Farming feature: Sustainable intensification in a bottle top
- Credit: Archant
Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival Conference, which took place at Snape Maltings, provided a rich diet of thought-provoking talks on the future of food security. SARAH CHAMBERS went along.
Our relationship with food is a complex one.
Obesity stalks the rich nations, and starvation is a constant threat to the poor ones.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that any conference tackling such an emotive and difficult subject opens up a proverbial can of worms.
Aldeburgh Food and & Drink Festival Conference, which this year was held in Snape Maltings on Friday, September 27, is never short on ambition, and its attempt to bring together some apparent polar opposites shows how much store its organisers place in the power of communication and common purpose.
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Community farmers and environmentalists came face-to-face with large-scale agribusiness and crop scientists, and all were looking at the big questions facing food production in our country and around the world.
The title of this year’s event was The Future of Food Security - Science, Farming and the Community, and it spawned some thought-provoking ideas and debate.
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Could some of the answers to the many problems faced by the world’s food producers lie in items as throwaway as a used plastic bottle top?
Professor Gordon Conway, professor of international development at the Centre for Environmental Policy at London’s Imperial College, certainly thinks so.
He kicked off the morning by asking whether sustainable intensification is the answer.
“This title is kind of a rhetorical question because I think the answer is ‘yes’,” he told the conference’s 200 delegates.
He showed how subsistence farmers he and his colleague had helped in Africa were using plastic bottle tops filled with fertiliser and placed with individual plant seeds in order to reduce input costs and ensure that the sustenance went straight to the crop and was not wasted. It was ‘intensive’ farming but framed in a way which made it attainable to farmers in developing countries.
The challenges facing the world’s farmers and food producers in feeding a hungry world are immense, and it is estimated that food production will need to increase by 50% to 100% by 2050 amid crises after crises - water shortages, drought, rising temperatures, floods and political instability.
The professor, an agricultural ecologist, is director of the Agriculture for Impact project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is looking at ways to help agricultural development for smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s no small task, but he holds out hope for the future.
But there are problems - emerging nations are moving towards a more western-style diet, bolstered by meat from grain-fed animals, as populations rise. Meanwhile, the effects on crops of even small rises in temperature can be quite devastating. Maize grown in East Anglia might typically yield six to eight tonnes a hectare, while in Africa it’s one tonne, he explained. He took up the story of a single mother in western Kenya. One tonne gives her subsistence, while a crop which can yield two or three tonnes money to buy the things she and her family need.
“What we are arguing is we need to intensify because the land and the water is scarce and we have to do it with less environmental impact,” he said.
“This is the horrendous set of challenges for the next 30 or 40 years and in somewhere like Africa the focus here is on smallholder farms because 80% of farms in Africa are smallholder farms.”
He went on to explain how they were using crop knowledge to their advantage with the limited resources available to them through methods such as fertiliser in bottle caps, or using types of fertiliser which is appropriate to the land.
“One answer to sustainable intensification is precision farming,” he said.
Methods such as ‘no-till’ farming and creating ‘agro-eco-systems’, by, for example, planting crops beneath leguminous trees which can fix nitrogen into the soil were simple ways in which environmental impacts can be minimised or crops increased, he explained.
“If you really care for the land, one way or the other, you’ll get good yields,” he said.
Plant breeding, both ‘conventional’ and through genetic modification (GM), was another way that yields and health benefits could be increased - a theme taken up later by another speaker, Gordon Jamieson, knowledge exchange and commercialisation director at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich.
“GM is not going to feed the world, at least in the next 20 or 30 years, but it’s important in Africa where you have got these terrible diseases,” said Professor Conway.
The economic circumstances of farmers in Africa was being improved by better access to what was going on in world markets through the use of technology at exchanges, such as in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, improving the value chain from the farm gate through to the consumer, he said.
The big question for him, he explained, was how to use the innovations which are happening everywhere on individual farms and turn them to universal benefit.
Visit www.canwefeedtheworld.org for details.
Another highlight of the conference was the story of some of the remarkable breakthroughs happening at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. JIC’s Dr Jamieson explained how Beneforte broccoli, a ‘superfood’ which can help stave off a variety of diseases from heart disease to cancer, went from the laboratory to the supermarket aisles. The broccoli was developed through publicly-funded research at JIC and the Institute of Food Research. A particular compound, glucoraphanin, was bred in to the plants so that its concentration was two or three times higher than in the average broccoli plant.
Food producers faced many challenges, he acknowledged, but he was also optimistic about our ability to adapt.
“There’s no room for complacency,” he warned, but added: “We’ll have a lot more people on the earth but maybe it’s a lot more people to provide solutions.”
Norfolk and Suffolk had been undertaking biotechnology for thousands of years, he told the conference.
He explained how similar breakthroughs to that of the Beneforte broccoli were being made in the study of blood oranges, which are high in anti-oxidants. Previously, they were limited to just a few locations with very particular climates, but scientists have been hard at work trying to trigger the same ‘blood orange’ property which lies dormant in ‘blond’ oranges.
Helping crops to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the soil in the same way that leguminous plants can is another focus for the scientists, as is building their resilience.
“Crop understanding since I started doing genetics 30 years ago has been absolutely transformed,” he said. “We can use the science to understand the plants and help the breeding.”