Organic food science and a 60 acre laboratory

MARTIN Wolfe is convinced there is a better way to produce the food we eat - and as a scientist he is working to establish the best options for sustainable commercial production.

His “laboratory” extends over 60 acres of Suffolk farmland where trials are under way to identify ways of growing food which will not only avoid the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers but will be good for the environment and human health.

For while there is currently little link between present-day conventional agriculture and wildlife habitat - the areas of which are generally kept separate - he believes the future is a world where farming and ecology go hand-in-hand, to their mutual benefit.

But Martin, now 72, is no “hair shirt” organic farmer. He had an exemplary career in plant science, in Cambridge and Zurich, and his farm trials are commercially orientated to give the best yields using organic methods which are as efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible. The philosophy is to use mixed, rotational cropping, on all scales.

They include long-running trials of agro-forestry where strips of arable land are interspersed with narrow belts of trees which not only provide shelter and leaf-fall nutrients but, increasingly important in response to global warming, lock up carbon in their root systems. The strips are orientated north-south to make the best use of the sun.

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“Conventional arable systems rely on mono-cultures and large inputs of oil-based chemical pesticides and fertilisers. As global oil resources diminish it is increasingly important to find another way of feeding the world,” said Martin who moved with his wife, Ann, to Wakelyns Farm, Fressingfield in 1997.

With retirement in mind, the couple had bought the farm in 1992 when Martin was still working in Zurich. In 1994, during stays back in England, they undertook a large tree-planting programme and the trees, including hardwoods and fruiting varieties, are now well established.

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Some of the current trials involve arable strips in open fields where – contrary to the mono-culture ideology – every single plant has a slightly different genetic make-up - to reflect a range of properties including resistance to disease. The differences are achieved through normal plant breeding, not through the controversial science of genetic manipulation.

“We are saying that if there is a complete mish-mash of genes – all with useful characteristics – you create a healthier, more resilient crop and one with greater nutritional value.

“It is a case, as elsewhere in organic farming, of mimicking nature,” Martin said. “Here at Wakelyns we are basically trying to improve what organic farmers are doing here in the UK and in the rest of Europe.”

Organic remains the Cinderella of agricultural research, still failing to attract the kind of governmental and private investment showered on research for conventional “chemical-based” farming.

However, the tide may be turning for, since March, Wakelyns Farm has been part of a European Union funded research project involving 22 organisations, 20 in Europe and two in Africa. The project has been awarded funds of six million Euros and will be spread over four and a half years. It geared to studying diversity within crops and diversity among crops

Martin is convinced organic methods are the future in a world vulnerable to depletion of oil reserves and in need of action to protect wildlife and combat global warming.

He believes the time-worn criticism of organic farming as producing low yields at great labour costs are unfounded. Some of his organic strips are now producing seven or eight tonnes of cereals per hectare - less than the yields achieved by conventional agriculture but avoiding the rising costs of pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

The methods are also helping the environment by creating lots of valuable “woodland edge” wildlife habitat and locking up carbon in tree root systems

“Organic farming can, of course, be more labour intensive than conventional agriculture but Martin believes the value of environment benefits should be recognised and rewarded under the agricultural subsidies system.

He also believes the world’s population can be fed through organic systems, especially if cereals, grains and pulses are made directly available as human food instead of being fed to animals to produce meat. “We eat too much meat and meat products for our own health. It is also hugely inefficient, in terms of feeding the human population, to grow crops in order to feed animals,” he said.

Martin, now 72, was born in Yorkshire and studied at Leeds Grammar School. Teaching there at that time was geared towards sending youngsters into the “professions” but Martin, who as a teenager stayed on the small farm of a family friend, became more interested in agriculture. He went to Reading University to take a degree in agricultural botany and then to Cambridge to undertake research for a doctorate.

He joined the former Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge, where plant breeders and scientists successfully worked together before the organisation was dismantled under the Thatcher government and then moved on to work in Zurich at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology where he was professor of plant pathology.

Hazel and willow and other trees harvested from the agro-forestry belts are chipped and fed into a boiler which provides all the heat and hot water needed in their home, a formerly thatched property which dates back to the 14th century.

One of the new buildings on the farm – used by three staff directly employed by the Organic Research Centre – has a ground source heat pump. Together with passive heat from a glass conservatory, it meets all of the building’s heating needs.

The farm also mills its own wheat and produces potatoes and small quantities of other vegetables which are sold locally, via village shops and directly to restaurants.

Martin, who has a wife, Ann, and two sons, David and Toby, wants to help produce the scientific evidence about organic farming so that accurate comparisons can be made with conventional methods.

“Organic farming research needs a level playing field in terms of funding but we also need good scientific proof that this is the way to go. Systems have to be thoroughly tested and assessed,” Martin said.

Wakelyns Farm is part of a network established by the Berkshire-based Organic Research Centre to develop and test organic systems for food, and sustainable land use, primarily within local economies, to ensure the health and well-being of soil, plant, animal, man and the environment.

For more information on its work log on to:

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