Sustainable agriculture and food

To feed the world, we need science and we need technology. In Britain the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) promotes tech innovation.

Here’s what TSB says about sustainable agriculture and food. TSB’s new Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform ‘seeks to increase the productivity of crops and animals and… [to] decrease the environmental impact of the industry. It will focus on four interlinked areas:
• Crop productivity including protection and nutrition
• Sustainable livestock production
• Waste reduction and management
• GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction technologies and methodologies’

At the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform, Calum Murray is the lead technologist. He writes in Global Food Security about how we need technology as well as pure science. He says, ‘Clearly we cannot cut off the ongoing work that delivers knowledge and understanding, but perhaps the time has come to redress the balance and reward those (with recognition and support) that accelerate the potential to exploit the knowledge we already have. In so doing, the opportunity exists to attract new entrants into all disciplines of agricultural and horticultural science and engineering.’

I agree, of course. We need food and we need clever people to make it grow.

About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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16 Responses to Sustainable agriculture and food

  1. Reblogged this on GreenSky and commented:
    Exactly that’s the necessity now. Informed farmers with knowledge of best practices are most important to ensure sustainability.

  2. eqfe says:

    Sustainability and increased yields, two topics near and dear to my heart, but in some ways they are almost mutually exclusive, at least in the long run.
    When I first started practicing biointensive gardening in the late 70’s following the John Jeavons\Ecology Action methods outlined in “How to Grow More Vegetables….” the idea was to gather as much compostables as possible, and to add at least 3 inches of compost to the land as well as rock powders and other organic fertilizer as possible. This is the method I still follow. Beginning in the late 80’s Jeavon’s focused on long term sustainability. The emphasis shifted to sustainability in the context of a closed circuit with little (preferably no) out side inputs and all compostables should be grown on the land where the compost should be used. This lowers the annual ration of compost to half a inch, with resulting lowering of yields, although of course it is sustainable.
    Polyface Farms raises chicken, eggs and beef, in a grass fed rotational process. It’s close to closed and sustainable, although taking large quantities of eggs out of the system removes a great deal of minerals which must be replaced, which he does as mineral powders. He also grows trees, largely oaks on his steeper land, and feeds the acorns along with some corn he grows to his pigs. Agaiin not fully sustainable, since there are some external inputs. The yields are solid but not off the charts.
    But no doubt we can raise a great deal more food, if that becomes a societal goal. In the US we have vast public grasslands where cattle are raised, however, our beef is finished with corn, because we have become addicted to fatty beef. Very little “food” is created by all that corn.essentially wasted. Anyway, just a few thoughts.

    • argylesock says:

      Thank you for these thoughts. It sounds as though you favour closed systems, and that you believe such systems to be sustainable. If I understand you correctly, why do you hold those opinions?

      You make good points, I think, about N American ways of raising beef.

  3. EqFe says:

    Let’s start with the reality that the word sustainable is used a lot, but it’s rarely defined. Let’s take this one pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative to overfishing. We’ve talked about sustainable fishing quotas being ones that can be followed year after year without the catch dimishing because more is taken out than can be grown in the ocean. An agricultural sustainable system should continue to produce the same yields indefinitely, with through a closed sytem, or a system fueld by unlimited availability of required inputs.

    Personally, I don’t run a closed system garden, I continue to collect as much compostables (leaves in the fall, and weeds, or spent plants thrown out by other gardeners in the community garden, are the major sources. My goal is maximum food production of organic food. Relying as I do on the leaves from a few acres of land, and other sources, it’s not sustainable on a scaled up version. You would need forests equivalent to multiple times the acreage used to grow food just to grow the trees to provide the leaves.

    I do believe that an agricultural system should be reasonable closed to be called sustainable. A sytem relying heavily on chemical fertilizers, for instance could really be called sustainable in any meaningful way since we have a finite amount of fossil fuel, and within a few centuries, how would we sustain it. If you ask me whether we can continue to feed a rising world population indefinitely I would answer no, we will reach a limit.

    If we look at Jeavons current approach, it is designed to be sustainable indefinitely, with minimal outside inputs. Now his approach does have fairly rigid guidelies as to how much of the area should be designated to compost crops (things like grain, especially corn which yields protein and a large mass of compost, a percentage should be planted in legumes to add nitrogen to the soil and compost, and he calls for a heavy reliance on a small number of plants which have high yields, like potatoes, carrots etc.
    Compare that with mono-crop plantings of corn or soy, and practice followed on a good percentage of US farm land. Both crops in this country are heavily reliant on outside inputs of roundup, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides etc. Current practice amount to agricultural strip mining as the reduce the organic content of the soil, subject topsoil to erosion, and rely on all these inputs to be produced from a shrinking fossil fuel suply. They are in no way are sustainable indefinitely.

    • argylesock says:

      I agree. But I think the term ‘closed system’ should be extended to include our whole planet, including the impacts of any transportation and mining, any pollution and any social impacts. That’s why I don’t advocate closed sytems – that phrase can too easily be taken to mean just ‘my own garden’ or ‘my own country’.

      Here’s an example: you may recall how I once started a thread in the LiveJournal gardening community, about whether using peat could be sustainable. My own conclusion is that no, it can’t: it takes too long to replenish itself. But one response sticks in my mind. ‘Most of the peat we use here in the States comes from Canada. Nuff said.’ It wasn’t clear whether that blogger meant that Canadian peat mining doesn’t matter, because it’s not in the States, or whether it doesn’t matter because nothing Canadian is worth caring about. Either way I found it an offensive remark.

      • EqFe says:

        I recall that discussion somewhat differently, No insult was intended to our neighbors to the North. The Canadian peat bogs are harvested in a sustainable manner. Being such a large country, at present rates of removal, the spagnum moss bogs produce\grow far more than is removed. There are a lot of debates in the US about the sustainabilty of the Canadian spagnum moss supply, mainly due to arguments from the producers of competing products. In my own Md. wood chips produced as a byproduct of the lumber industry, with added gypsum is the major competitor for lightening our heavy clay soil. The advertisement for this product always attempts to compare it to spagnum moss, as being more ecologically sound. I’m sure that at somepoint moss harvest in Canada will exceed current production, it seems to be what our species always does.
        You do have me curious about the current condition of peat supplies from Scotland, where it has been harvented for centuries.
        I think that the ocean resources have to be looked at globally due to migration, but I think that we should think more locally when it comes to land grown food if we are considering sustainability. Exporting food, is really exporting topsoil, and finite water resources not to mention the fossil fuel to export it. For how many decades has Australia exported rice? This is a country where it rarely rains, and one currently facing a water crisis. Can the UK be dependent on food imports and still use words like sustainable? National borders are not so much the issue, as much as just how far away does our food come from.
        Forty five years ago in my younger days, I’ll ventureto write that almost all the fruit and veggies I ate (with few exceptions like bananas) were grown in the continental US. I’m pretty confident about that simply because what we ate off season was only those foods like apples and potatoes, that store well. Although given the distances in the US, that doesn’t mean that there was a great deal of fuel spent transporting them. Now, much of our fresh fruit in winter comes from Chile, which is hardly next door.
        There is a movement in the US to souce our food more locally, and we even have a local store that only sells foods grown within a hunded miles, but at present, its too expensive.

  4. EqFe says:

    I think that the other thing that’s important to point out, is that advocates of closed systems would say that a food proction system dependant upon large imputs, like spagnum moss or rock phosphate mines thousands of miles away, are simply not sustainable in the long run.

    • argylesock says:

      Yes that wouldn’t be sustainable. Nor would it be a closed system in the sense of ‘my own garden’ which was advocated by the old self-sufficiency movement eg John Seymour.

      My point here is that the self-sufficiency movement was important but it’s now out of date. There are better ways to judge sustainability than just ‘did I grow it myself?’

  5. argylesock says:

    What you say about Canadian peat harvesting is interesting, but I’m in no rush to agree.

    Here in Britain, traditonal peat harvesting was done by hand and the volumes taken were small. That’s changed in recent years. Now, DEFRA and the RHS say we British gardners should go peat-free Exception for people who cut peat on their own land, to burn in their own homes, but not for people who cut it with big machines and sell it in garden centres.

    • eqfe says:

      Let’s look at it this way, I believe that at this point Canadian peat harvests are still smaller than the replacement rate, although there is a healthy debate currently on the subject. I also think at some point that will no longer be true, just as we will inevitably run out out of fossil fuel, phosphate mines etc. I suppose it comes down to how many years do we have before that happens. That’s how I think that we should look at sustainability. What I enjoy about our discussions is that it makes me rethink things.

      • argylesock says:

        I appreciate your saying that 🙂

        A little goofling has just found me an article saying that Canadian sphagnum moss is regrowing faster than it’s being harvested. That was published by somebody called the ‘Peat Harvesters Association’ or some such title – not a peer reviewed source! – I can easily believe that there’s a debate going on.

  6. eqfe says:

    Lol yep, that’s the peat harvesting industry group. I believe that the Canadian Government agrees with their position, although many ecology groups do not.

  7. Pingback: Where are we going with biofuels? | Science on the Land

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