Unsustainable sustainability?

Having been brought up on an organic farm, in a region where – particularly before the 2008 financial crisis – organic farms were ubiquitous, I was immersed in the ethos of sustainable farming practices for many years. Just a few miles away from our dairy farm, my uncle was also doing the ‘organic thing’, but growing vegetables instead of rearing cattle. Shillingford Organics, a small vegetable producer just outside Exeter, is battling on despite the murky economic climate. Have a watch of this short film made by Rob Dickinson & Georgia Stuart not just about their farm, but the strong sustainability beliefs held by the owner Martyn Bragg.

The farm’s trade is built on its identity as pure and organic. Martyn underlines this point many times, suggesting that food that is free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is healthier for us and for the soil in which it is grown. While the ideal of chemical-free food is desirable, what seems to put off consumers is the cost or, perhaps, perceived cost of produce grown in this more natural way. Page three of today’s Times newspaper, reported that the British were spending 20.5% less (or 24.6% adjusted for inflation) on organic food in 2011 than 2008, the year we were engulfed in financial crisis. One of criticisms that can be made of organic farming is that it is a bourgeois fantasy that cannot feed struggling Britons, let alone a booming global population. Is this sustainable way of farming, simply unsustainable economically?

In answer to that question, we cannot predict the future. However, there is a huge amount intensive farming can take away from the organic experience. Our own dairy farm was organic for a decade prior to mid-2012 when, for purely economic reasons, we had to give up the status. The premium for organic milk was not sufficient to cover the significantly higher costs of production. Yet, my father regularly says that he learnt a lot from those ‘green years’. For example, when he uses fertilizers, he now can use less as he has learnt precisely what the soil can do on its own and just how much is required to increase grass growth. Especially when combined with nitrogen fixing techniques that Martyn talks about the video, such as growing clover in the fields, the benefits for production are clear.

Shillingford Organics also works on a local distribution model, through community stores and a box scheme, which not only breaks the reliance on supermarkets but heightens the connection between producer and consumer. Such a model can help build closer communities and educate people about the provenance of food and the land in which they live. There is clearly a lot to learn from organic production.

You might argue that, by using fertilizers in any quantity, the principles of natural farming are entirely eroded. Yet, the bottom line is farmers have to earn a living and people need to be fed. What is important then, is that we meet the food demands of the world’s population within the most sustainable framework possible, with stewardship of the land that encourages biodiversity, and as limited use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as possible.

One historical example is worth highlighting. Before the eighteenth century, Britain’s population had never exceeded around six million. The Malthusian trap was seemingly inescapable. Then, innovations in farming techniques, from the use of basic fertilizers to selective breeding of stock, ensured that farming productivity could feed the burgeoning population, which increased from 5.1 million in 1681 to 14.9 million in 1841 (E. A. Wrigley, Poverty, Progress and Population (Cambridge, 2004)). Without the interconnections of industry, agriculture and demographic change, Britain, and possibly the world, might not be as it is today.

Organic farming is certainly most natural way to grow our food. But, agricultural innovation, more intensive and scientific farming, helped build our industrial world. This is an ethical tangle that we all have to consider.

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10 responses to “Unsustainable sustainability?

  1. Hey Charlie! Just seen your blog. For one of my modules at City I’m running a blog on sustainable food with a few coursemates. It’s called Eco Eats and you can see it here: http://www.ecoeatsuk.wordpress.com. Since you clearly have a strong background re. this topic, would you like to write a guest blog for our site?

  2. Or actually…since I have to write posts for my assessment, could I maybe interview you about your experiences growing up on the organic farm and your thoughts on sustainable farming/unsustinable economic factors?

    • Hey Jess, thank you for reading! huge thanks for your City advice the other day as well. I’ve actually had a read of the blog before (I think I follow it being a keeno) and I really enjoyed it. I’m more than happy to help with whatever you’d like me to. You can interview me and I could set you up a call with my dad or uncle (the guy in the video) if they’d be useful too. They could be a bit more scientific/accurate!
      Just let me know

  3. Did you know that they have shown a 4 crop rotation using only minimal amounts of pesticides and natural fertilizers such as cow manure produced just as much yeilds as a modern field does without eroding the ground? With numbers like %88 less pesticide use being nessicary for this type of rotation it makes organics seem a lot less far fetched.

    • Hi there, thanks for reading. That’s really interesting to hear, I’d love to have a read of the literature surrounding that. I don’t think organic farming is far-fetched, personally. In Europe as a whole, interestingly, sales of organic produce actually increased 2008-2011 as well. But there is a discussion to be had about finding the balance between natural production and producing enough.

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