Thursday, 31 January 2013

We watch a distinguished VIP on line (and also see the King of Sweden)

At 16.00 hrs GMT on Monday I logged onto the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture andForestry website for the 200th Commemorative Meeting of the Academy. Via a live weblink I was able to view Stockholm Town Hall, thronged with VIPs in evening dress. Musicians were playing what I assume was the Swedish national anthem to greet the arrival of their Head of State, King Carl XVI Gustaf. It was a glittering occasion, if slightly impenetrable to those of us whose linguistic skills do not extend to Swedish. However, it was clear that new members of the Academy were being received and then there were honours and awards being presented by the Academy President Kerstin Niblaeus to some distinguished scholars, not only from Sweden but from all over the world. However, my colleagues here at Newcastle and I were only really interested in one particular presentation. We waited nearly an hour.  Then, after this tremendous build-up and some musical interludes, Relu Director and Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy Philip Lowe, was presented with the Bertebos Prize by King Carl XVI Gustaf in recognition of his contribution to rural studies.  The recommendation upon which the prize was awarded says: "Professor Philip Lowe holds the Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy and is highly reputed in rural studies with significant contributions in sustainable rural development and land use management. He is the founding Director of the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle, UK since 1992 and leads its current research programme on Rural Economy and Land Use. This has enabled researchers from different disciplines to investigate the social economic, environmental and technological challenges faced by rural areas and with considerable impact for future knowledge exchange within and beyond the involved stakeholders. He has published widely in the areas of sustainable land use management, advocating reflexive interdisciplinary research. Also, he has made significant contributions in international comparative research, and played an active role in rural policy development at the national and European levels." There was tremendous applause in Stockholm Town Hall, but it was nearly as loud here in my office. Everyone wanted to congratulate Philip on this tremendous achievement. And without the benefit of this modern technology, how could we have known how splendid he looked in a frock coat?
( Photo ©The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA). Photographer: Mats Gerentz)

Thursday, 24 January 2013

How many farmers does it take to change a production system?

In the mornings I have a very specific routine - I'm definitely on autopilot and I know exactly how long I need to wash, dress, breakfast and get to work.  Any change in routine is a struggle, particularly if it involves getting up ridiculously early.  But I was on the 5.56 am train down to London on Monday morning which, in view of the weather, seemed particularly brave.  My luck was in and the train was only 40 minutes late, in spite of the weather.  I was genuinely pleased not to miss any of the two days of results from Defra's Demonstration Test Catchments project.  Although I notice my friends' eyes glazing over when I try to tell them about diffuse pollution I really do find it interesting.  Perhaps the past few years of working for the Relu Programme have taken their toll.  But as with so many issues in life, we tend to think it's not our problem.  Until you look at the food on your plate, that is.  Not all diffuse pollution comes from agriculture but undoubtedly food production plays a major role.  The waste that comes out of the back end of cows, poultry, sheep and pigs has to go somewhere, while most of the crops grown in this country are helped along by fertiliser and pesticides.  Residues end up in waterways with a whole raft of consequences for their ecology, not to mention our drinking water.  Sediment is also a big problem, often being washed into rivers from areas poached by livestock.  But we need food.  It's quite a conundrum, so how do we balance those things out?  Is it possible to go on producing what we need - and actually we need to increase the amount of food we grow in line with population growth - while reducing the effects on soil and water? That's what the Demonstration Test Catchments are trying to address, so the research is quite fundamental to our survival.  I wish there was a magic answer that could solve the problem but of course life isn't like that.  The researchers are, however, looking very systematically at tools and practices that could help.  One of the greatest challenges, however, is to persuade farmers and land managers of the need to change their practices.  We all like to do things the way we do them.  Changing the way we farm, particularly when it seems to have worked well enough for many years can be a challenge.  But the evidence that the Demonstration Test Catchments are producing is overwhelming.  We need to change, and it can be done, even if it does take even more effort than getting me onto the 5.56 am train.