Is there a middle ground between organic and conventional?

The arguments between conventional and organic production rumble on. The thing is, does either system have all the answers, asks Kent farmer Andy Barr?

Perhaps we may all have to climb out of our trenches and shake hands for the future of agriculture. And I’m talking about going further than simply accepting the existence of an organic market and putting in some field margins. I am also talking about going further than producing for a niche market and feeling morally right.

What if we asked ourselves: “What precisely do we want to achieve with farming?”

For us a living, of course. But also as a society, probably healthy, affordable food with a healthy, thriving environment, long-term. Depending on which side of the fence you are on, you may not be convinced that one or other system will produce either one, more, or any of these aims.

But how about pulling down the fence and both sides getting together to help each other achieve all the aims? Perhaps we could have min-tilled fields of wheat that are genetically modified, but are also varietal populations, bi-cropped with clover and sprayed with compost tea?

GM may horrify organic advocates, but it could (after a rigorous testing and approval process) reduce chemical and fertiliser inputs and deliver health benefits. And wouldn’t a splash of glyphosate reduce organics’ carbon footprint?

Needless complications?

Mixed-variety populations and clover bi-cropping may sound like needless complications to conventional farmers, but they could be sources of disease, weed and pest control, not to mention nutrients, that are insulated from rocketing oil prices and resistance issues.

Perhaps even the dreaded subsidies could help if they were channelled toward fertility-building crops and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There must be a lot of techniques from both sides that could complement each other. But information needs to be shared and research is needed on how it could work economically and in practice, both on-farm and in the shops.

Joint project?

How about something like a joint project between the Arable Group (TAG) and Elm Farm Organics, sponsored by Tesco and Monsanto? (Sorry if you’ve just spat your tea over the desk.) I’m not suggesting that we, as farmers, radically change overnight. But we could just start to prod a bit at the entirely self-erected fences around our respective systems.

You may be thinking that what I am talking about is “Biological Farming”. This certainly seems to be growing in the USA and the Antipodes, and I would certainly like to find out more about it here. But I wonder if naming another separate system won’t have the effect of the donning blinkers again perhaps we could just call it “farming”.

Andy Barr farms a 1600-acre mixed unit in Kent which is switching its livestock to organic

What do you reckon? Let us know on the forums.

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