Don’t let scientists near food policy
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman speaks of agricultural policy being â€śscience ledâ€ť. If this is the case weâ€™re all in deep, deep trouble. Even when science comes up with the right answers itâ€™ll usually be too late. So if you think knowledge gained by farmers over thousands of years should be discarded in favour of new technology, youâ€™re probably in need of a long holiday.
Neuroscientist Colin Blakemore has stepped into the GM crops argument with an opinion piece in The Times. â€śWe mustnâ€™t let GM vandals get away with it,â€ť says the headline. Prof Blakemore then goes on to speak of the worldâ€™s â€śdesperate needâ€ť for GM technology. In reality the desperate need is for sustainable methods of growing food. And if the scientists would only take the trouble to look, theyâ€™d find the world was full of them.
Hereâ€™s one example of UK agricultural scienceâ€™s lamentable failure to exploit a genuine opportunity to enhance food security. Back in the 1970s â€“ at around the time the Agricultural Research Council (now the BBSRC) began putting its money on the wild horse of GM â€“ a French ecologist called Marc Bonfils applied a bit of rational thinking to wheat growing.
It made no sense to grow vast acreas of genetically-uniform plants, he reasoned. This was an open invitation to every disease organism and pest to move in big time. Nor was it very clever to plant the crop in autumn. This simply meant that by the time soil temperatures became too low for growth, the plantsâ€™ root systems were still poorly developed. In spring when temperatures rose, the under-nourished plants needed a battery of pesticides and chemical fertilisers to keep them going.
Marcâ€™s remedy was to use ancient wheat varieties – which he considered more robust than modern hybrids – and to plant them in early July. Wheat plants need lengthening days to produce reproductive shoots (tillers), so as long as the crop is sown after the longest day it will not produce flowerheads. By the time winter comes the root systems are massive so the plants remain well-nourished for the rest of their life cycle. This means they donâ€™t need pesticides to keep them free of disease.
Marcâ€™s other stroke of genius was to plant the crop into a permanent bed of clover. This took care of the wheat plantsâ€™ nitrogen requirement. Atmospheric nitrogen was â€śfixedâ€ť by the legume. The permanent perennial â€śnurse cropâ€ť also kept the soil fertile and biologically active. Mark found that on his trial plots he could obtain wheat yields to match conventional high-input crops â€“ but without the inputs, the chemical sprays and fertilizers conventional farmers rely on.
Youâ€™d think professional scientists would be eager to take up such a promising system. But in Britain they were far more interested in their GM technology. Fortunately Australian farmers and soil scientists have spent the past 10 years turning the Bonfils method into a fully commercial system. They call it pasture cropping â€“growing annual wheat crops in a permanent perennial crop which protects the soil. Unlike GM this system truly has the potential to revolutionise world wheat production.
Instead of ravaging soils as do our present chemical methods, pasture cropping boosts fertility and enhances soil life. Yields increase over time; farmers cut their costs and make more money. For the first time in decades soils become healthy and productive. Best of all they sequester (capture) large amounts of carbon. On one audited farm pasture cropping has been found to sequester a staggering 30 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per hectare a year â€“ far more than the scientists previously thought. Quite simply, if we grew all our wheat this way weâ€™d virtually end global warming.
For UK agricultural science to have ignored such a game-changing development is nothing short of scandalous. If I were Science Minister Iâ€™d fire every member of the BBSRC. And Iâ€™d turn over Rothamsted over to researching farming systems that could genuinely benefit humanity. Oh yes, and Iâ€™d keep scientists like Colin Blakemore a million miles away from influencing food policy.
- For more on pasture cropping â€“ and other sustainable methods of food production â€“ please visit our website, Pasture Promise TV.