Are we about to make the same mistakes again?

Are we about to make the same mistakes again?

This is the question I have recently discussed on the blog of the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC 2014).

As you may have noticed, I’m particularly interested in agriculture, livestock, food security and sustainable development. I am going to participate in the ORFC next year [2014], in the session about resilience farming. I am looking forward to the event and engaging with farmers. There is so much to learn from farmers. Believe me!

Meanwhile, I am pasting below the text I wrote for the ORFC blog.

Are we about to make the same mistakes again?

The recent news on the possibility of having mega-farms in the UK [1], mirroring the type that can be found in the USA, highlights the challenges that are facing the agricultural sector at the moment. On the one hand, the amount of food and drinks produced in the UK that go to waste annually is still 4.2 million tonnes [2]. On the other hand, markets and food companies leave us under the impression that we need to increase production at all costs, because consumers want cheap food. At the same time, farmers are under pressure to produce more for less, protect the environment and be competitive at local, national and even international level.

In this climate, it is easy to adopt an over-simplistic approach. One may ask, is it really the consumer who drives the demand, or do the big industries decide the supply? The problem is obviously much more complex than it seems and it would take too long to illustrate here every aspect of it. Advocating mega-farms, however, could be dangerous if we want to build long-term resilience into our society.

Of course, given the economies of scale, larger businesses are more efficient, as costs of production can be reduced. Economy, businesses, costs, efficiency. These seem to be the keywords. However, we are talking about farming, livestock, the environment, rural communities. Farms are businesses and they certainly need to be viable. But are mega-farms the solution? The solution for whom? The farming industry, the actual farmer, the consumer, the animal; ie. the actual producer?

In other news [3], milk production in the UK hit its 10 year high, according to provisional data from the Rural Payments Agency. The downside of it is a slightly lower butterfat content and the still steady decline of the number of dairy farmers.

How to interpret this news?

It seems that we might be heading towards another Green Revolution [4], where quantity once again trumps quality. In the process, quantity risks taking precedence over environmental impact and animal health and welfare as well. Again.

Large numbers of animals confined in relatively smaller land surface areas are likely to lead to increased problems in terms of waste management, in particular manure and slurry storage and treatment. Moreover, preventing animals from grazing land that cannot be used for arable production will put even more pressure on arable farms to increase yields to produce sufficient animal feed, while leaving grassland that could be used by pasture-fed livestock systems unused. Isn’t this a waste of productive grassland? If we consider the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of produce, mega-farms may result in lower carbon footprints. However, we should not forget the emissions originating from manures and those from feed production, which are likely to rise if animals are expected to produce more.

Perhaps it is time to make peace with the fact that “quantity over quality” isn’t always the answer and that more doesn’t always mean better. This is a perverse game, in which we humans seem to be substituting what we think is better for us, in this case producing more at lower costs, for what is better for the livestock.

Indeed, it is difficult to understand how the conditions that livestock could face in mega-farms are indicative of good animal welfare. Disease prevention and control could become even more difficult, with higher incidence of diseases in conditions of high density of animals, as disease outbreaks in the past should have taught us. Lack of space restricts animals’ movements, affecting their growth, which in turn affects the quality of the meat as well.

Once again, quantity over quality.

Alas, in this context there are a lot of questions that do not have an easy, straight-forward answer. A lot of different actors are involved, each with their own interests, and the decisions to be taken are likely to have an impact on our lives for generations to come.

Perhaps as a society, we need to decide whether we still want to apply the unsustainable model of endless growth and intensification, or whether we finally embrace a more holistic approach to farming, where good quality food is produced using sustainable, responsible farming systems. Systems that take into consideration not only profitability, but also impact on the environment, on animal health and welfare, the importance of soil management to ensure long-term fertility and the value of maintaining rural livelihoods to ensure sustainable food production for the future generations.



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