Farming And The Environment

Today is Blog Action Day when bloggers from around the global will unite to write about the issue of the environment. I have enlisted the help of my farming husband to write this article about farming and the environment for Blog Action Day.

This is some what of a short title for a very large subject, and one which can only be touched upon in this article.

So where do we start. Obviously farmers and the agricultural industry work with nature and natural processes; the farmer’s ‘factory’ is not in an enclosed environment such as a glass bottle factory contained within a building on an industrial estate, but in fact is in the open landscape and everything the farmer does has an effect on the ecosystem. Clearly in the heavily populated world in which we now live there must be agricultural production in order to sustain the supply of food. In fact the European Union have recently announced that set-aside (land left by farmers which must not be used to grow a crop) will be suspended in 2008. This is because world food reserves have been depleting as a result of a growing population, changes in diet, loss of land to biofuel production and poor harvests across the world. This leaves us in no doubt that agricultural production must be at least maintained at current levels, if not increased.

Society does however have a responsibility to the environment and farmers in the EU must comply with a long list of environmental rules and regulations. There are limits to how much nitrogen fertiliser or animal manure can be applied to the land and at what time of year this can be applied. Pesticides are heavily regulated and there are strict limits on their application. Farmers are given regular spot checks to make sure that they are complying with these regulations.

It is probably true to say the majority of farmers are content with striking a balance between efficiency of production and ensuring that wildlife habitats are maintained. In fact in recent years there has been a greater number of farms converting to organic production. These are probably individuals who prefer to farm organically and without chemicals, but also they are fulfiling a demand which has been created by consumers who are either buying organic produce because they feel the food is safer, because they perceive the production system to be more environmentally friendly or a combination of both. It is certainly true to say that most organically grown crops will have more weed or wild flowers growing within the crop which is beneficial to insects and insect eating birds. Furthermore, organic production necessitates a rotation consisting of a wider variety of crops and thus creating diversity of habitat.

On the other hand yields from organic crops are typically 1/3rd of conventionally grown crops – this would mean that more than three times the amount of diesel will be consumed by the tractors to produce a tonne of grain (for example) in comparison with a conventional farming system which uses pesticides and artificial fertilisers. So if we had one acre of conventionally farmed land then two more acres could be left as wildlife habitat compared to 3 acres which would be needed for organic production. It is for the consumer to decide which system is the most appropriate and gives the greatest environmental benefit.

What farmers must be aware of is that they work in the countryside. If the glass bottle manufacturer drops a bottle in his factory then it is contained in the factory and can be easily swept up. Conversely, if a farmer accidentally spills some pesticide then it is immediately released into the environment and could quickly enter a water course and cause untold damage. There have been many incidents in the past with pesticides, fertilisers, fuel, silage effluent or slurry where these pollutants have escaped into water courses. No doubt accidents will continue to occur in the future and it is always the case that although most individuals are very conscious of their responsibilities, there will always be a minority who do not give such issues the priority that they deserve.

Farmers continue to look more closely at their inputs from a business perspective. This can result in finding more efficient cultivation methods which results in a reduction in fuel usage. Scientists produce thresholds for crop disease and insect infestations to reach before it is economic to use pesticides – all valuable information which can reduce the unecessary use of pesticides.

The fact remains that consumers have the overiding power to manipulate what happens in the countryside by their choice of foodstuffs. If there is demand for a product that is produced to certain environmental standards then this demand will shape the management of the countryside – a model which has already increased the area of farmland that is managed organically.

Policy that clearly doesn’t work is where a government enforces environmental compliance in their own country but does not specify that imported food is produced to the same standards. All that happens in this case is that imported food is cheaper (due to the lower environmental standards of production) and also has to be transported around the globe adding further to the environmental footprint of that product.

It is clear that environmental performance has improved on UK farms over the past few decades. This is partly because of education and awareness and partly through more stringent legislation and the policing of these laws. The challenge is to maintain a continuation of this trend whilst also ensuring that food production keeps pace with demand. If the whole of agricultural production were to convert to organic methods then there would only be enough food to sustain approximately 1/3rd of the world population, so clearly this is not an option.

As I become older and wiser I realise that the land will be there long after I am gone. As a farmer I am only a custodian of the land and it is my responsibility to ensure that it is cared for in an appropriate way. This concept of custodian (as opposed to owner) is always highlighted to me when I visit a livestock sale in the uplands of Britain. If you read the catologue the name of the farmer is not listed alongside the animals, but rather the animals are catalogued with the name of the farm from where they were reared – i.e. it is the farm which is of importance and not the farmer who happens to be farming that land at that moment in history.

What are your thoughts about the countryside and how we treat it?