Essex Agriculture Society conference focuses on the environmental challenge of feeing the world

From left, Joint Essex Farming Conference speakers Professor Quintin McKellar, Philip Lymbery, Stuar

From left, Joint Essex Farming Conference speakers Professor Quintin McKellar, Philip Lymbery, Stuart Knight, Robert Stacey, Michael Sly and Guy Smith. - Credit: Archant

REBECCA HUGHES of Writtle College reports on this year’s Joint Essex Farming Conference, organised by the Essex Agricultural Society in association with the college.

How farming can respond to the challenges of food production and sustainability was the focus of this year’s Joint Essex Farming Conference.

The event, organised by Essex Agricultural Society in association with Writtle College, which also hosted the conference, examined the key issues surrounding the dilemma of how to feed the world’s expanding population – estimated to reach 9billion by 2050 - in an environmentally sensitive way.

Professor Quintin McKellar, CBE, vice chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, opened the conference by providing context, with 1.6million people overweight and an area twice the size of Belgium currently being deforested every year, compared with the Second World War when 6.5m acres of farmland was created from unused cultivatable land.

Professor McKellar also posed solutions to the challenge of food production. He argued that free trade was essential, citing potato blight in Ireland as an example of the difficulty of countries relying on themselves for food. He outlined the food contingencies of the UK – only 12 days’ food in our supermarkets and 70 days of grain left at the end of the harvest.

He said there was a need to review the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, arguing that, as far as he knows, nobody has died from eating GM food but that many have died from starvation. He argued that, with 70% more food required by 2050 from the world’s farms, mega dairies should be an option. But he said the world could feed billions more people just by changing its eating habits.

The challenge of food production created a huge opportunity for students of agriculture, he said, with 10,000 people required each year just to replace those leaving the industry.

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Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, took the conference delegates on a journey around the world, which he termed “Farmageddon”. One of the examples involved vast mono-cropping in California, which, he said, was completely silent because the ecosystem had broken down, with an absence of the buzz of nature. The crops required billions of bees to be trucked in as nature could not do the job of pollination.

Mr Lymbery argued that animals should go back to pasture, or eating scraps, instead of human edible grains, which currently creates a competition between animals and people for food.

“We now live in a world of abundance and plenty – that is something the farming industry can be really proud of,” he said. “The farming industry produces enough food globally for 14bn people. But we waste half of it. It’s wasted in homes and retail. The waste in developing countries could be solved with simple improvements like grain stores. But the biggest source of waste is feeding human edible crops to animals.”

Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and a farmer in St Osyth, said there were three issues involved in food production and sustainability: technological developments; markets and trade; and the regulatory political framework.

He agreed with other speakers that farming was on the cusp of a technological revolution which would see tractors drive themselves using GPS positioning in about 20 to 30 years’ time. But he disagreed with Prof McKellar, saying that free trade overlooked the political dimension, arguing that politics was behind the UK’s widening trade gap.

One significant concern for the NFU was the removal of crop protection materials due to heavy-handed regulation from Brussels, Mr Smith said.

“When it comes to controlling weeds, diseases and pests in crops, our tool boxes as farmers are becoming worryingly depleted due to the loss of over half the actives in the last 10 years,” he said. “The fear is that, in the lifetime of the current EU Parliament, we could lose most of those that remain.

“The outcome of this would be declines in crop production as farmers struggle to control weeds, diseases and pests in their growing crop. What this would do is simply suck in imports from those countries where they continue to use products banned in the UK.”

Stuart Knight, director of crops and agronomy at NIAB (the National Institute of Agricultural Botany), posed a solution to farming more sustainably and raising production – increasing the genetic diversity in crops.

He explained that, around 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, natural hybridisations created a hexaploid grass species from which all modern varieties of wheat are derived. NIAB is now trying to increase this narrow gene pool to aid, for example, breeding for improved disease resistance.

He acknowledged that higher yields could not come at any cost, and said new research has started on how to achieve the sustainable intensification of farming.

Michael Sly, a Cambridgeshire farmer, closed the conference with a case study of his 1,600hectare farm in the Fens, 4,000ha of which is an RSPB Farmland Bird Friendly Zone. The scheme has meant that the farm has English (grey) partridge, turtle doves, corn buntings, tree sparrows, lapwings and yellow wagtails.

Working with the British Beekeepers Association, he has also helped develop a growers’ manual, which has seen his whole farm assessed for the nutritional value of pollen and nectar available. This has improved pollination for the mustard it grows for Colman’s.

Giving over part of his farm to nature had not only had ecological benefits but improved productivity and profitability, helping him to meet legislation requirements and giving him a risk management tool in volatile times, he added.

Robert Stacey, chairman of the Essex Agricultural Society, said: “This year’s conference gave the audience an opportunity to find out how modern agriculture can, given the right encouragement, feed the nation but also add to the biodiversity of our countryside by using up-to-date farming practices which enable farmers to deliver a sustainable future for us all.

“The Essex Agricultural Society thanks all those who helped with the conference.”