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East Anglia Future 50

Could high-yield farming be greener than organic?

John Wallace, chairman of the Morley Agricultural Foundation. Picture: Chris Hill

John Wallace, chairman of the Morley Agricultural Foundation. Picture: Chris Hill

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In a world hungry for land, high-yield farming is vital to free up land for conservation, says JOHN WALLACE, chairman of the Morley Agricultural Foundation, based near Wymondham.

A radish crop being harvested in the Fens. Picture: Sonya DuncanA radish crop being harvested in the Fens. Picture: Sonya Duncan

The world is hungry for land. We live on it, build on it, play on it, drive on it, dump waste on it, and farm it.

Farming uses 40pc of the world's ice- and desert-free land and it therefore follows that how our farmers use their land is hugely significant.

A recent, globally-conducted report by the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, led by professor of conservation science Andrew Balmford, measured four different types of farming, namely, Asian paddy rice, European wheat, Latin American beef, and European dairy, and the externalities (or side effects) they give rise to.

The five externalities measured in this report were greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and nitrogen, phosphate and soil losses. The findings challenge current thinking regarding high-yield intensive farming and low-yield organic farming. Widely-held perceptions are that low-yield farming is better for the environment than high-yield farming.

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However, when those externalities were measured against unit of food produced rather than land area, high-yield systems nearly always had less environmental impact than low-yield systems.

An example can illuminate the theory advanced here. If one wants to produce 1,000 tonnes of wheat and the crop yields 9 tonnes per hectare, then 111 hectares would be used. To grow 1,000 tonnes of wheat but only achieve a yield of 4.5 tonnes per hectare, however, would require 222 hectares. In a world hungry for land, high-yield farming is vital to free up land for conservation.

The other important finding from this research was the conclusion that if biodiversity had a vote, it would favour living on land exclusively zoned for wildlife, rather than in a landscape where any farming took place. The University of Cambridge report therefore suggests that further conservation efforts by landowners and farmers should be in the form of leaving areas completely alone – sometimes referred to as wilding – because it produces better outcomes for wildlife.

Prof Balmford describes this approach as land “sparing” (sparing land from any sort of farming, or cultivation) and expects farmers to extract as high a yield as is sustainably possible from the land that is farmed.

We should remember that no farming system is a natural process. Furthermore, in spite of our generation's yearning for all things natural, if farming is allowed to make use of various scientific innovations, it contributes enormously to our standard of living, as well as enabling us to make massive contributions to conservation.

At the Morley Agricultural Foundation, we are seeking to be involved in further research to assist in the practicalities entailed in the implementation of this attitude changing report.

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