12 May 2001

Global changes

Feeding the world in 2020 requires radical policy change and redirected research, say speakers at the Global Conference. Tom Allen-Stevens was there

WHEN the programme for the Global Conference was put together, the organisers could never have imagined one disease in one country might colour the approach taken to feeding a growing global population.

"I have no doubt that policy will change dramatically as a result of the horrible crisis foot-and-mouth has brought to agriculture," was the solemn prediction NFU vice-president Michael Paske gave delegates.

The conference, held recently in Norwich, looked at projected demands on global agriculture, focusing on the state of the industry in 20 years time. Up for discussion was the role research would play in shaping the future.

In the light of the current crisis, Mr Paske said the NFU is currently working on strategies to take the industry forward. He believes it is the trade-distorting policies themselves, with their legacy of excessive food production, which are causing many of the problems facing growers today: "In Europe some foods are so plentiful that farm gate prices have lowered. CAP no longer gives farmers the support it set out to provide."

The underlying problem, said Mr Paske, is that Europe has too much food and too little land. Other weaknesses include a heavy regulatory burden and high labour costs. But there are significant strengths: a strong scientific base, high quality standards and a wealthy consumer.

"European agricultural policy has played to its weaknesses for far too long. Its time we played to its strengths."

So where does the future lie for the UK grower? In some cases it will be to continue to grow bulk low value commodities, like cereals, says Mr Paske. But increasingly, food production will take second place to answering wider social needs.

"Farmers are meeting new demands of society, as custodians of the countryside," says Mr Paske. Diversifying into niche and local markets are other examples of how farmers are repositioning themselves in the rural community.

Europes increasingly stringent demands for bio-degradable plastics mean that industrial crops, biofuel and biomass offer unique opportunities for European growers, he says. And new trends in high quality, value-added products may be the route forward for many UK farmers.

But he sounds a note of caution over rushing too fast to jump on the organic bandwagon: "Organic conversion must happen at the same pace as the market." He cites the example of organic milk in Denmark. Supply quickly outstripped demand and much of it is now sold as conventional.

Nor should organic farming shy away from new technology, he says. A horticultural grower himself, he sits on a UKROFS (UK Register of Organic Food Standards) panel looking at the effects of biotechnology on organic farming. "I believe the organic movement will adopt some GM methods because there are significant benefits in doing so."

This is not a view shared by Professor Martin Wolfe, from Elm Farm Research Centre. He believes organic farming really could feed the world without resorting to GM methods. All that is needed is a little more equity in how funding is distributed.

"The high yields from non-organic agriculture are based on an R&D budget that runs into billions of pounds, from both public and private sectors. Meanwhile the budget that has gone directly into organic agriculture has been pitifully small."

Prof Wolfe said that feeding the predicted rise in world population conventionally would bring about more monoculture and nitrification of fresh water, as well as more soil erosion and loss of natural eco-systems.

Organic farming does not cause such environmental damage, he says. The only reason for the much quoted yield penalty in organic systems is that less effort and funding has been invested in finding out how to make organic varieties yield more.

As an example he cites six modern wheat varieties grown in the NIAB trials last year which yielded 10t/ha on average. In an organic system the yield fell to less than 4t/ha. Triticale and oats, however, which have not attracted much conventional R&D, yield almost as well in an organic system as in a conventional situation.

Essentially, intensive wheat production requires varieties that have an open growth and short straw. In an organic system, such varieties are quickly swamped by weeds. "There is an urgent need to breed organic wheat," notes Prof Wolfe.

While a satisfactory method to control weeds has yet to be found, some progress is being made with disease through planting mixtures of varieties. "In plots at Elm Farm we have seen a 16% yield increase from growing mixtures. The idea of using mixtures to reduce disease pressure is now being adopted world wide. If we see a small advantage in plots, there would be an even bigger yield increase found over larger areas."

Research

This is just one area Prof Wolfe has identified where further research is needed before growers can fully realise the opportunities offered by more sustainable agricultural systems. Others include rotations, and a more refined understanding of how one crop impacts on another.

"Organic farming does point a way forward to prevent the environmental impact of agriculture, but this is based on a tiny research input. Theres a case to be made for a considerable funding shift. More research may go some way towards helping to feed a growing population and coping with climate change."

And climate change could have a very significant impact on global crop production. Professor Martin Parry, of the Jackson Environmental Institute at the University of East Anglia, warned delegates that the combined effect of climate change and population growth could widen the gap between developed and under-developed nations.

"On average global food supply will not be rattled too much. But in more marginal parts of the world there could be real deficits, leading to massive famines."

It is the lower latitudes that would really lose out, says Prof Parry. Central America, India and especially Africa would be hardest hit with less rainfall and higher temperatures. Tens of millions more people would frequently be at risk of food deprivation.

"Can we protocol our way out of this? Almost certainly not." The Kyoto environmental agreement is currently floundering as it is. Prof Parry believes it would have to be ratified to 20 times the standards proposed. Only then would carbon dioxide concentrations stabilise to a level where there would be decreased water stress in more marginal countries.

Prof Parry believes the only answer is for long-term actions to be put in place. Marginal countries would look to science to solve problems such as drought-proofing, and that is where the more developed countries in northern Europe and North America could probably help most: "These countries will probably benefit most with higher yields and prices. Only technology transfer will close the gap."