A new study study looks at how agroecological initiatives in Madrid, Catalonia and Andalusia can influence how food and farming is done in Spain. These regions have varying landscapes which have shaped different food cultures for centuries. Photo: L. Guerrero Lara

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Transformation of food systems

Flipping the tortilla on Spanish food systems

Traditional knowledge about how to eat, process and farm food in harmony with nature can contribute to more sustainable food systems

Story highlights

  • Traditional knowledge does not have to be static or stagnant. It can be reanimated in innovative ways to fit with the present and future contexts
  • Preserving traditional gastronomical knowledge can be just as important as knowledge about traditional farming
  • Authors present how preserving cultural heritage promotes social inclusion, with positive impacts on biodiversity

There is a Spanish expression for radical change, “darle la Vuelta a la tortilla”. Literally, it means flipping the tortilla, evoking that nervous feeling when you’re not quite sure if your omelette will make it to the other side in one piece. But when it does, the result is rather delicious. Flipping into new ways of growing and eating will require bold moves, experimentation and some inspiration from the past.

In a new study in Sustainability from former Masters student, Leonie Guerrero Lara, centre researcher Amanda Jiménez-Aceituno, Laura M. Pereira of City University of London and Federica Ravera from Central University of Catalonia make a case to bring back traditional agricultural and ecological (or agroecological) knowledge. "This is not just knowledge about farming. Traditional gastronomical knowledge about how we eat can really drive change at the consumer end," they argue.

The researchers looked at how initiatives in Madrid, Catalonia and Andalusia can influence how food and farming is done in Spain. These regions have varying landscapes which have shaped different food cultures for centuries.

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Food constitutes an important part of our cultural identity and triggers emotions, memories, and pleasure

Leonie Guerrero Lara, lead author

Bringing the Mediterranean diet back from the brink

The Mediterranean diet is all about slow cooking and fresh, healthy ingredients. Modern lifestyles have led to a decrease of cooking habits and more ready-made dishes. More meat and dairy brings environmental challenges and health risks.

Guerrero Lara argues that “when re-inventing cultural heritage and traditions, the boundaries between innovations and traditions become fluid”. Far from being obsolete, traditional agroecological knowledge has a crucial role to play in the innovation arena. It can help spark creative ideas for how to inject diversity back into the dull uniformity that has overtaken our food growing and eating habits.

The researchers interviewed people from different innovative agriculture and food initiatives. Operating on a small scale, these organizations form part of a movement that has potential to contribute to a more sustainable Spanish food system. Whilst previous studies of traditional knowledge have mostly focused on farming practices and seed varieties, this study highlights gastronomical practices.

“Without knowledge about how to process and prepare traditional food varieties, there is not much market for products from traditional sustainable farming” says Guerrero Lara.

Infographic presenting the distribution of the initiatives along Spain, year of establishment, type of organizational structure, main reoccurring topic and the addressed stage of the food system. The ID of each initiative corresponds to the number of the interviews.

Promoting diversity from farm to fork

With the rise of monoculture farms and intensification, small scale and subsistence farmers have become rarities in many parts of the world, including Spain.

Some farmers are shifting focus towards traditional agroecological knowledge. The idea is that the diversity of species on farmed landscapes shouldn’t be so different from natural ecosystems. And diversity on the farm means a diverse dinner plate.

The research also highlights social diversity. Marginalized individuals can be empowered when a higher value is placed on traditional knowledge. Many of the initiatives in the study take a feminist stance. One interviewee explains, “because of the masculinization of rural environments we want a high representation of women, and to give them their own space.”

Photo: L. Guerrero Lara

Scaling deep, scaling out, scaling up

When new ideas about preserving cultural knowledge are successful, they need to be scaled.

“Scaled deep to change consumer values toward sustainable and healthy diets, scaled out to replicate initiatives, and scaled up to influence legislation” says co-author Jiménez-Aceituno.

“This scaling must also consider the regional differences.”

But there are still some barriers to growth. Existing legislation and administrative structures in the current agri-food system hinder the success of the initiatives.

Guerrero Lara believes institutional structures could make it easier for people to make sustainable food choices.

Knowledge about regional food and ecologically sensitive farming practices has evolved along with the landscape over millennia. The researchers conclude that scaling innovations promoting this rich information is key to transforming to more sustainable food systems.


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with individuals from 12 different initiatives across Madrid, Andalusia and Catalonia. The regions represent the geographical diversity of Spain. Based on the “Seeds of Good Anthropocenes” approach, initiatives with a sustainability focus that is not yet mainstream were selected. Both “farm” and “fork” initiatives were selected on the basis that they incorporate traditional agroecological knowledge in their practice. For example, one safeguards traditional recipes whilst another collects old seed varieties.

Information was analysed on the initiatives’ histories, barriers and enabling factors, organizational structures and how traditional agroecological knowledge was used.

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Published: 2019-03-19

Related info

Guerrero Lara, L., Pereira, L.M., Ravera, F., Jiménez-Aceituno, A. 2019. Flipping the Tortilla: Social-Ecological Innovations and Traditional Ecological Knowledge for More Sustainable Agri-Food Systems in Spain. Sustainability 2019, 11, 1222.

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Leonie Guerrero Lara is a former master's student at the centre. Her interests range from rural development, sustainable food production and food security – especially when based on traditional knowledge - to the design of urban spaces that provide a high quality of life and are rich in grassroots activities and ecosystem services.

Amanda Jiménez Aceituno is a postdoctoral researcher working on resilience and transformations, as well as initiatives with high potential to contribute to a good Anthropocene.