Huge demand to produce more could lead to ‘the perfect storm’

MORE than three inches of rain this month and counting. Very mild and spring like weather otherwise and the snowdrops are out in the garden, which is quite early. The birds are heralding the warmer weather and life is a lot easier in these conditions for them, but they too sense the oncoming spring. This column has remarked how well all the wildlife looked last autumn, luckily they were all carrying a bit of extra fat, badly needed in the cold weather and the snow.

Saturday morning on the farm and we all want a quiet time, get the work done and grab some rest before the afternoon duties.

A cow with mastitis was detected and shed by Gwenan (relief milking now as well as calf rearing and taking care of all the electronic data and records), which is an unremarkable event normally. This cow, decided that she did not like being isolated (albeit temporarily) one bit, and literally started climbing the walls.

She managed somehow to get her hoof behind the electrical conduit, dragging it off the wall, smashing electrical sockets and stripping the wires bare. This fused all the systems, and a good 30 minutes was lost whilst we carried out emergency repairs and plugged in various extension leads in order to finish milking. That’s dairy farming for you.

n Is the milk industry turning the corner? With Tesco awarding a little extra money to tie farmers over until the April price change (increase), Sainsbury’s had already moved in a similar fashion, but now we have the first significant move in the cheese and manufacturing sector, with Milklink Co-op increasing their farmers price by a whole penny a litre.

This puts Milklink well ahead of its competitors, and shames others who are paying appalling prices for liquid milk.

This will trigger massive pressure from other farmers who are now receiving far less money in similar markets to Milklink, and when Milklink’s return on capital is added into the equation, this farmer’s co-op is flying under the remarkable CEO Neil Kennedy. There is still a long way to go before we are even close to our European neighbours, but at last we have a farmer’s co-op which is strong enough to lead the market.

n I had the privilege of listening to Professor Sir John Beddington last week, at a meeting in Hampshire.

His title was ‘Is Farming Heading for the Perfect Storm?’ Professor Beddington is the Government’s chief scientist; therefore both highly thought of and influential. His opening remarks were that global population is increasing by six million people per month (mainly in Africa, Asia, and South America), with 60-70 per cent of total population now living in cities.

Coupled with the greater wealth across the globe brought about by ‘globalisation’ of trade, the demand for better quality food (+40 per cent by 2030), water (+30 per cent) and energy (+40-50 per cent), is huge. Add in the future effects of climate change, where an average increase of two degrees in temperature across the globe is problematic, and four degrees catastrophic; we have the ‘perfect storm’.

Given that climate change is based on the ‘average’ increase in temperature across the globe, whilst the Mediterranean countries would increase by far more than that (with the 4 degree scenario rendering vast tracks of uninhabited areas), other countries would experience cooler temperatures, in some areas causing severe winter temperatures.

The UK is one area where prediction is difficult, due to the nature of our weather systems, dominated by the Gulf Stream, and Jet Stream pattern, both of which could be hugely affected by different events elsewhere in the world.

Fires, floods and drought would be more common as a result of climate change as we all know, although there is no direct connection between climate change and the events occurring in some parts of the world at present; not enough is known about the ‘La Nina’ phenomenon.

The challenge to government and farmers is how we not only cope with weather (which we do every day), but how do we rise to the challenge of producing more whilst others will produce less and the population reaches historic levels?

We saw a food price spike in 2008, and here we are in 2011 and it has happened again; volatile food prices are difficult to cope with, and look as if they are here to stay, especially as world stocks can now feed the world for 50-60 days only, which is the lowest reserves since the 1970s, and the bulk of that stock is now held by China and India.

To make that challenge more interesting, we should add that with 40 per cent less land, less energy, fertilizer, water and pesticides, in two decades we will be expected to feed 8.3 billion people, and increase bio-diversity! Some countries have their own answers, take Brazil, where the rotation of Soya and cotton has a fallow period of 30 minutes, as harvesting is followed by cultivation and drilling almost simultaneously (not much bio-diversity there!).

What are the barriers? According to Professor Beddington, a good example is ‘hazard based regulation – fundamental stupidity’! The overuse of the precautionary principle. Quoting Paracelsus (1493 – 1531) ‘All substances are poisonous’ – he added it’s the amount that matters; coffee is carcinogenic for example.

Yet, when it comes to scientific progress, common sense is entirely lacking; GMO’s for example, with no human health litigation in the USA, after many years of growing these crops, in the most litigious society in the world, the European approach is absurd, not that GMO’s have all the answers, but they are certainly part of the answer as farmers grow millions of hectares each year across the world.

Research and Development spending declined in line with food prices, but is now reversing, and the UK is now investing £400m in agricultural research, but there are too many organizations involved, and a new strategy is needed.

Advances in Poultry, pig and dairy, is leading to greater efficiencies and a reduction in green-house gases, but little progress has been made in beef and sheep.

Water will be the greatest challenge, and developing plants that can grow on less, survive in arid areas, will all help in reducing the insatiable demand for water in agriculture. People need 20-50 litres of water a day, whilst their food is nearer 3500lts a day, with 1 kg of rice needing between 2000 and 5000litres, the typical beef-burger 11000 litres; staggering figures.

Whatever one’s views, and they do vary quite a bit, there is no disagreeing with the challenge. The view that this is to be left to developing countries is palpable nonsense, and the developed countries must play their part. As an importer of food, Europe must produce more, not only to feed its own, but to contribute to the need of others. Available land area divided by 8.3 billion people will be at a historical low. The bigger challenge is to apply some common sense, adjust our featherbedded guilt and prepare for very different times. We can do this if we allow ourselves to.