WHERE TO NOW FOR ‘CHEMICAL AGRICULTURE’?

From the perspective of the casual observer of agriculture, all may appear relatively quiet. Dig deeper and one begins to understand that farming is heading into an era of profound change. The goalposts are going to be moving fast in the next few years and it is imperative that our decision and policy makers recognize the need to change.

A recent visit to the eastern England highlighted the problem of herbicide-resistant blackgrass; an issue that will be exacerbated should we see a ban on glyphosate. The expansion of the winter bean area was also obvious; a reflection of being unable to use neonicotinoid insecticides. Whilst industry representatives are lobbying to keep controversial pesticides within farming’s armoury, environmental lobbyists are seeking to remove them. We will wait and see who wins.

Without taking a specific position on the above, what one wants to highlight is that a reliance on ‘chemical farming’ techniques is questionable from a sustainable food production perspective.

Yes, some people choose to reject the food thus produced and others will take an environmental position, but one should be asking if ‘chemical farming’ can provide food security for the billions on the planet. It is an interesting question to ask given that those who advocate ‘sustainable intensification’ consider that we have to use the ‘science’ to ensure long-term food supplies.

The rationale behind raising the point is the ‘robustness’ of these technologies. The author spent a few years working on cereal variety evaluation at the UK’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany and what one was aware of was how a variety’s disease resistance tended to decline over time. The plant breeders have been generally pretty successful at renewing resistance via the introduction of new varieties but it was clearly a never-ending battle.

Tillage farming is now facing a triple-pronged attack from organisms’ ability to develop resistance to what science can throw at them, issues-aware campaigners and issues-aware consumers. The latter two may be one and the same. As I often say, it is the consumer that counts so, setting ‘politics’ aside, one has to be mindful of what the consumer wants. We can say ‘trust the science’ but ultimately consumers will decide what they trust in.

The net result is that pesticide [and other chemical agricultural techniques] will be influenced by resistance from the natural world, consumers, lobbyists and, ultimately, regulation. It is a framework of [probably increasing] constraints that farmers will have to work within. And it should also set the direction for research within the industry; albeit one does detect a reluctance to accept such a lead from some within the agricultural research community itself.

Given the widely discussed issue of resistance to antibiotics, the above points about resistance to pesticides should come as no great surprise. For farming it is, however, only a starting point. There are also issues relating to, for example, climate change and water-quality [and use] to consider. These will become increasingly difficult to ignore in the immediate years ahead.

The further into the subject of climate change and farming I get the more concerned I become about policy being developed using emissions-only methodology. For most industries and, indeed, a large part of food production and its supply chains, it is about emissions. There is, nonetheless, a sector of farming that emits AND sequesters carbon. Indeed, there are advocates who say that farming to sequester carbon is the most realistic possibility we have for reversing the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Farming over the centuries has released massive amounts of carbon from our soils and it is to where we have to return it.

Over the last decade or so cattle have been portrayed as the great villain of climate change. They have been vilified based upon their emissions alone. There are those who have seen this as an opportunity to attack livestock farming per se but, setting that aside, the variants of cattle farming have been poorly evaluated within the climate change debate.

In Ireland are some lobby groups too focused on denigrating cattle farming? Do they need to take a pause to evaluate an evolving picture? One can hear some saying that they need to see the refereed papers to persuade them to think again but do those papers even exist? Carbon sequestration via using specific grazing systems is still a ‘Cinderella’ research subject.  Right now, those inside and outside farming need to keep an open mind or the baby may be thrown out with the bathwater. And if that happens, the consequences for our climate may be serious.

One is not saying that cattle farming should be given a ‘get-out-of-jail free card’. It is about assessing different production system [and there are many]. We should be asking what are the net carbon emissions from different systems. For example, what are the emission per unit of meat or milk from confined systems versus grazing-based systems? It is also not just about grazed systems as there are likely to be major differences between alternatives. Also, we should be asking why is this work still on the periphery when to some of us it seems so crucial?

Within an Irish context, do we need to be asking more questions about the use of nitrogen fertilizers in terms of GHG emissions? The dairy sector is a major importer of artificial nitrogen and is highly dependent on it. Should there be a switch to multi-species swards and legumes to reduce this dependence? Could a diverse, herb-rich sward also improve animal health? There are many questions that need answering and urgently.

And they need answering in the context of soil biology and soil health. Just how is the soil’s micro-fauna impacted by high levels of artificial nitrogen fertilizers and/or slurry? To what degree will change benefit soils [the ‘new’ concern in terms of sustainable food production and carbon sequestration?]. Overall, how could such changes impact upon farm income?

It is interesting to read about grazing practices being developed in the USA and elsewhere. This is not new work [some of it is pre- ‘chemical farming’] but it is coming to the fore as its advocates begin to explain that certain grazing practices sequester carbon. The ultimate objective is to operate cattle systems that have negative emissions [they sequester more carbon than they emit]. If this is possible it should bring about a momentous change in how we look at cattle farming systems; or at least some of them.

In Ireland there needs to be a better defence of cattle farming. It is not about lobbying as much as bringing together the evidence to show that some cattle farming systems can sequester more than they emit [and there is also the role of landscape management by cattle and sheep farming].

We need to know what is what as, for example, we may find that replacing suckler beef with trees [based partly upon a farm income argument] may not offer the best overall solution. It may be that the long-term, on-going sequestration potential of the right beef farming systems is greater than the carbon-storage potential of fast-growing forestry. It may be necessary to ask which locks up carbon into the distant future best. And one should also add that suckler beef farming has, to-date, been poorly developed from a product and market perspective.

Origin Green is Ireland’s flagship, sustainability quality-assurance scheme. It is said to be a World first. As a result, it may be ahead of its time; and ahead of the carbon-farming knowledge base. As a consequence, has it been developed at a time when measuring emissions was the be all and end all of the story? Thus it is about measuring emissions and improving farming efficiency to lower the carbon footprint per unit of production.

An emissions-based measurement system is all very good as far as it goes but how much stronger would it be if it was based upon an evaluation of different cattle farming systems in terms of their carbon emissions and how they sequester carbon. Given the potential importance of cattle farming around the World for carbon sequestration, the building of soil organic matter [to improve ‘run-down’ soils] and land restoration [often resulting from poor grazing practices], we must have evaluation methods that quantify the plusses and the minuses.

In fairness, we now need to see major steps forward in terms of carbon-farming systems research. If Ireland moves ahead with this work rapidly and implements the necessary changes on the ground, then Ireland can claim to be a true e world leader in terms of using climate-change-mitigating, sustainable-farming practices.

Further issues that are being highlighted by my research relate to our nutrition and whether beef and dairy products are as bad for us as we have been led to believe. Potentially, it may be that herbage-fed products are better for us that grain-fed. There is also more research to be done into what are truly environmentally-sound protein sources. There are major sustainable question marks over palm oil. Likewise, soybean given that Pampas and rainforest land is now used for soybean. Soybean is about the edible oil and animal feeds so we need to be asking about the growing of crops for confined populations of poultry, pigs and cattle. It may be that grass-based farming is a shining light even though cattle per se has drawn massive recent criticism.

To come back to East Anglia, we were talking about controlling herbicide resistant blackgrass and a return to the plough was mooted for those using minimum tillage [which is advocated to reduce carbon emissions from tillage land]. It shows the complications farmers face when trying to control weeds [mechanically vs herbicides] to maintain yields and minimize carbon loss from soils.

I spent a morning with Jeff Claydon of Claydon Drills and for blackgrass his current min-till approach is to use a straw harrow [using low rates of diesel per hectare] to ‘tickle the very top’ to stimulate blackgrass seed germination and to get blackgrass control that way. Apparently, it also helps to control slugs. It does, however, hinder the use of cover crops to minimize carbon loss to the atmosphere. There may be solutions to issues like blackgrass herbicide-resistance but how much do we know about these options in terms of their various carbon implications? It is just one of many issue that has to be considered in terms of food security, the use of ‘chemical’ and ‘non-chemical’ farming, carbon release to the atmosphere and farm incomes.

[note: Jeff Claydon is a minimum tillage advocate who has been working with min-till for 15 years on his home farm and one would also say that judging by the smell of the soil, the techniques they are using are beneficial to the life within their soils.]

A problem with our reliance on ‘chemical farming’ is that many issues are ‘hitting the fan’ and we do not have the research-generated alternative solutions. There is a research base that has its origins with our organic farming colleagues but otherwise we are entering an era of what will have to be common-sense based ‘improvisation’. It should not be the case. It is a consequence of our research becoming too narrowly focused.

The upcoming era will also bring to the fore ‘husbandry’ as opposed to ‘going to the can’ for a solution as resistance to chemical rises. Soil health may also limit ‘going to the bag’ as an option for mitigating declines in natural soil fertility. Agricultural input costs may limit the use of both. For farm managers, there are interesting times ahead.

An idea that got thrown into the mix was whether the best approach to controlling resistant blackgrass was to go back to rotational grass leys. It is a reflection of how difficult the problem of blackgrass is [and the loss of oilseed rape as a break crop] that the idea met with agreement. To bring back livestock into a region now devoid of them is, nonetheless, a major challenge; not least because of a need for housing for both animals and people [the latter being a massive planning issue]. At least in Ireland, farming still maintains its smaller farming structure and housing stock. Such a solution also brings about a question of overall land use. For example, if we bring grazing back onto tillage farms will we have sufficient land for producing biofuels?

If one is looking to rebuild soil organic matter [some say that they are now critically low in eastern England] and thus returning carbon to the soil, is such a major change in farming that radical? Still it would be a profound change of direction from the one followed for the last 50 years, with ‘chemical farming’ to the fore. We will not be ditching ‘chemical farming’ anytime soon but we will need to become less reliant on it. More robust and sustainable farming will be more about ‘husbandry’ but it will be no less innovative for that.

Irish farming has different issues from Eastern England but it will also need to look to husbandry and to reduce any over reliance it has on ‘chemical farming’ solutions. From a farming perspective the rationale will be similar to that given above. It will also be because consumers of Irish food products will demand food products that are sustainable from climate change, environmental and ethical perspectives. The issues-aware lobbyists will also have their say. One just hopes that within this melange of issues, maintaining and improving farm incomes is not forgotten. After all, to be sustainable it all has to be sustainable.

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