Human Experiences of Transitioning to Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Dr Anne Touboulic
University of Nottingham


Our project brings together academics from different disciplinary backgrounds and farmers in a series of workshops to explore the human experiences associated with farming and agriculture as a sector facing great change. We seek to develop an inclusive research agenda, which gives voice to the traditionally silenced experience of farmers.

The core purpose of this project is to open the conversation and create a collaborative space around the human experience of change towards sustainable agriculture. This will enable innovative research questions to be developed and interdisciplinary research directions to be set, which can then form the basis of larger research bids. Historically, supply chain sustainability initiatives have been initiated and dominated by large multinational corporations across the supply chain (i.e. manufacturers, retailers). Typically these have focused on the implementation of technology, codes of conduct and standards. 

Our primary conceptual innovation is to shift the focus from a primarily technology-centric view of sustainability in agriculture towards one that values and encompasses the human experiences of farming communities.  This, we hope, will enable giving voice to these communities, who have been mostly marginalised from the supply chain and policy discourse, and therefore allow the co-exploration of solutions to address economic, social and environmental challenges. In order to do so, we connect several disciplines including sustainable development, food studies, geography, sociology, psychology and art.

Methodologically, our approach is rooted in engaged scholarship. We promote a participative, democratic and reflexive process to the development of knowledge for sustainable agriculture, which places the human experience at its core. From our previous research in different agricultural sectors we have found that in the pursuit of developing the image and practice of ‘sustainable agriculture’ there have been silent and silenced voices. Through this project we seek to open research avenues into a more inclusive sustainable agriculture agenda.

The Research Idea

The overarching aim of this project is to open a conversation and co-create a research agenda on sustainable agriculture and the human experience of marginalised actors. We define marginalised actors in this context as the small farming entities operating in the food supply chain.

The research idea has emanated from our own research in the field of agriculture and sustainable development, which have shown that the policy and research agenda have been largely detached from the ‘humanity’ of the change for sustainability. This change is often experienced in a sensory way: humans feel and anticipate change even before they can express their experience in words. We contend that it is critical to create a space for the experience of farmers in creating sustainable agricultural practices to be heard which have thus far been silent.

Our interest is to challenge existing representations of ‘farmers’ and ‘farming’ in the corporate sustainability discourse, which have been shaped by the dominant players in food supply chains such as retailers and manufacturers. We propose that developing a holistic view of sustainability requires encompassing the perspectives and experiences of those in agriculture, specifically their feelings, concerns and visions in order to move beyond a sustainability agenda driven by the vested interests of a few.

We adopt an interdisciplinary approach by combining the PI and co-Is respective areas of expertise in sustainable production and consumption, rural development and sociological entrepreneurship with the expertise of other scholars in the fields of food studies, geography, sociology, psychology and art.


The context of the project is linked to research that has explored sustainability in agriculture and how organisations seek to drive sustainability or corporate social responsibility (CSR) upstream in their supply chain (e.g. Schrempf-Stirling and Palazzo, 2013). Such research has primarily focussed on the processes and technologies put in place to improve the social and environmental performance of supply chains rather than on exploring the human dynamics (i.e. cultural, sociological and psychological dimensions) at play in this change. Furthermore, little attention has been paid to farmers as core agents in these chains, with primacy given to the exploration of the activities of large firms. These larger firms can often be seen to impose their sustainability agenda on their suppliers who are generally small firms.

Sustainability is set to remain firmly at the centre of future international agricultural policy given the continued need to increase food production in both socially responsible and environmentally friendly ways. In a European context, it is envisaged that agricultural sustainability will be further incentivised in any future reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (Dillon et al., 2016). This is also important in the context of Brexit and the development of the Agriculture Bill. Any future policies should account for the experiences of and include dialogues with farmers in order to develop a fair, cohesive, sustainable agricultural agenda. Particular attention needs to be paid to those marginalised farmers not involved with social groups such as the National Farmers Union.

The Focus

We are providing a fresh approach to the real-life problem of sustainable food production. The project is in line with providing answers to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of food security and the promotion of sustainable agriculture, as well as responsible production and consumption.

We are critical of and question the social responsibility of multinational firms who engage in developing agricultural sustainability agendas across food supply chains. We have identified issues with current dominant approaches and have thus raised the question around the ‘hidden’ voices of marginalised small farmers. These small farmers face particularly challenging economic conditions, have to deal with ever-multiplying requirements from numerous stakeholders and are greatly affected by a changing climate. Yet their experiences are barely reported and even more rarely through their own voice, while the representations that society holds about small farmers are still often rooted in romanticised views of farming (e.g. life in luxuriant countryside).

To enlighten our understanding of the hidden voice we take references from the anthropological literature on the senses to propose a novel approach to exploring the human experience of creating sustainable agricultural practices and focus our attention on marginalised social groups. This is in recognition that to do justice to the human experience, we need to go beyond rational accounts and embrace the human senses and their associated expressions as important ways of knowing.

Through exploring the human experience we are able to blend theoretical approaches without the requirement to be associated with one particular discipline.

Theoretical Novelty

We offer a dual conceptual innovation by focusing the human experience of marginalised small farmers in food supply chains and by promoting an engaged approach to our exploration.

We are interested in the hidden voices and in opening up a collaborative space around the question of the human experience of creating agricultural sustainability agendas in food supply chains. We propose and seek to co-develop an interdisciplinary concept of “small farmer voice” from an experiential standpoint, which can enrich research that considers the transition to more sustainable food supply chains.

John Dewey (1922, 1925) views experience as the intertwining of human beings and their environments. Therefore in addition to experiential knowledge, experiences also include perceptions (senses), emotions and doing (practices). In placing the human experience at the forefront of our research endeavour, we also align with the participatory inquiry paradigm (Heron & Reason, 1997) that embraces multiple ways of knowing the world. ‘Experiential knowing’ is especially viewed as the basis of all ways of knowing and refers to people’s experience of the world, echoing James’ view that ‘it is through feelings that we become acquainted with things’ (James, 1890: 221 in Heron and Reason, 2008).

In exploring the human experience, we can propose new ways of investigating sustainable agricultural practices from cultural and psycho-social theoretical concepts and through creative methodologies from other disciplines, therefore complementing the majority of studies that explore the phenomenon from technological, economic and environmental science perspectives.


Our co-creation approach is an active, creative and social process, based on collaboration between academics and participants (Piller et al. 2011). Through participatory workshops, we give voice to the experience of marginalised individuals in food supply chains and create the conditions for an interdisciplinary research agenda to emerge. 

Our project comprises two complementary phases. The first will enable gathering the feelings and experiences from small farmers toward the sustainability agenda and the future of sustainable agriculture practices. We will explore aspects such as the alignment of the sustainability agenda with their values and identities as farmers. In the second phase, we will invite academics from the fields of food studies, geography, sociology, psychology and art, to co-create a research agenda. We will engage with the University of Nottingham Centre for Critical Theory and Sensory Studies Network to recruit participants.

The different disciplinary inputs will interact in the analysis of the insights gathered in the first phase and development of more specific interdisciplinary research questions focusing on the different aspects of the human experience. The PI and Co-Is will also add their empirical experiences from previous research. We will particularly concentrate on the overarching questions of “what does it mean to live through change for sustainability in agriculture?” and “how can we make sense and give voice to the human experience of marginalized small farmers in our research?”. This will allow engagement in a critical interdisciplinary dialogue with the purpose of developing a research agenda and fostering collaborations.

Work Plan

Our proposed project comprises two 2-day face-to-face team meetings and two workshops:

Overall timeline:

1. Month 1: 2-day scoping team meeting to share empirical insights, finalise project agenda, background reading, and recruitment for the first workshop. 

2. Month 3:  Preparation for 1st workshop (virtual team meetings)

3. Months 4-5: Workshop 1: An initial ½ day exploration with farmers to surface their feelings and experience toward the sustainability agenda and the future of sustainable agriculture practices. We intend to co-develop with participants a list of the key issues/aspects that matter to them. A video blog will be produced and published.

4. Month 6: Preparation for 2nd workshop (virtual team meetings)

5. Months 7-8: Workshop 2: Academics will reflect on the insights of workshops 1 and surface some of the key research questions and potential methodologies around the topics of the human experiences in transitioning to sustainable agriculture. 1. Outputs include work plan and research agenda.

6. Month 9-12: Final 2-day team meeting to write up insights from workshops and discuss future programme of work and larger grant application. First draft of conference paper, subsequent drafts to be circulated between authors. 

Concurrently the researchers will attend conferences, networking with academics in relevant disciplines and disseminating work. It is planned that two of the researchers will attend the Sustainable Consumption, Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) 2018 and the 8th International Conference on Food Studies 2018. The team will produce a report to circulate to participants and write a piece for the Conversation.


This funding will be a critical stepping-stone in the realisation of a larger programme of research connected to sustainable agriculture. We believe that our endeavour will facilitate the development of long-term research network to pursue this interdisciplinary agenda and plant the seeds for fruitful collaborations to emerge organically.

The workshops will be used as the starting point for developing research questions on uncovering the silent human experiences of creating sustainable agricultural practices.  We intend to develop a proposal for a Westminster Food and Nutrition policy forum on driving forward an inclusive sustainable agriculture agenda, which includes the voice of marginalised social groups involved in agriculture.

Our research agenda is intended to be a catalyst for giving a voice to the untold human experience of sustainability agendas in food supply chains. We will work to sustain the relationships that we will have developed as part of this project. For example, we plan to continue and expand the conversations held as part of the project through the co-organisation of a conference special session with academic participants in 2019 and through the co-authoring of online pieces and academic articles.


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