Given all the international publicity about the “perfect storm” of world food and water shortages on the relatively near horizon wouldn’t you expect the European Commission to come up with a CAP Reform package that recognised the need to increase production potential?
EU officials would doubtless point to their plans to increase the agri-research spend and encourage innovation as exactly that. But these sensible ideas seem swamped by policies that pander to the misguided whims of ultra-greens and the measures needed to help avert a world crisis have been pushed from the priority positions they deserve by politically motivated mush.
Of course, we need to look after our environment and farmers are capable of doing that without taking more land out of production while producing high yields. But the culture of agricultural mediocrity that has pervaded the Continent for several years is in danger of becoming the norm and leaving us and European consumers dangerously exposed when the slurry hits the ventilator.
Consider one key example where action is needed but being starved by lack of funds. I refer to the recent lack of yield increase in our staple cereal, winter wheat. When I was a boy we expected about 1t/acre. Twenty years later, after we’d learned to use fertiliser we expected 2t/acre. Twenty years after that a combination of better varieties, split nitrogen dressings and new fungicides doubled expectations again to 4t/acre.
We first hit that then heady figure on this farm in 1983. But nearly 30 years later we’re still hoping for 4t/acre (or nowadays 10t/ha) and not always achieving it – especially this year. But even with adequate rainfall at the right time yields are still stuck at or around that plateau. And it’s not just this farm. The average yield of wheat across the UK is less than 8t/ha and, as Bill Clark, director of Brooms Barn Research Station reminded me the other day, the rest of Europe is similar.
So, what’s gone wrong? Why have we not been able to continue the yield increases enjoyed through the 1960s and 70s? As this year has proved, the weather is a big factor. But there isn’t a drought every year.
Are we damaging our soil structures with heavy machinery? I suspect we may be and whereas regular subsoiling helps the carnage caused by lifting sugar beet or potatoes or even combining in wet conditions is often more serious than can be corrected by deep cultivation every few years.
A fellow Norfolk farmer believes his soil can be kept in good condition by chopping all his straw and incorporating it back into the land. He’s convinced the soil structure of his heavy land farm has significantly improved as a result. He’s appalled by those who advocate selling straw to burn for energy. It’s far too valuable for that, he says.
Plant breeders claim their best new varieties have the genetic potential to yield 11t/ha to 12t/ha. But few farmers actually manage it. Bill Clark points out that most new varieties are bred to be responsive to fungicides and don’t perform well without them. Indeed, he believes there’s a tendency towards false economy with fungicides and cocktails often work better than single products.
He also thinks a 12t/ha UK average should be attainable in the foreseeable future. But come the “perfect storm” we need 20t/ha, he says, and without massive research investment and GM it won’t happen and many will go hungry. Wouldn’t it be sensible to start investing now?
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.
• Read more from all our Opinion writers• How realistic is the figure of 20t/ha and what is going to be key to achieving it – funding, R&D, soil structure, plant varieties, fungicides?
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