Ellie Brown discusses the sustainability of the future of farming, inspired by her summer internship with ‘The Organic Research Centre’. She speaks to Anaïs Rousseau to gain a deeper insight into the impacts of farming on human and environmental health.
Across Europe, there is continued restructuring to agricultural businesses, with more farming families going out of business each year. In England in 2000, 52% of people farming were over 55 and some without an obvious successor. An older demographic of farmers often brings with it a lack of innovation, and a report by the European Commission found that these smaller farms usually have lower productivity. These smaller, more numerous farms, however, are often better environmentally, conserving more biodiversity and soil through different landscape elements like hedgerows and trees. Nevertheless, some of these smaller businesses are being bought and incorporated into larger, more profitable farms that are repeatedly decreasing labour force, making farming support even fewer people.
We will require an extra 70% more food produced by farmers by 2050, and this is when we disregard current problems of food waste, overproduction and unequal allocation which when solved, would naturally eradicate hunger problems for some people. When considering food production, it seems that we’re at a fork in the road. Some companies are lobbying for there to be more GMO, more technology, more chemicals. Whereas, on the flip side of the coin, there is a movement towards natural farming, interested in growing biodiversity instead of wiping it out. To me, the only thing that makes sense is finding a method that can provide for humans, but not destroy the planet in the process. With the world’s human population ever increasing and ‘food-security’ becoming a real buzzword, there is a need to make farming sustainable for the economy, society and environment.
Grass-root movements working towards protecting our degraded environment are growing and a book I read recently titled ‘One Straw Revolution’ is nothing but another nugget of inspiration. Utilising the wisdom Masanobu Fukuoka laid out in this book will return us closer to nature, in a technique coined ‘Natural Farming’. This is a way of life, a conscious decision to ‘do-nothing’, not in the literal sense, but to work wholly with nature. It means no tilling, no weeding, no pesticides, replicating what nature is—natural. It works. It provides and it will continue to provide.
Nothing is much more fundamental to our survival than our security; food-security being a large part of this. Natural farming and similar methods take time to perfect, but natural systems seem like the most sustainable way forward to me. ‘Re-rooting ourselves’ is an article I already wrote for WILD and talks about the need to reconnect with nature and thus ourselves.
An interview with Anaïs Rousseau…
The future of agriculture and our food lies within the hands of young farmers and agricultural researchers—one of whom, Anaïs Rousseau, I have interviewed for this article. Anaïsis is a French student studying for a Masters in Agricultural Engineering and who I had the pleasure of working with during my summer internship with The Organic Research Centre. She has provided insightful, holistic and innovative thinking into the future of agriculture and how changing our perceptions of such an important sector of society is vital.
Type of farm you grew up on:
Arable, Conventional (uses chemicals) and no till for around 20 years.
Size of farm: 230ha
What does sustainable agriculture mean to you?
To me, sustainable farming means to combine livestock, crops, trees and perennial crops, with soil covered by plants yearlong. It’s respecting the soil, humans and animals’ health whilst managing well resources such as water, sun and organic matter through agroforestry, crops and livestock, no till, cover crops, organic methods… this is the best option to me. Crops and livestock must be adapted to economic, social and environmental context. E.g. Martin Wolf of Wakelyn’s farm in Suffolk has his own wheat population that is diverse and suits his individual farm environment.
What do you think about chemicals being used that are potentially damaging to human and environmental health?
Chemicals CAN be damaging to human and environmental health, they are dangerous, and you often forget that the first victims are farmers who use it because they don’t know other solutions. They have to be used as “fireman chemicals”: only when needed. It’s not a sustainable solution; farmers, researchers, agronomists, advisors have to find a way to not use them. We need to develop and improve balanced systems, where we don’t need chemicals.
Glyphosate has been in the news again recently, with Monsanto being fined in America for the chemical causing terminal cancer in Dewayne Johnson. What do you think about France wishing to phase out Glyphosate in the next 3 years and will it be harder now the EU has decided to keep it in use until 2022?
As I said in previous question, Glyphosate is a chemical, it’s absolutely not a definitive solution. BUT, in France, it’s not used like in Argentina or Brazil for example, not to the same quantity etc. Lots of farmers use Glyphosate to destroy cover crops before sewing the main crop. Most of them are practicing conservative farming and Glyphosate is a tool to develop techniques that are protecting soil (don’t forget no soil = no food…). Conservative farmers are not using Glyphosate with pleasure; they are trying to find better solutions. But this needs time, money and most of all: help from stakeholders, research, government etc. They are developing a sustainable system. Organic farming with ploughing every year and no cover crops is not sustainable, even if it’s not using chemicals. This development needs more than three years and so if France bans Glyphosate in three years, lots of farmers will go back to ploughing, and probably stop cover crops because they won’t have another choice. This is the REAL catastrophe. We should keep Glyphosate as a short-term solution, develop and foster conservative farming, keeping in mind the goal “conservative organic farming”. To me, that’s the future, and that’s possible.
How important is farmland wildlife in making a productive farm?
Farmland wildlife is needed for farming system resilience and balance. It helps to control and manage pests, weeds etc. So, the more the system is balanced, the more it will keep itself clean, healthy and resilient, meaning you will have to buy less chemicals (or organic solutions) to keep it healthy AND you will probably get better yield in the long term. Reaching this balance is a long-term process, farming is learning to be patient and have faith.
Do you think trees, hedges and similar practices are important?
Trees, and plants as a whole are benefits in all aspects:
1) Social: They reconcile farmers and society with the landscape, diversify production and create possibilities. And you’re just happier with trees.
2) Economic: They can enhance existing and develop new incomes whilst decreasing external inputs (IF well managed).
3) Environmental: It’s proven = RESILIENCE! Agroforestry systems are complex to develop, manage and understand, yet if they are well managed they are really efficient. However, if not, or if you plant trees just to “harvest subsidies” they can be unsuccessful. That’s why, again, farmers need help from research, stakeholders, schools, etc. to develop efficient systems. In French, a farmer = un paysan and landscape = paysage, it’s not by chance that these two words have the same origin…
How do you think we can get more young people involved in agriculture? What are the benefits of younger generations going into food production?
Go farming! In France, I don’t know if it’s the same in UK, but farming can suffer from stereotypes. We need reconnection between production and consumption. Farming isn’t just walking in mud with wellies, it’s more than that. It’s growing food, feeding the world, taking care of the environment, looking after animals, sharing knowledges, trying new things again and again, praying for rain at the good moment, being vulnerable to the weather, losing everything in a second because of a storm. Farmers innovate every day, and they have to, it’s a very modern job. To get more young people involved, we need to promote farming, and show that it’s possible to develop sustainable systems and that some farmers are optimistic about future. Lots of young people don’t want to be involved because it’s a hard job. Younger generations bring new ideas and new visions about farming, as-well as modernity, creativity. It’s very important. And, we have to be pragmatic, if all farmers go to retirement, they will have to be replaced!
Anaïs talks of the complexity of developing sustainable agricultural systems and how in life rarely is something outright wrong. The use of chemicals, as she describes, enables soils to be protected whilst we transition to a low-input system that doesn’t require non-renewable solutions. It’s vital that these new techniques are the focus of development and that ‘conservative organic agriculture’ is the ultimate goal. It’s also clear that younger minds are needed to produce this advancement in the sector, and to achieve this we require a transformation of opinion around farming to one that deems it exciting, significant and respected. It’s another move towards re-connecting ourselves with nature and living as a global community that protects the life around it rather than exploiting it for personal, short-sighted gain.
Ellie Brown studies Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Exeter. She is currently working abroad at Sunseed, an educational community in Spain focused on developing ways to live sustainably in a drylands environment. Ellie is passionate about sustainable living and hopes to gain practical experience in permaculture. In her spare time, Ellie enjoys climbing and cooking .