FOOD FOR THOUGHT
What about the bigger picture? The current food system seems hard to justify against a backdrop of climate change, biodiversity loss and an ever-growing population presenting both malnutrition and obesity. TheCovid-19 pandemic demonstrated the fragility of our food supply where a high dependency on foreign imports operated. Many have advocated for agricultural intensification in maximising unit productivity of land, with private sector market forces prevailing. That prescription appears not to be working, even exacerbating declines is soil health, a rise in pesticide resistance, and in driving ever greater impacts on the environment of the UK and overseas. As the new words of ‘resilience’ and ‘regenerative’ pervade, and with the UK Government moving to reward farming practices that deliver environmental and wider societal outcomes, can we achieve better diets and environmentally benign, productive agriculture?
STRAIGHT FROM THE EXPERTS
Food systems need to change if we want to farm without chemicals
“Current market pressures push farmers toward specialisation and homogenisation – the segregation of crops and livestock, and the dedication of large areas to just a few species. Farming in this way is not very productive without inputs, because it lacks the ecological relationships that cycle nutrients and suppress weeds, pests, and diseases.
“We could regain a lot of productivity through diverse crop rotations, intercrops, agroforestry, integrating crops with livestock, and rehabilitating natural habitats around farms – but these practices would currently require huge investment from farmers for low returns. Widespread uptake seems unlikely without wider change to the economics and politics of food systems.
“Changing how we measure ‘productivity’ would be a good place to start. The yield per hectare of a wheat field in a low input system may never quite match a highly fertilised, pesticide-protected field in a favourable climate, but should this come at any cost? Instead, we could attend to the increasing evidence that low input, but highly diverse systems could produce more nutrition per hectare (protein and vitamins as well as calories) while offering greater resilience to climate change and reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts.”
Agricultural land has value beyond food production
“Covering about 70% of the UK, farming has a huge role to play in providing an array of public goods, on top of its vital role in food production. These benefits are described as ‘ecosystem services’ and range from absorbing CO2 to providing landscapes where people can unwind.
“These societal benefits often come at a cost to farmers; for instance, the UK’s farmers are responsible for managing hundreds of thousands of miles of public footpaths, bridleways and other rights of way that pass over agricultural land. It’s the general public who reap the benefits – valued at over £19 billion per year.
“Decreasing reliance on pesticides and fertilisers may negatively impact food production but might increase the enjoyment provided by the countryside from recreation and natural beauty. Better understanding of the increases in costs for farmers, and the benefits gained by society, provides a starting point from which farm losses can be better compensated, for example by environmental land management schemes.”
The need for Plan B
“To what extent will tweaking existing agriculture be sufficient in meeting the scale of change needed? There is significant milage in implementing what we know better, from bench research through to farm practice. Research will inevitably continue to move the dial towards more choice and efficiency. By example, as gene editing gains acceptance with regulators and society, plant breeding is setting itself for another era. Understanding soil health is still in its infancy. Undoubtedly, a ‘business-as-usual’ research approach will deliver iterative gains, but will that, even when significant, be sufficient.
“Is a Plan B needed?
“In my view, investments in game-changing technology that identify new food types or formulations or practices do need to be considered. Many areas of potential are already off-the blocks: vertical farming; converting organic waste into animal feed; plant-based meat substitutes; algal systems. These Brave New World-like technologies, and others yet to be realised, all present opportunity. We might also move towards a holistic redesign of what we grow where, against global sustainability metrics, to create a radically different food system. Some of the largest crop cultivations by area are to coffee, cocoa, tobacco… non-essentials! Commercial viability, as a outcome of government subsidy and the publics willingness to accept such food choices, will be critical.”