Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Are current farming practices sustainable?

Farming is something that affects everyone in some way or another and living in Somerset means that, for some of you, farming is part of your daily lives. My stepdad is a farmer and so farming has been a part of my life since I can remember  and we own sheep and chickens and we grow vegetables for either our consumption or the sheeps. Over the last few months I have read numerous articles about the problems that are going to arise, in terms of food supplies, as the global population continues to grow. I have also been reading (yes I know, I read rather a lot!) the weekly articles, which is part of a year long investigation that have been published in the Farmer's Weekly which discuss farm energy and the ways in farms could exploit renewable energy. All of this, accompanied with some of the things that Al Gore has mentioned in his second book Our Choice and my personal experience of farming, has made me really question whether or not our current farming practices are sustainable and how they are going to have to change in the future.

It is a well known fact that the global population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050 and, as many people starve everyday in the world at present, many are worried that we will struggle to feed 9 billion mouths if we continue to farm the land in the same way that we do at present. Also rising sea levels threaten to claim the world's most fertile farm land which would put even more pressure on farmers to efficiently grow crops as it takes roughly 3000 years for a metre of workable soil to form. On the other hand, some people take a more optimistic view, and believe that we already produce enough food to feed 9 billion people (one article I read even went as far to say that we currently produce enough food to feed 15 billion!) and that we just need to reduce the amount that we waste. It is estimated that in developing countries 30% of their harvest is eaten by rats or insects or rots in grain silos and in developed countries we throw away 25% of our food, uneaten and that each 'rich' person waste 800 calories of food each day (for more on reducing waste see previous blog post on 'can the world cope with the growing population'). If we could reduce this waste then perhaps not as many people would go hungry each day. To reduce wastage in developing countries it is going to come down to improving their farming methods but in developed countries I think a change in attitudes is required. I was discussing this whole issue with my family a few weeks ago and in relation to reducing waste, we all agreed that the power that supermarkets have needs to be reduced and we all need to care less about aesthetics. Next time you go to a supermarket, look at the fruit and veg and see if you can notice how it is all practically the same size and shape and colour. How much fresh food do you think is wasted because it either fails to meet the aesthetical requirements of supermarkets or it is not brought before it reaches its shelf life? I am guessing that it is possibly quite a lot and this does not just occur in supermarkets as I am sure that many of us are guilty of throwing out untouched food if, even if it is fine, but has just passed its best before date. Reducing waste could be one way of ensuring we can feed the growing population but, in the future, other factors are likely to provoke farming patterns to change.......

As we  worked our way through the energy module, it became increasingly apparent that life as we know it cannot exist without the use of fossil fuels and, as oil reserves in particular continue to dwindle, farmers are going to have to change the ways in which they use the land. All pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides are produced from oil and since the mechanisation of farming, large machinery has played a large part in food production. The use of all of the above is going to have to be reduced as oil reserves run out. An increase in organic farming, at first glance, may seem like an attractive alternative as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are not used on the crops. However, due to the fact that you are not permitted to use such things, tractor hours are drastically increased which makes it debatable whether or not increasing organic farming would actually consume less fossil fuels. So, how are we going to manage to increase productivity without the use of fertilizers and pesticides or large machinery. Is hydroponics going to have a play a bigger role in food production or is the way we utilise land going to have to change?

Energy plays a crucial part in farming as we know it, especially fossil fuels, but farms do have huge potentails in terms of renewables. I feel I need to mention the fact that biomass and biofuels are becoming increasingly popular in the UK but, as expressed previously (see 3 quick questions I have been meaning to put forward in relation to the energy module.......Can biofuels offer a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels? Do developed countries have the right to limit the amount of fossil fuels industralising countries use? And finally Does oil fuel aggression?) I question whether or not biofuels are a sustainable option for the future. Biogas is becoming increasingly popular amongst farmers, especially in Germany who now have 6000 fully functioning plants. This popularity has been provoked by the government's feed-in tarrif scheme which gives finicial support to those considering developing a biogas plant on their farm.  In the UK, wind turbines are slightly more popular at present, as they can be constructed on grazing land as they do not pose any potentail threat to lifestock. Farms, due to the UK's FiT scheme, are starting to exploit wind energy by constructing a few small 10-15kW turbines on their land to help generate some of the energy that they consume for lighting and heating etc. Solar energy, especially in the south east, is also proving to be increasingly popular with farmers.

At present farmers, within the EU, are paid subsidies to manage conservation and preserve the surrounding environment and, due to the costs involved with farming, the vast majority of farmers comply with these requirements to ensure they get the subsidies. These requirements often affect the size of land available for arable farming as, for example, farmers qualify for differing levels of subsidies depending on whether or not they leave a 6ft or 12ft margin around the field for conservation. The issue of whether or not we will be able to continue to preserve and protect the environment in this way when we have 9 billion people to feed featured greatly in the discussion I had in my family and my stepdad, who recognises the importance of preserving the environment for future generations, questions whether or not we will be able to continue to protect the environment in this way in the future without comprimising our ability to feed the people that live in it. Perhaps this is going to come down to deciding which  areas to extensively farm and which areas to conserve. For example, a recent government-backed report suggested that Wales should convert at least 20% of its farmland back to forestry because its agriculture is so unprofitable. So, what if we reduce our use of land and turn to hydroponics instead? Many Japanese farmers, due to a lack of flat fertile land, have tried this method of farming to increase yield and so is this the way for the future?

Another influential factor, that needs to be considered when discussing the future of farming is changes to climate. Currently arable farming in the UK is centred in the south east whereas pastoral farming occurs elsewhere where the climate is not as hot. However, with the predicted rises in temperatures experienced in the UK over the next 20 - 30 years, Scotland and Northern England are likely to experience the higher temperatures that are required to switch from livestock to higher value arable crops. Therefore, it will not only be a lack of fossil fuels that will provoke changes to farming but also changes to the climate which ultimately dictate what and when crops are grown.

From this, I think it is clear to see that our current farming practices, for various reasons, will not be able to be continued in the future and we have to change in response to a lack of resources, growing global population and an ever changing environment. Despite it being easy to say that they will have to change; it is harder to predict what exactly they will change to. Are we likely to turn to hydroponics, or is this unlikely as freshwater becomes scarce? Is organic farming the future of farming in the UK? Or are we going to have to revert back to subsistence farming to reduce the transportation of food and the need for large machinery?

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