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.

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