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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.

  1. Feeding the World under Climate Change
  2. Sustainable Agriculture: Critical Ecological, Social & Economic Issues
  3. Restoring Degraded Soils a Matter of Urgency
  4. 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 couple’s 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 to.

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 didn’t 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 ducks.

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, it’s just taking the intensification one step further, with possibly even worse consequences.

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 something."

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.

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