Understanding the facts

Susan Atkinson argues that we need to change zeitgeist if we’re to solve the problems of food and farming

While food prices rise and the world economy remains in crisis people at large are increasingly desperate – yet they seem to feel that if only the farmers sorted themselves out, then the rest of society could carry on as they are. But the solutions that our critics suggest reveal a deep lack of understanding – both of farming, and of the ecological framework in which we must operate.

So farmers are told that we need to stop producing commodities and sell to local markets – although the commodities in question are the staple foods, which must be grown in large amounts, which means they need large acreages.  There is no way that I am ever going to be able to take a tonne of wheat to the local farmers’ market and sell it.  Nor will dairy farmers be able to sell in such a manner, especially with bovine TB rampaging round the country. The logistics of isolated rural areas trying to market goods in such a way are impossible while the idea of a largely urban population trying to source all its food from small and local producers is a complete fantasy.

Farmers are also told to farm organically, although I doubt whether many organic advocates realize that organic farmers may be just as dependent on oil as conventional farmers.  Our vermin controller has an organic farmer client who harrows his fields, lets the weeds grow, harrows again and repeats this process five times in each field.  In the meantime our contractor takes a 24-metre sprayer once through our fields with weedkillers that are targeted to remove just what we intend them to remove. So which is the most damaging to the environment?  Early agro-chemicals undoubtedly causes severe problems, but some of the present ones are so species specific that we can use them on conservation headlands (which are not mown or seldom mown) for the pernicious weeds we have to control by law.

But then, not all farmers who farm organically do so exclusively.  Many large farms have some land farmed organically and some conventionally, or even have separate farms for the two systems.  Their machinery is far larger and far heavier than the kind we need for our small farm.  This raises questions of just how damaging to the soil structure such machinery is.  Also, large farms have just the same weather windows as we do in which to do the work.  In wet harvests, we can wait longer for the crops to dry before driving in the combine while the large farms (organic or conventional) have to go as soon as the crop will go through the machine.  That means we are combining at 16-17% moisture while they can combine at over 20% moisture – but then they must use more fuel to dry the crop down to the correct moisture for storage (under 15% for wheat), or the crop will rot in the barns.  At present, yields from organic farms are lower than those from conventional farms yet farmers are constantly being told that we need to grow more food to feed the world’s growing population,

Then there is the often repeated statistic of just how much methane is produced by cows, as if the problems could be solved by slaughtering all the cattle.  Methane is not produced by cows, but by grass digesting bacteria, whether that is in cows or in damp conditions. It is estimated that two thirds of such methane is from the rotting vegetation and leaves of equatorial rainforest, which are the “lungs of the planet” producing a great proportion of our oxygen supplies Also, while about 75% of the UK is managed by farming, about 70% of that land is grass and will not be anything else.  Centuries of farming have sorted out what land is suitable for crops and what is not.  That grassland has to be managed by grazing and over the centuries the plants have evolved so that they use animals to distribute their seeds, with the result that if seeds do not pass through animal intestines they will not germinate at all.  Most of the wheat grown in this country is feed grade only and can never be used for bread. Barley is grown principally for animal feed (and farmers do have to practice crop rotation).  The by-products of the brewing trade, the residual pulp from oilseed rape (whether used for food or bio-fuel) and sugar beet go for animal feed, as do carrots and potatoes rejected by the supermarkets. If the animals were not there they would have to go to landfill and their rotting process would also emit methane.

And so it goes on.  It is human nature to blame any problem on others and look for a quick fix solution that allows us to carry on as before, but that course of action is not an option.  Changes are needed but nothing will change until people recognize that, as they all need to eat, they all are needed to start to solve the problems. Solutions will not happen overnight but instead plans will have to be worked out that enable us to move step by step from the present situation to one that can enable farmers to produce food while tackling the problems of dwindling oil supplies, extreme weather patterns and so on. That means there will have to be many changes to our economic system in general and personal lifestyles as well as focused research that really looks for solutions and not profits for big companies.  Action that should have been taken about two decades ago needs to be taken before the situation gets worse, though all that is likely to happen is another global summit or two.  Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be getting people to realise that there are no easy ways forward.

Susan Atkinson, together with her husband, farms around 200 acres (80 hectares) in South Notts, close to the Leicester border. The farm has been in her husband’s family since 1919 and now, after many a transformation, is dedicated principally to conventional arable wheat, beans and oilseed rape which are mostly sold to local, smaller, grain merchants.; and also grass cut hay and haylage for local horses. The Atkinsons are now in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and their farm is home to several rare species.

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