Big & Small Picture

IMG-20140123-00720 copyI just got back from the Organic Research Centre’s 2014 Organic Producer conference at Aston University last night; and I love how these meetings and training days give you a dual perspective on the world of environmental food production (and in fact the world in general). On the one hand you have the larger plenary sessions, setting out the ‘big picture’ case for sustainable intensification (although I still think I prefer the slightly semantically but importantly different ‘intensive sustainability’); then you have networking, chats, workshops and smaller sessions looking at practical ways to improve marketing, diversity, fill skills gaps, which crop varieties to grow, and everything in between.

I think the difference between intensive sustainability and sustainable intensification is quite important; even if most delegates agreed that neither phrase is particuarly relevant if only applied to the growing of food, rather than the distributing of it (the suggestion that there are already currently enough calories to feed 14bn people, let alone the often-cited 10bn, was raised several times, pointing to a problem with wastage and supply chains rather than growing practices per se; even though one point of view was that it’s also irrelevant how many calories are being produced globally, that fact remains that many thousands are still under-nourished and need food now). The two phrases start from opposing ends and seem to edge towards each other, but actually can never meet in the middle as the world-views are from completely different frameworks.

An intensive system does not suggest sustainability when viewed from the perspective of getting as much from the land as possible right now, and to hell with the consequences to the soil, surrounding environment and people, biodiversity, climate change et al. This is a short-term intensivity, and therefore unsustainable. Making it more sustainable is of course possible, in many ways; but unless the original premise is altered, small green tweaks can’t have much effect on the overal sustainability. The best scenario from this starting point will be ‘slightly-sustainabler intensification’. However, conversely, the caricature of sustainable systems (read organic), is that they are very low-yielding and wastful in terms of unproductive land. Figures and studies have challenged this; in particular Prof Lampkin’s inclusive of efficiency of systems, and productivity measures in terms of people nourished from the system rather than simply yield of crop produced: this then takes into account off-farm inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, proteins and other feed), and organic systems fare much better with this interpretation, even ignoring other benefits such as jobs and biodiversity. Organic systems are also a long-way behind conventional in terms of research and development; organic systems have been steadily improving yields, but are still now only at the levels of conventional systems in the 1970s, surely completely due to the boom in research into crop seeds, nutrients and technology in conventional agriculture. Intensifying this sustainable system does seem possible however, with more research, new seed and varieties suitable for organic systems, and resource-saving technology.

So I resolved to carry on trying to make the most of my own sustainable system to help it produce the most it can, what Ian Tolhurst calls ‘sustainable optimisation’; rather than greenwashing a system which starts from the wrong kind of premise. I know I could grow more ‘intensively’, and still not compromise the sustainability: there is an ample supply of manure on the farm where I rent my land which I can put to better use and compost better; I can sow more overwintering green manures; I can inter-crop slow-growing rows more; and every year I get more experienced so know which varieties are worth growing, so waste less. Plus I’m hoping to get more involved with seed-saving trials this year; not only should this lead to fewer inputs in the shape of bought-in seed, but also the crops grown should be selected to do especially well in my site and conditions, therefore produce more. So hurrah for putting big pictures into small frames!


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