The headquarters of a global bank at Canary Wharf seems an unlikely venue to crash the heads together of researchers, farmers, food producers and politicians to explore how to make farming more sustainable. But, courtesy of HSBC, it was a magnificent setting for just that last week.
Diversity and resilience in agriculture
The host was Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF), an organisation that has championed a whole farm approach to deliver prosperous farming, improvements to the environment and engagement with the community since the early 1990s. LEAF produce, known in the UK particularly through Waitrose, is a global marque with over 900 producers farming some 250,000 hectares across the world.
The theme for the day – how diversity can support resilience – was explored through crops and livestock, retail markets, biodiversity and variety in our diets. All thought provoking and variations themselves on the theme but each with a very different tone.
Gordon Jamieson of the John Innes Centre in Norwich gave a startling insight into the wheat genome – longer when laid end to end than the human one by a factor of 5 – and the risks that wheat growing could face if there are even small hikes in temperature for short periods due to climate change. Overall, there could be drops in yields of 25-30% globally by 2050. The conclusion, not a comfortable one, is we need to think hard about the risks and rewards of opening up the genetics tool box.
Livestock came next and an insight into changes in pig breeding over 50 or more years. Dr Grant Walling of JSR Ltd., a LEAF producer, explained that breeders have focused on boosting productivity and feed efficiency for much of that time, but now issues such as robustness, adaptability, quality, and environment are moving up the agenda. Grant was confident too we could get by on the genetics of two to three breeds. But I was left wondering where this has got us to. Good eateries are now serving up a heritage breed - saddleback pork - for its taste. If the industry has ignored flavour for half a century does it mean we can afford to eat more but the eating quality has gone down? Shouldn’t we try to do the opposite and eat less meat but of better quality if our diets are to be more sustainable? There was little mention of food waste either. Production ‘efficiency’ now means we grow grain to feed pigs but throw the food away that used to be their feed. Our leftovers have fed pigs for millennia but not just at present in the UK.
The talk on retail markets and their ‘diversity’ left me wanting more. Fraser Everitt from Kantar World Panel, who are well known to retail nerds like me, gave the lie to talk about the collapse of supermarkets. Yes, the discounters Lidl and Aldi are growing apace and yes, the internet is taking trade but we seemed to do as many shopping trips in 2013 as back in 2009. Fraser said that consumers have lost their belief in notionally ‘low’ prices and producers now need to think about values, not just price. I was left wondering how diversity really fits in and how we can grow diversity in the types of outlets we go to. My sense is that the alternatives – farm shops, markets, box and bag schemes - are all growing but who is collecting the data on them? Much of Kantar’s shopper data is based on bar codes so produce traded without them may be left out. Our habits might be changing in profound ways but it isn’t visible in the data that is being collected.
Caroline Drummond, LEAF CEO, persuaded us that we need variety in our diets. Simply eating a rainbow of foods (not Skittles!) is a good place to start and more vegetables is key. Over 100 years or so the vegetable varieties we grow have diminished tenfold and globally we rely on just 12 plant types and 5 animal species for three quarters of our food. Caroline’s message, too, was that producers should think more about nutritional health and food quality than producing food as a bulk commodity. For that to happen, a shift to thinking more of consumers and connecting better with their needs seems inevitable.
The presentations finished with biodiversity, a more familiar ‘diversity’ than others, perhaps. Two passionate farmers challenged any simplistic opposition between farmers and the environment. In fact, both producers displayed huge passion for doing the right thing – working to grow biodiversity and make their land home to wildlife – and backed it up with details of the techniques, technology, practice and management they use to make it a reality. No simple solutions but ones showing care, skill and knowledge.
The debate which followed was hosted by the BBC’s Tom Heap, Countryfile’s investigative reporter, who deftly dug deeper and teased out some difficult questions around the ban on pesticides affecting pollinators, scale, mixed farming, use of livestock to complement arable farming, and life in or outside of the EU.
Three strong themes emerged that made the day particularly worthwhile for me:
- The need for farmers and food producers to connect with their customers. Through direct marketing and other outlets they need to talk to consumers, get feedback and build values into the understanding of food at both ends of the food chain
- A challenge to the notion that growing bigger is the inevitable way forward. LEAF president Stephen Fell pointed out that some farms had grown too big with machines that couldn’t get on the land in tough weather
- A sense that farmers – LEAF and otherwise – are paying more attention than ever to soils. There may just be opportunities for more mixed farming and a return to rotation, especially on those arable farms in the East producing wheat and oil seed rape year on year.
Perhaps the most salient message to end on was from former agriculture minister Michael Jack: to recognise that what the UK and the EU has to offer is its science base and knowledge to cope with volatile change. If we can contribute to food security it won’t be so much by producing more ourselves but helping others beyond Europe to do so. In other words, teach a man to fish ….
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