Monthly Archives: April 2017

RETURNING THE TOOL KIT TO THE MEDICAL CHEST

It is surprising how often one hears or reads ‘tool kit’ when it comes to agricultural technology. Most recently ‘tool-kit’ has accompanied the word ‘glyphosate’, as in ‘glyphosate is an essential part of the arable farmers tool kit’. Moreover, the word ‘sustainable’ often swiftly follows in that arable farming and, especially, those employing zero-tillage, low-carbon-loss systems will not be viable without glyphosate in their tool kit. I am not about to get into the glyphosate debate itself, but with respect to glyphosate, have we lost the plot?

To my mind the ‘sustainable’ means that we can carry on an action infinitum because it is natural-resource-consumption neutral. It is de facto perpetual motion. It is, if one ignores extinction events, how our planet has functioned for billions of years. All resource use within nature is cyclical. It is something we seem to have forgotten about in agriculture over the last half a century as we increasingly believed that we could disrupt natural cycles with man-made inventions. At the same time we tell the world that what we are doing is ‘sustainable’. What’s more, we should ‘trust the science’ when it comes to them telling us that their newest and latest technology improves ‘sustainability’.

If one thinks about it, if a technology is sustainable it would not need to be frequently updated. When it comes to sustainable food production, food production is sustainable only so long as the cycle of renewal of our technologists happens! Is, in this case, ‘sustainable’ an oxymoron?

The issue with many of our agricultural technologies is that they are designed to destroy organisms that inhibit our capacity to produce food. These organisms, created by Mother Nature, do, however, have their own agendas; their own survival. It is their determination to survive attacks from our science-derived solutions that eventually renders the solutions obsolete. The lesson of the last 50 years is that that obsolescence will occur; it is a matter of when, not if. We have reached a point where are food systems and our food security are reliant on science’s ability to frequently renew our tool kit, to ‘re-chrome our spanners’. Is this a sustainable food system?

My link to glyphosate relates to herbicide-resistant blackgrass. There appears to be a pro- glyphosate argument that states; “we must be able to use glyphosate because blackgrass has become resistant to all other herbicides designed to kill it”. But should we not be assuming that at some future point glyphosate-resistant blackgrass will emerge? Glyphosate will become obsolete and it is a matter of when, not if. And as we are finding with antibiotics, wormers, fungicides… the more we use a technology, the more rapidly it becomes obsolete. Increasing exposure provides the pathogen with greater opportunity to evolve its resistance. Low-dose, frequent and protective use only makes it that much easier for the pathogen to evolve resistance. As this goes on our science-reliant food systems become less resilient and less sustainable.

My response to the glyphosate issue is to say that farmers must plan to lose it. It may come through regulation in the face of consumer/lobbyist pressure or it may come through the weeds it is targeted at deciding that they do not want to accept their fate. It is a question of which comes first and my guess is that it will happen within the next decade. The message should be that farmers must plan for it to happen and to develop alternative solutions. Our researchers must support them and, if we are wise as a society, we must insist that the research is not just focused on repeating a technologically-driven cycle that is not in itself sustainable.

I am already hearing a common response; that we must free those who develop our technological solutions to bring new products to the market faster. We cannot afford to be cautious, we cannot use the precautionary principle. There is, nonetheless, a proportion of our society which does not accept this approach. They are concerned that continuous exposure to our food production solutions are not just bad for the target organisms but also damaging to human health and/or the wider environment. They do not wish to ‘trust the science’.

I follow what is happening in the nutrition world closely and I am seeing the nutritional guidelines of the last 50 years unravelling. For decades, we have been told what to eat [to ‘trust the science’], and where has it got us? As far as I can see, it is to a global pandemic of illness caused by malnutrition. Do we blame the individual for not rigorously following the dietary guidelines or do we look at what we have been told and the food that we are fed [which is often dictated by the dietary guidelines]? Right or wrong, there are a great many people around who are now asking themselves what does long-term exposure to, say sugar, do to human health? Those who consume organic food have already made a choice based upon their belief that long-term exposure to our chemical farming solutions will have a detrimental impact upon their health. Can they prove it, probably not, but neither can we categorically contradict them. Long-term exposure is simply an on-going experiment.

The point I am making is that the precautionary principle is likely to be around for a while when it comes to licensing new products [tools] for farmers to use. Apparently, some consider that Brexit is an opportunity to lighten the regulatory touch. But will this really happen; will the lobbyists mysteriously disappear? Or will an increasingly aware [be they rightly or wrongly informed] consumer have the final say? If anything, they are likely to become more vocal as, for example, soil health moves up the agenda of social media’s ‘chattering classes’. And one can see a time not very far away when the consumer-lobbyists starts asking what the impact of long-term exposure to pesticides and artificial fertilizers does to the health of our soils and to their own food security.

Whichever way one looks at it, the availability of our chemical farming solutions is going to be constrained. It may be through the development of resistance by the targeted organisms, it may be through the cost of solution-regeneration or it may be through consumer-lobbyist resistance to buying and consuming the end-product and/or demanding greater regulatory control. The only certainty is that we cannot continue to be as profligate as we have been when it comes to using certain food production solutions. And the more we use them the faster will obsolesce occur. It is why we should return these ‘farming tools’ to the ‘medical chest’; they need to be the solutions of last resort and not everyday tools. It is a mindset that must change otherwise we will just lose our tools that much quicker. It is better that we work out how to feed ourselves without them sooner rather than later because common sense should be telling us that we cannot create a sustainable food system with solutions that are not in themselves sustainable.

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A Centre of Excellence for Quality-Indicated Products

Ireland desires to be a ‘food island’ but for a country with such aspirations it has woefully few European Union- registered designated-origin products. It may appear to be an anomaly but it is a well-founded one as the Irish agri-food industry apparently believes that premium products are created within a factory environment from farm-produced raw materials. An approach that simply restricts the premiumization of the product. Its products can be clever but they will never be recognized alongside the premium products of, say, France and Italy.

The rationale behind the establishment of The Centre of Excellence for Quality-Indicated Products [CEQUIP] is that for Ireland to make the transition to a premium-products food producer, it must first create the products that can achieve high market status. Traceability, in terms of origin and production methods, is absolutely critical. It must, however, go far beyond auditing farms; it must change both production and processing practices.

The products CEQUIP will work with will have their roots in the soil. In France, the highest quality products come from their ‘terroir’ and it is a characteristic that will be required of any food product from anywhere which aspires to being recognized as premium. Good food products may originate from within the factory environment and be manufactured using ‘ingredients’ but premium products will have origins traceable back to the land.

On a similar note, we live in times where ‘innovation’ is the buzz word in the food industry. It is being thrust upon the farming industry as incomes decline and further adoption of ‘technology’ is advocated as the solution. We, however, question whether the technologies of the last half a century have really delivered enhanced incomes to farm households and rural communities. In this light, whilst appreciating that innovation and technology has a role in farming and food production, innovation must be about creating products that are firmly linked to farming practices and produced within the local community. It may be considered ‘retro’ thinking but so be it.

This initiative comes at a time when farm incomes lurch from one crisis to another. It also comes at a time when the farming to food industry is being asked to minimize its impact upon the climate and our natural resources. Amongst the latter are the animals we rear and manage. Thankfully soil health and fertility is rising the agenda fast but we still overlook the welfare of our very food producers and the communities in which they live. We must produce food in fashion that rewards farmers for their time and effort and the use of the assets they own.

The objective of CEQUIP is to address the issues surrounding today’s food production. It may appear to focus on premium products for wealthy people but that is rationalized by saying that Ireland is characterized by small-scale, family-farming-based food producers working in a high-cost economy.  That said, the focus of CEQUIP is to encourage the production of high-quality, nutritious foods that are produced in a way that has a minimal impact upon the Planet and its finite resources. By some, we may be criticised for promoting farming practices that are seen as contradictory to this aim but we believe that those behind CEQUIP are at the forefront of a new agricultural revolution that will deliver both food security and climate-change mitigation.

For several years, we have researched the various designated-origin schemes used around Europe and further afield. Whilst we are aware of the official EU schemes, we do not feel that it is necessary to seek such recognition in the first instance. We consider that it is better to design and implement our own schemes first and only when they are well established to apply, if appropriate, for official recognition. This will allow greater flexibility at the design stage and allow the development of Irish solutions for Irish farming and food situations. It is also not just about developing Protected Geographic Indicators, it is about developing more in-depth schemes that go well beyond locality to include specific farming husbandry practices and food processing techniques. For these we will be investigating the way these are done in countries like France, Italy, Austria, Spain, the UK and the USA. Our plan is to now start by developing a multi-tiered, quality and origin scheme for suckler-reared Irish beef.