As the Russian and Ukrainian conflict beds in for the seeming long-haul and global commodity prices rocket skywards, this should be seen as yet another warning of the fragility and unsustainability of our food system.
Once-upon-a-time the globalised food market allowed us to go out and buy whatever we needed from anywhere in the world. We were a wealthy country and could outbid most others to get whatever we wanted. But this is no longer a given.
A series of financial shocks starting with the recession of 2008 was followed by a decade of austerity, which achieved very little in terms of shoring up the country’s finances. Hot on the disruptive effects of Brexit came the pandemic which has left us in an even more exposed position in terms of guaranteeing our ability to acquire adequate supplies of commodities. Now the sky-high price of energy is threatening to accelerate cost inflation to levels we haven’t seen for decades.
I remember back in the seventies it was deemed prudent to build an interest rate of twelve percent into farm budgets. In those days debt was considered something to avoid. Now it is the norm. We are facing a perfect storm where governments are looking to dampen inflation but their main lever, the interest rate, is too dangerous to use. Rising interest rates will rob deeply indebted countries (like ours) of finances for public spending. It will eat into the spending power of families as their mortgages and credit card interest charges increase, impacting the wider economy which will also be struggling to finance its own debt.
With over a third of our food coming from imports, it is time we re-assessed our food policy from the perspective of global instability and our weakened financial strength.
Here’s what I think will happen.
There will be calls to increase home food production through intensification. It will be called ‘sustainable intensification’, not because it is particularly sustainable but because that will make it sound more publicly and politically palatable. It will still require fertilisers and pesticides but, we will be assured, these will be applied in greatly reduced quantities based on soil and crop needs with the aid of satellite navigation and artificial intelligence. Precision agriculture, the bedfellow of sustainable intensification.
Policy people, the supply industry and most farmers get excited by this prospect, but it’s basically business-as-usual, with a slight tweak. Technology is great when it works, but it is expensive to buy and run. Which means this approach favours the bigger operators who can spread the costs over more product. Larger scale requires bigger machinery and bigger machinery needs more room – bigger buildings, bigger fields, less hedges, less ditches… This approach still needs fertilisers and pesticides, and we know that no matter how many assurances we are given, much of these end up causing long-term environmental damage.
While precision agriculture requires less chemical input, it still requires that input to be available. With fertiliser prices currently quadrupling, assuming you can find any at all, a 20% reduction in requirement is almost immaterial. Additionally, the intensive use of technology requires support for that technology to be available in the event of a breakdown, otherwise, everything grinds to a halt. It’s unlikely that expertise is going to be on our doorstep. Furthermore, with the speed of technological advances, within a matter of a few years that technology so often becomes obsolete. This long and very specialist supply chain situation leads inevitably to fragility and a high risk of failure.
Finally, this technological dependent, large scale production system leads to a reduction in and de-skilling of the sharp-end workforce. The high-tech skilled jobs are based in the urban centres, while the mundane jobs are filled by the on-site, rural workforce. Problem identification is done through computer-based monitoring systems and specialists are pulled in on a needs basis. The crafts of soil, crop and animal husbandry are gradually lost and with it the loss of meaningfulness and job satisfaction. This is happening now and is really not good.
Perhaps there is another way?
What I think should happen is a rapid acceleration towards a meaningful way of farming where harmless natural systems - based on the interactions of animals, plants and microbes fine-tuned over millions of years - harness the power of the sun to produce an abundance of food for all.
All we need to do is better understand these processes in order that we can facilitate them, minimise their disruption and harvest their products.
Sound like a fantasy? Well maybe I’m living in a fantasy land, because this is where I am. At each step of my journey into this fantasy land the powers-that-be have said, ‘It can’t be done!’
Well, you know something? We’re doing it! And you know something else? Once these natural systems got going, they are as productive as when we were using all that toxic and environmentally destructive stuff to which our industry has become so dangerously addicted.
And you know, as far as our farm is concerned it doesn’t matter that fertiliser, feedstuffs, pesticide and even energy prices are going through the roof because we use very little of them. Our nature-based food system will continue to produce food, so long as the sun continues to shine and the rain continues to fall (in moderation!).
For the sake of life on our planet and the nourishment of our people, I think it’s time politicians and policy makers stopped believing the fantasy of ‘this time will be different’ techno-fixes and started to understand and harness the staggering potential of nature.