Are we right in thinking that intensification is the only way to feed a rising world population?

Farmers both in the developed North and the less developed South will have to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050. I will add more on this important issue but to start off I’ve posted an article published in the Lincolnshire Echo  in January 2008

We are being told that the world population is due to increase by 3bn in the next 40 years and that the planet does not have the capacity to feed itself. 

But is it safe to accept the argument that the world population is increasing, that food will become scarce, and that we need new technology to feed the world and address climate change? 

I’m certainly not denying the need for food production to increase or the need to address the threat of climate chaos, but I’m not sure that food shortages are imminent.

All the years I’ve been farming I’ve been assured that the world population is exploding and that the world will not be able to feed itself. 

But during that time I’ve seen the real value of my produce decrease and the perceived value of my occupation as a provider of food diminish. 

I would suggest that this demonstrates a contradiction. Surely, if my produce was genuinely in short supply, then my produce would be more valued – and I, as a producer, would be more valued too. 

I now question whether the promise of imminent food shortages is little more than the promise of jam tomorrow designed to keep us peasants working the land and keep us keen to adopt the latest must-have technologies and gadgets. 

And I am beginning to question whether accepted thinking is promoting the correct response to the threat of food shortage and climate change. 

If we want to increase production, is adopting new and expensive technologies really the way forward? Is the only response to increased demand for agricultural produce to intensify production or is there another response? 

Looking at the example of increasing rice production in Vietnam and at the work of Prof Bob Orskov, I would suggest that we may already have some of the answers.

Since the end of the Vietnam war, faced with low productivity and limited suitable rice growing land, Vietnam has been struggling to feed itself. The need to increase productivity is paramount and the accepted response would be adopt high yielding varieties and to increase the use of mechanisation and agrochemicals. 

However Bob Orskov, asked to look at the problem by the UN, realised that the paddies were supporting many wild ducks. So he trialed a system that used domestic ducks to graze the weeds amongst the growing rice. The ducks did little damage to the rice and the result was not only a small increase in rice production but also the production of eggs and duck meat. 

But Bob wasn’t finished. 

He then thought that weed eating fish could also live in the paddies. So now the paddies are producing rice, eggs, ducks and fish. In total productivity has increased around 700% above that of a normal paddy field – and Vietnam is now an exporter of rice.

Its such an elegant response and the challenge now seems to be applying the same thought process to our farming systems here in Lincolnshire and the rest of the developed world to develop similar elegant solutions that fit existing practice and deliver increased production.

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