Faced with projections that the world’s population will increase by 50% over the next forty years, along with the implications of climate change on the planets ability to feed that increasing population, the worlds scientists have gone into overdrive trying to scare us all into accepting any technology that might increase yields.
But with a stunning lack of imagination they are committing us to a solution based on the salvation of the last crisis.
It was back in the sixties that Norman Borlaug set up a centre to train the scientists who helped develop the high yielding dwarf wheat varieties that led to the yield increases of the 70s and 80s.
Dubbed the “green revolution” Borlaug’s work was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize. However his legacy, whilst meeting the immediate need to increase yields, also led to the environmental damage and increased use of agrochemicals that cause such concern amongst the public and for which farmers have been heavily criticised.
So it’s worrying that the country’s leading science organisations, including the Royal Society, are calling for a huge push by science to increase yield whilst failing to understand the lessons from the past and to fully appreciate the potential risks involved.
Seems to me that it will be of little benefit to future generations if our attempts to meet the immediate requirements of the world lead to increased damage to soils and water reserves adversely affecting their ability to feed themselves in the future.
And I have to question the immediacy of the problem. With world grain prices still well below the high level of a couple of years ago it seems to me that the market does not believe that the world has exhausted its land reserves or that there is an immediate likelihood of food shortages.
But, given that food shortages will be an issue in the future, are the scientists looking in the wrong place for the solution to the problem?
Just because genetics came to the rescue once before it is not necessarily true that genetics hold the key to the future. If instead of concentrating on increasing yields we start to concentrate on increased productivity then other opportunities become available.
In some rice growing areas its normal to use ducks and fish to control weeds in the paddy fields with the corresponding production of meat, fish and eggs, along with the rice, driving up productivity by around 700%.
Closer to home the famous Gloucester Old Spot pig originated in apple orchards cleaning up the windfalls and in our grandfather’s time it was normal to use sheep to graze winter cereals crops. Both led in increased productivity.
There are many more examples from around the world where productivity is increasing through making better use of available resources. Researchers are at last beginning to identify the huge potential increases in productivity through adopting techniques that take advantage of the resources already available.
It’s called agroecology but many will recognise it as a combination of common sense and good farming practice.