Why sustainable agriculture
The debate over sustainable agriculture has gone beyond the health and
environmental benefits that it could bring in place of conventional industrial
agriculture. For one thing, conventional industrial agriculture is heavily
dependent on oil, which is running out; it is getting increasingly unproductive
as the soil is eroded and depleted. Climate change will force us to adopt
sustainable, low input agriculture to ameliorate its worst consequences, and to
genuinely feed the world.
But in order to get there, important changes have to be made in
international agencies and institutions, which have hitherto supported the
dominant model of industrial agriculture and policies that work against poor
countries, where farmers are also desperately in need of secure land tenure.
This mini-series is a continuation of many articles that have appeared
in our magazine, Science in
Society since 2002.
- Feeding the World under Climate Change
- Sustainable Agriculture: Critical Ecological, Social & Economic Issues
- Restoring Degraded Soils a Matter of Urgency
- Food for Thought
ISIS Report 12/10/04
Food for Thought
Toby Risk visits a small, diverse and self-sufficient farm in Britain
that means to set an example for the rest of the country
"I could see the haulms [above ground parts] of the potato crop turning
black as they sprayed the acid on it!" Brian Baxter waved his arm towards huge
undulating fields, typical of the intensive crop farming practised all over
this part of Norfolk, about 150 miles north of London. The neighbouring
300-acre field had been sprayed with sulphuric acid to kill off a small patch
of potato blight.
Brian and his wife Jo bought their adjacent two-acre plot, near Swaffham
in Norfolk, in the 1960s. After four kids, 8 grandchildren, hard work and the
gradual acquisition of another 20 acres, they now maintain a small farm for the
purpose of feeding themselves and their family. Immense satisfaction is evident
on the couples faces as they tell us about their near forty years of
self-sufficiency, but so is the concern at the destruction of habitats and soil
that they feel the industrialised farms all around them have contributed
Brian and Jo have tried their hand, and by all evidence have become
proficient, at many different skills around the farm. After deciding that she
didnt want to lose the fleece of their sheep in payment to the local
shearer, Jo borrowed library books and taught herself to spin wool. Their
19th century renovated railway workers cottage is now dotted
with weaving looms draped with half finished scarves and tablecloths.
"We hardly sell anything, we grow everything for ourselves and our
family," says Brian as we walk past a long shed with small farm machinery,
composting barrels, onions drying, and an assortment of various tools and
implements used around the farm.
Brian approaches a composting barrel and pours some thick black liquid
into an old saucepan.
"This is our Comfrey juice," says Brian as he holds up the saucepan for
us to sniff its rather pungent odour. The juice is created from
comfrey leaves being compressed with a little water added, the end result being
an excellent natural fertiliser. The Comfrey leaves are also fed to their
chickens, which ate them with gusto!
The couple have grown Comfrey for many years and are amazed that so few
gardeners and allotment holders grow it, as it has many uses. This herbaceous
perennial grows year after year, and is purported to have healing properties
for a great many ailments. Jo herself has used it successfully in treating her
horses, and its wound-healing properties are also evident in their sprightly
dog, Flicka, whose broken leg was healed with the aid of a Comfrey poultice and
their veterinarian daughter.
On a plot of about a third of an acre, Brian grows fodder beet and
mangolds as food for his sheep, cattle, horses and llamas (kept for their
wool), as well as a potato crop.
Brian contacted ISIS a short while ago after reading the articles on the
system of rice intensification (SRI) techniques developed in Madagascar (see
"Fantastic Rice Yields Fact or Fantasy" & "Does SRI Work?"
SIS 23) and
invited us to visit his farm. He too claims to have increased his potato yield
substantially by turning conventional seed planting ideas on their head.
After being regularly disappointed with his potato yield for several
years, Brian adopted a new system of planting his seed potatoes, which also
involves spacing the plants further apart. Instead of drilling a hole, and
spacing each seed potato 15 to 18 inches apart in each direction, he now uses a
sub-soiler. The sub-soiler lifts the earth as it cuts through the soil at a
depth of 18 to 24 inches. As the main blade churns the earth below the surface,
the shaft cuts channels, which are located six feet apart. The seed potatoes
are then placed into this channel or row at 18-inch intervals. This method of
spacing the plants further apart allows air currents to flow freely around the
plants, preventing the likelihood of disease.
Brian claims that his potato yield has been transformed, and he is
convinced that this system is far more effective than conventional ways of
planting potatoes. He tells us that he gets more weight per potato; for the
same weight, his bags are now only two-thirds full. Recently dug potatoes
showed all the signs of a strong yield per plant and there was not a bad
quality spud anywhere.
His concerns go far beyond that of a desire to increase his own potato
yield. Brian believes everybody with a garden or allotment has a responsibility
to use them to their potential and grow a portion, if not all, of their own
food. In addition to the vegetables and other crops, and the usual animals for
meat, milk, eggs and wool, they also have turkeys, and a pond with carp and
Over forty years, Brian and Jo have witnessed the intensification of
large scale farming all around them. They have seen with their own eyes the
increasing amounts of pesticides and herbicides being used, with no evidence
that this has actually improved crop yield. Brian says that farmers he has met
complain of needing increasingly more powerful equipment to plough the
compacted soil of their fields. They also tell him that the earth is now so
barren of life that birds no longer feed from the freshly ploughed soil. Brian
is convinced that current farming methods are unsustainable. As for GM,
its just taking the intensification one step further, with possibly even
His message is clear; we all need to reduce our reliance on intensive
agriculture, and produce food locally and in a sustainable manner. "People
think organic farming is a new thing," he says, "but this is how it always used
to be done. Everybody with a small patch of land needs to be doing
Brian and Jo have discussed the idea of introducing an Internet website
for small gardeners and allotment holders to share knowledge and ideas of
growing food sustainably. This could be the start in catalysing action to
ensure food production at a local level, which does not harm the environment;
the alternative is unacceptable, they feel.