“The next 35 years will be the most important ever in agriculture and that’s why we need to get it right today”, Jack Bobo, Agricultural Science Association, 2016, Kilkenny.
A quote from the ASA conference that I completely agree with. The next three or so decades will be crucial in how we produce food for the global population. The expectation is that population will continue to grow although we may be heading towards a peak. The dynamics of food production will, in all likelihood, change significantly but we do have to lay the foundations now.
The issue is how far are we from a consensus over how to do it? There is a technology lobby that believes that they have the answers; so long as ‘we trust the science’. There is an environmental lobby that believes that it is about applying a different set of technologies [on the basis that all farming is an applied set of technologies] that differ in their environmental impacts. And then there are other interested parties who see food production as a way to generate profits for their shareholders [possibly creating a vested interest that may distort their approach].
Who is right? Should we work on the precautionary approach and delay implementing technologies until we fully understand their implications? Or should we accept that technologies are safe, until proven otherwise? My own observations on how the subject of nutrition is evolving pushes me in the direction of being very precautionary with new technologies; the consequences can be vast if rolled out on a broad scale and/or the implications take years to become evident. It is a complicated environment to work in; not least when someone is suggesting that “we need to get it right today”.
I have been farming since I was a toddler. I have been professionally involved for 35 years now so I have obtained the experience that allows me to make my own judgements. I was actually brought up during the period where we turned towards what one could call ‘chemical farming’ and by a grandfather and his farming staff who were grounded in the pre-chemical days. I have been around long enough to make my own mind up about, for example, the demise of the arable soils of East Anglia; not least because 25 years ago I was already questioning the treatment of our soils as no more than a substrate for carrying water and chemicals and for the plants to stand up in. I feel that time has proven me right on the consequences of that approach.
I have always had a foot in both camps and am now seeing what I think is a swing away from a chemical-dependent agriculture. It is interesting to read mentions of authors of books from pre-1960, a number of which I have long since had in my own library. They are probably going to be invaluable given that for 50 years now we have neglected to research anything other than ‘chemical farming’ technologies. As a result, we are a long-way off the pace when it comes to using farming technologies that are not reliant on artificial fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides….
What are the critical issues of the next 35 years? Climate change is one. We have to reduce emissions from food production and especially those from crops and confined poultry, pigs and cattle. I have deliberately mentioned confined cattle as I believe we need to be looking at pasture-fed cattle as a means of sequestering carbon into soils. Apparently all cattle are not equal when it comes to climate change! We need to be taking soil health very seriously and returning organic matter and life to our soils. It should be very worrying to read another long-term, agricultural hand, Patrick Holden saying simply that our soils are dead. And then we cannot forget the importance of our pollinators [and farmland biodiversity]; we just cannot live without them.
The above is far from a comprehensive list but they are critical issues. To deny that they are is foolish. To suggest that we should be taking a ‘suck-it-and-see’ approach to using agricultural technologies that may further damage them is likewise foolish. I have been talking a lot about post-Brexit farming and food policy recently and it offers the first great opportunity to change farming and food policy thinking. The above critical issues should be nailed to the mast first and we work around them. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do nothing less.
Beyond these my concern turns to the sustainability of ‘chemical agriculture’. This was the subject of a recent blog but I would reiterate that we have to work within a set of parameters that assume that technologies like plant varieties, antibiotics, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are all going to come under continuous pressure from Mother Nature and, in all likelihood break down. This should be a fundament that underpins any future farming and food policy thinking.
To put it categorically, we can influence but not control Mother Nature’s actions and that seems to be especially the case when it comes to all sorts of pathogens. Throw into the mix the ‘politics’/regulations surrounding the ‘chemical’ and more ‘science-derived’ technologies and we should be starting from the premise that these do not offer a sustainable solution to food production. If we see them as any more than a partial/supporting solution, we are going to be walking the human race along a tightrope infinitum.
If I was to provide an over-riding guideline for our next 35 years I would say that we need to return farm husbandry to the fore. We need to enter an era whereby we resolve our on-farm fertility and health problems via, first and foremost, the skill of the farmer working with the assets that he or she controls on the farm [even if that means diversifying those assets]. For too long it has been about resorting to off-farm created technologies to resolve on-farm issues. That is not to say that the farmer should not be supported by an array of technologies; it is to return those to a secondary [and not prophylactic] role. The growing resistance of pathogens and weeds to our ‘solutions’ should be sufficient evidence to make this approach undebatable. But it will be debated by some and forcibly so.
A problem that we will have to address is how to reward the farmer for a [yet] greater managerial input; an input that will include managing the farm, managing the risk and ensuring the longevity of the assets that provide global food supplies. Over time, the farmer’s role has been diminished as those who provide the chemical solutions have come to the fore. The desire of the finance world to provide debt and insurance products means that others also want to get involved in providing the assets and taking on the risk; albeit they expect a commensurate reward for doing so. Over time, all have taken their share of the cake to the detriment of farm incomes.
At one end we now see the food chain being dominated by a few and at the other end the supply sector providing the inputs becoming oligopolies. Trading imbalances have become prevalent and the farmer is caught between a rock and a hard place. It is not a satisfactory situation for the person who has to return to the fore-front of providing the global population with a secure food supply. Re-jigging the rewards of the food chain are going to be massive challenge over the next 35 years.
Returning the farmer to the centre of food production is going to be the number one issue for those directing farming and food policy from here on. Too many are going to struggle with the idea that they and their technology may not be the ‘sustainable’ solution for food production. It may still be a part of it but, ultimately, sustainable farming and food production is going to be about employing technologies and techniques that are under the control of the farmer. The next 35 years is about the farmer and everyone else has to accept that they can play no more than second fiddle, period.