Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Future of Farming

First of all an announcement:


Things have been somewhat crazy over the past six months or so and this blog has suffered. Never fear though I’m back. The following blog differs from what I originally intended to write, but it is on a subject I feel very strongly about and so make no apologies that it is a meandering attempt at covering a topic that could easily take up a treatise.

As a farmer the freaky weather really affects my life and livelihood. For those of you not resident in the UK I’ll give a brief summary of the past 12 months or so.
Last Autumn: Dry. So dry a lot of the crops didn’t germinate.
Last Winter: Mild. So mild a lot of the autumn sowing finally did germinate, round about December.
Spring: Dry. Hosepipe plans were implemented. Crops pretty much didn’t grow.
Summer: Wet. Really, really wet. We got stuck trying to harvest the oilseed rape (canola), the same crop that we planted into dust the previous year. Disease is prevalent in the already weak crops.
Late summer: For two weeks it didn’t rain. Somehow we managed to get all our harvesting done in this patch. A lot of others were not so lucky.
Autumn: Wet. Again. The ground was already sodden from the summer and so there was nowhere for it to go. Floods around the country.

Well this may make me sound like a winging farmer: I’m not, honestly. The way the climate is going it looks as if the only thing we can predict about the weather is that it is going to be increasingly unpredictable.

I’m not an organic farmer, I don’t think that we should ignore modern science and it is my view that there is a place for it in the future of agriculture. Having said this however I don’t think we have been going in the right direction these past few years.

Cereal verities are bred up by global conglomerates who by and large are the same global conglomerates who sell us our fertilizer and spray. It is no surprise that to achieve the yield potential that these varieties are capable of a great deal of inputs are needed.

The argument for this is that the world’s population is exploding and all these people need to be fed, ergo production must be increased at all costs. This sounds reasonable enough, but to my eyes it doesn’t really hold up to closer scrutiny.

How much food the world is currently capable of producing is hard to calculate but there is certainly enough to go around. That’s not to say people aren’t starving, in fact the number of malnourished people is going up, but this has more to do with poverty and distribution than anything else.

The biggest cause of increase in demand for food is not the population increases in the third world, but a shift in consumption patterns in these countries. It is taken as a given that as a country develops, its population will ape that of the western world. So far this is proving to be true.

But should we just accept this as a fact? 1 in 5 early deaths in the UK are linked to over consumption of red meat. And yet as farmers we are pressurised into producing meat at lower and lower costs. Why? Meat is a very uneconomical way of turning land into food. I’m not suggestion we all become vegetarian. For health reasons the human diet should ideally contain some meat. Some. The western diet is currently wasting the world’s resources and killing its population. Surely to just accept this as fact is madness?

If the world were to move away from an over reliance on meat, and also to reduce wastage (a topic I won’t go into here, needless to say it really gets my dander up) then it would have a realistic chance of feeding the world’s population without resorting to massively yielding crops that rely on massive inputs, for generations to come.

If anything the current system of crop breeding could well lead to more starvation. Essentially we have spent the past two generations producing varieties that yield well in ideal circumstances. The trouble with this that the way the climate seems to be going, we are going to have less and less ideal circumstances. The UKs crops largely failed this year, we had less than ¾ of last year’s yield. America, Canada, Europe and many other countries also had harvests verging on the disastrous. As a result wheat prices have soured. Next year, who knows what will happen.

This wildly varying, unstable market might course the price of a loaf to go up in Britain or the States, but it isn’t us who is really going to suffer. Imagine you are a third world farmer. What do you do when it is a bad year and your crops fail? Will it help feed your family knowing that you could potentially have had a better harvest, had the conditions been different?

And what about when there is a good world harvest? When prices plummet from £200pmt to half that, or lower. What does this farmer do then?
Surely it’s time to stop maximising our yields, and start stabilising them. Let’s not think about what they can do, but what they will do in the real world, were droughts and floods are going to be ever more likely.   

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