of milk for many farmers. We have also organized training courses on cheese making and several trainees now sell cheese locally, in successful competition with cheaper imports.

Mowing on the biodiverse mountain meadows increased around 2.5-fold in 2013 compared to 2011, reversing the recent trend of abandonment. Subsidies and two very dry years are likely influences but in some areas with much larger [7x] increases we think we can see the effects of our interventions and those of our collaborators.

The FCRN has written, and opened up the debate on sustainable intensification in agriculture.  Do you feel the concept is relevant and helpful to the Transylvanian situation?

I’m sceptical about this phrase, and about the implications that producing more food is the solution [instead of more sustainable solutions including reducing waste, fairer distribution etc]. Another important consideration is that policies geared at producing more food in some regions could make things worse for farmers elsewhere by, for example, making them unviable, thus creating economic, social and environmental problems. It’s a complex issue.

Traditional farming has been sustainably intensive for centuries in the sense that it makes efficient use of the available resources, produces valuable ecosystem goods and services, recycles and reuses waste products, provides meaningful work and healthy food for millions of people and offers resilience in the face of economic and political change.

If sustainable intensification includes these elements and a fair market for small farms, I might support it.

What information, help or collaboration would you welcome from others?

We are actively seeking advice on estimating carbon storage in the permanent grasslands of our region -and its wooden buildings.

In the context of the FCRN paper on sustainable healthy diets we welcome discussions about the merits or disadvantages of eating meat and dairy products from traditional mixed farming systems such as the two described here.

And third, we welcome FCRN members and their families and friends to experience this traditional system for themselves by participating in our annual hay making week running this year from 4-10 August 2014 https://sites.google.com/site/barbaraknowlesproject/haymeadow-biodiversity/hay-making-festival

Can you say a bit about your Motor Neurone Disease (MND) – how it affects you physically, but also how it has shaped your outlook on life and your work priorities?

MND is a progressive, incurable and terminal condition which paralyses the muscles for moving, swallowing, speaking and breathing. Only 10% of its victims live for five years so I’m lucky to be in year seven. I’m almost completely paralyzed and can barely speak. I can’t do anything without help except – luckily – using the computer and my brain. With brain and computer I can continue to work, plan and communicate.

I’m very much more focused and motivated than before the diagnosis. Knowing that I’ll probably die soon makes me value life. I want to live well, happily and productively, doing what is useful and valuable. I have enjoyed and been fascinated by the natural world all my life, but only since MND have I chosen to work directly on environmental projects.  

  • How does it affect your eating, your relationship with food and your thoughts about sustainability?

I can’t swallow well or eat without choking, so since January I’ve taken almost all food and drink through a tube directly into my stomach (gastrostomy). This makes eating simply an activity for survival, without any of the sensory and social pleasures. But I’m working on projects to promote and support local food, especially milk products from traditional and small family farmers. And I like to eat healthy food with a known provenance and good environmental credentials. So I completely rejected the medical advice to eat a liquid formula, nutritionally balanced but of unknown origins. I feel queasy just thinking what unwholesome sources the protein and fat in these diets is likely to come from - not from contented cows eating hay from mountain meadows fragrant with herbs and flowers, I bet.

I was amazed that my doctors and medical contacts couldn’t tell me how to make a balanced liquidised diet that can be injected into a narrow tube. Being a biologist, I’m able to devise my own diet based on the locally available foods that I enjoyed eating by mouth. For example my breakfast now comprises a sort of high calorie muesli of oats, milk, apple puree, honey and an egg.

Reading Tara’s discussion paper about sustainable healthy diets really made me think: what about sustainable healthy diets for ill people? I couldn’t feel well on an artificial diet. If it’s so convenient, cheap and healthy why don’t doctors eat it? Because food is about much more than sufficient calories and nutrients. Even if, like me, you can’t experience the flavour and texture, it’s still about pleasure and culture, comfort and company, values and choices, identity and instinct.

I’d welcome any information and ideas from FCRN members about sustainable healthy diets for ill people, and the source of the proteins, fats and other ingredients of liquid formula diets for tube-fed people.

Contact details

Barbara Knowles: barbara.knowles@yahoo.co.uk

Pogány-havas Association: office@poganyhavas.ro, www.poganyhavas.ro