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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 13:17 GMT
Sowing the seeds of farming's future
Les Firbank
Les Firbank

Global food stocks are running low and rich nations should not take security of supplies for granted, argues Les Firbank. In this week's Green Room, he outlines his vision for sustainable farming amid the uncertainties we face in the 21st Century.

Combine harvester (Getty Images)
The area for food production will decline as farmland is lost to housing, bio-energy cropping and, ultimately, sea level rise
In the last 12 months, the price of wheat has doubled, and all of a sudden, talk of food security is back on the agenda.

Global food stocks are running low.

There are three main reasons:

  • increasing use of crops for bio-energy, especially in the US
  • increasing demand for meat and milk products in the developing world (livestock are often fed grain and seeds, even if for only part of the year)
  • poor harvests around the world following droughts and floods

We are already seeing changes to farming. In Europe, the set-aside programme, a way of managing food surpluses by paying farmers not to grow crops, will no longer apply.

This alone will not be enough; the area for food production will decline as farmland is lost to housing, bio-energy cropping and, ultimately, sea level rise.

This means we will need to produce more food per hectare from the farmland that will remain.

Lessons from history

The last time that food shortage was a real issue in Britain was around the time of World War II.

Tractor pulling a plough (Image: AP)
It will not be acceptable to increase production without regard for the environment

Production was increased both by bringing marginal land into use, and intensification through pesticides, artificial fertilisers, new varieties and new machinery.

But this was at a high environmental cost, not all of which has been reversed. The importance of land management to water quality, flood control, soil conservation, landscape beauty and biodiversity had simply not been appreciated.

Only recently have we started to think about how agriculture should contribute to managing climate change by controlling the release of greenhouse gases and by storing carbon in the soil.

It will not be acceptable to increase production without regard for the environment, and we will increasingly demand food that is safe and contributes to healthy diets.

Equally, it will not be acceptable to lose those historic agricultural landscapes important to our emotional well-being and connection with nature.

Fresh vision

Societies will need a new vision of sustainable agriculture that addresses production, environmental and social needs together, that balances our own potential and needs in Britain with those of Europe and rest of the world.

Woman working with a crop of carrots (Getty Images)
An excessive supply of food just exports environmental problems

Moreover, this new vision needs to be flexible enough to cope with sudden change, whether this is the spread of a new disease like bluetongue virus, changing patterns of rainfall or increased demand for cereals.

While no one knows what future farming will be like in detail, we know enough to start to sketch what would help its sustainability.

We need to be more self-sufficient in food, water and energy. This will protect us in times of rapidly changing global conditions, and will help ensure that we do not export our problems to other parts of the world.

Indeed, given the suitability of Britain's soils and climate, we should think about developing our potential to export more of our food and energy - it will be needed.

We also need diversity in agriculture. There will be no single path to sustainability; organic farming and hi-tech plant and animal breeding will be part of the mix, possibly concentrated in different parts of the country and serving different markets.

Waste not...

Controlling waste in the food chain is another issue that needs to be addressed. There is no point producing more food from the land without trying to use what we already have more efficiently.

Maize lying in a field (Getty Images)
Wasting food crops results in a valuable resource being lost

We throw away around a third of our food; this can be reduced, and what is left could be used for biogas energy production.

We will need to accept that rural landscapes may change, as they have always done, and to think about how change should be managed.

Agricultural land should be valued more highly by society, as should land that is needed to supply our rivers and reservoirs with the water we need and the land that will be required to deliver renewable energy.

It will become harder to balance the needs of everyone; perhaps we need a new land planning system that takes a more holistic view of our future needs than we have now.

These changes will not just happen by themselves; we need investment in industry, people and technologies.

Perhaps the biggest change is that we all need to see agriculture as one of our most important industries for the future.

Professor Les Firbank is head of the North Wyke Research Station at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, UK

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Les Firbank? Are we struggling to meet the growing demand for food? Can we adapt without damaging the environment and historic landscapes? Can countries like the UK ease the global burden by producing more of its own food?

If agricultural subsidies were reduced, or eliminated entirely in the EU, US and Canada, then the developing world would finally be allowed to produce food for themselves at real market prices rather than having to rely on artificially cheaper food from the developed world. It would benefit them by creating a natural industry rather than developing more land for pollution heavy industry, and it would barely hurt the developed world, as less than 5% of GDP is from agriculture, and jobs would be developed anyway, especially in the US with such low unemployment.
Tony Kaminski, Eugene, OR

Land use is as important an issue to the environment as global warming. Increasing the amount of land used for agriculture is reducing the land available for wildlife, leading to increasing rate of extinctions. Unfortunately the environmental movement is actually making things worse. While it might have noticed how biofuels are incredibly destructive they continue to press for organic foods. Yet organic methods yield about 20-25 % less per acre than traditionals. So if we in the UK went 100% organic we would need another 20% land to produce the same amount. That would mean chopping down all the remaining woodland for example or importing more fuel implying more destruction of wildlife in developing countries. If the world population was 1 billion it might be ok. But in the current conditions we have a series of hard choice to find the least bad option. We should seriously consider policies such as: - us of GM food combined with use of natural fertilisers - defining minimum sizes of wildlife reserves and hence limits on farming land
John, London

near future all people round the world will face food problem due to negative planning of all countries to the fact that there are wide areas of deserts and forgotten and deserted land on earth , if each country start reclaiming lands outside cities there shall be no food problem, Egypt lives on 4% of its land and carelessly not utilising the rest of land to agriculture though river nile and rain water is sufficient to solve its food and wheat problems , egypt bigest world importer to wheat , also sudan a very rich agriculture country but lazy efforts and no plans put the country in povrty , its time that worldwide liars of politicians that led to wars and forgot the future developments of people , these politians should be shopped and runing countries need economic leaders to solve the disasters of liar politians made, and to help and solve problems of near future food shortages , also this few bilionairs sin the world should start subsidising to experts and projects to sa! ve the world from fam and to reclaim more lands in the world
Magdy F.Al Desoky, Egypt

In cattle and goat pastures in western Texas, we began to manage native grasses & plants and also grow foods organically for 20 years I know of. Now living in north eastern tip of Maryland, we are amazed at Pennsylvania's decades old progress in keeping farm lands *as* farms, strongly encouraging awareness of and "pushing" sustainable crops & livestock production. You write would do well to meet Joel Salatin of southern Virgina 1 of 2 major leaders in sustainabiity for 30 years now.
Annette Altgelt, Castell TX USA

I agree that change is inevitable for the future of humanity and the planet. As an aspiring tropical organic farmer, I promise to put the soil and its inhabitants first before the greedy temptations of global markets, because thats what needs to stop. If you are looking for the guity, you need only look into a mirror, especially in the USA, who are lavished with bananas, coffee and sugar on every corner of their towns. In todays agriculture, dynamic practices and polycultures must take the place of mass monocultures which are because of mass industries and our immense demand for tropical products. If we need to make a change, it starts at home, eat local, spend money more wisely and nearer to home, give up luxury items so others may simply live another day.It takes all of us, not just me, the aspiring farmer.
Danielle Gaitan, Willow Creek, Ca USA

Agree the problem is immanent, and please see continuing coverage in these issues though they are not forefront here in the US. Am disappointed the topic of overpopulation only gets a cursory look over. It's easiest to always look to (hope) science as our way out, but ultimately it will only be a temporary fix unless we make concessions. Though population has reached a steady state in some places (Europe and China), those places are still overpopulated. US is playing catch-up. Probably only Canada and Russia have ideal population densities but that's been a function of climate and not the case in Ontario. When we hit peak oil production it will be very challenging to carry on like we're use to. Only a combination of population reduction and stabilization, eco-friendly activities and targeting of a sustainable standard of living will we guarantee the longevity of our lives as we know it. I believe the goal needs to be to live in peace and harmony with nature even if w! e live in cities. The goal should be to leave ½ of the planet available for creatures other than man.
Bernie, Wantagh, USA

It seems to me like the big issue here is increased demand for meat and dairy - since several tons of cereal are needed to create a far smaller amount of meat. I can't be bothered to explain the possible solution to this, in a world where more soil-poisoning intensive farming and unsafe GM technologies have their well-meaning, but ultimately foolish, supporters.
Chandra, London

Absolute tosh, there is a slight rise in food costs which will end. There is more than enough capability to produce food as our impoverished farmers can attest to only too well. Where do these doom mungers come from, is there a course at college that they all go on. I despair about the whining fearful media these days
Jeremy Slawson, Plymouth UK

Many citizens and policymakers around the world are recognizing that the segregation of food production outside of cities and towns no longer makes sense in an increasingly urbanised world. A new sub-acre farming method called SPIN-Farming integrates agriculture into the built environment in a commercially viable manner. It also removes the two big barriers to entry for first generation farmers - they do not need much land or financial resources to do SPIN. Best of all, they can set up their farm operations right in the middle of urban jungles or suburban car towns and cater to the densely populated area's food needs and eliminate long distance transport. By re-casting farming as a small business in a city or town, SPIN positions agriculture as integral part of urban and suburban economies, rather than something a part from them. SPIN is providing a tool for re-defining farming for the 21st century - sub-acre, low capital intensive, environmentally friendly, close to markets, entrepreneurially-driven. And it is helping to spark a farming revival that cuts across class, geography, generations, and ideologies to provide common ground, quite literally, beneath everyone's feet.
Roxanne Christensen, Philadelphia, PA, U.S.

Currently the biggest threat to the world is overpopulation in the countries which are the least able to support the needs of their populations. If more was done to help those countries become self-sufficient, there would be less migration to countries which are currently self-sufficient. This ever growing trend will eventualy result in the self suficient countries becoming unable to support their ever-growing populations, and instead of standards of living leveling up they will level down throughout the world.
George J. Smith, Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia

Sustainable environment-friendly agriculture means high-yield agriculture. If we don't use modern technology we will have to plough up more of the wild places. Universal organic farming is a luxury only rich westerners can afford. We need to take a dispassionate and scientific view of how we can feed people. That means looking at each method on its merits. All living things are made of chemicals and practise genetic engineering!
Peter, Düsseldorf, Germany

I agree - though microproteins should be encouraged (rather than intensive livestock rearing), together with local sourcing of produce. Of course, we'll have to pay more for our food, as a percentage of expenditure. Good - it doesn't get much more important!
Ginny Battson, Herefordshire, UK

Buy your food at your local farm. Join a CSA by buying a farm share this spring from your local farmer. You'll get beautiful seasonal vegitables every week of the season for a modest up-front price. Plant a vegitable bed in your backyard. If you live in the city, join your community garden. If you live on the coast, visit the fishermen's co-op. If you live in the woods, tap the maple trees this spring. Get a hunting permit. Learn about the edible plants and mushrooms that grow in your area. If more people take this advice, we will begin to make the most of every acre of every city, suburb, town and countryside in our world, it will reduce the pressure on huge factory farms to produce more and more corn, wheat and soybeans, it will give us real food security, and our lives will be richer and our food healthier and much more delicious.
Andrew Kahrl, Woolwich, Maine, USA

One thing never mentioned here is GM food, which was developed with the purpose of feeding an overpopulated planet, as the crops provide very high yields. However, most people will try to sell nonsense such as animal genes being spliced into GM food and such. GM could feed the world if we would only let it...
Douglas, Wokingham, UK

its easy without the farmers we die, they should get all the help wanted to get the farms up and running again, produce all the food we need, but the big problem is with the supermarkets, will they still be allowed to rip the farmer off. make the farmers great again
mr m j rowe, nottingham england

A timely wake-up call, but why not take Les Firbank's observations to their logical, and perhaps only, realistic conclusion? Agriculture must be THE most important industry (not just "one of.."). We all have to eat, there are growing numbers of people, and climate change plus peak oil will exert pressures on the current food distribution chains. Logically food production should be local to reduce distribution, and should be small-scale. This doesn't mean putting the clock back: traditional practices combine well with the latest technology. History shows that smallholders, market gardeners and peasant farmers can produce up to a dozen times more fresh food from a given area than extensive and mechanised farming. Add variety - mixed farming so that animals can use marginal bits of land while crops are grown on the better ground, plus a range of crops rather than monocultures - and maybe we have some dynamic ingredients for inevitable change.
Andi Clevely, Llanidloes, Wales

I agree entirely. Thank you, Mr Firbank -- and thank you, BBC, for publishing this work.
Maria Amadei Ashot, London, UK

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