I keep trying to write a new journal post with some thoughts on sustainable farming but each time get bogged down trying to figure out exactly what is true or false, or right or wrong. The more I learn, the more complicated it gets, and the important answers just seem to float further and further out of reach. Perhaps I should stick to taking pretty pictures of arable landscapes; I’m sure my farming followers agree with that sentiment! Maybe I’ll just talk about photography instead for a moment...
Glyphosate application then direct drilled on the left, ploughed on the right.
One aspect of taking pictures that I particularly enjoy is the visual composition, and the many conflicting challenges that it presents. Take this rather unexceptional picture above for instance. I know that sweeping perspective lines often look good ending in a corner and tradition tells me that the sky might best occupy 1/3rd of the picture (this is a 'rule' I don’t usually give much respect) But I think that the most critical element was achieving an acceptable balance between the dark soil areas to left and right; accepting that I couldn’t take the photograph from the middle of the ditch, and considering the actual reason why I wanted to photograph the scene. Ideally the far end of the ditch would end in the middle of the picture, but that’s also a tough one considering the other demands. Added to this was the need to find a balance in the tree line (a common issue in landscape photography) and I had an interesting mix of conflicting demands to meet. And so, it was necessary to move to the left a bit, then lower the camera, swing it back round to the right a touch, point it up a bit, etc, until I arrived at a compromise solution that looked as harmonious as possible considering all the important factors (sometimes, a little disharmony also gives an image a certain energy or emphasis that might be desirable - arguably, in this case - so the choices are complicated further) Having reached a compromise point where I felt content I’d done my best I pressed the shutter and moved on to look for the next picture with it’s own unique set of problems. It’s a straightforward and satisfying process, it’s finite somehow. I suppose you could summarise my approach to composition as a process of striving for simplification; perhaps in the hope that the more a scene or subject can be simplified the closer I can come to seeing it fully.
If only writing a blog post about farming could be the same, but evaluating the different arguments isn’t that easy. As alluded to above, just as important to me as how I make a picture, is why I make a picture. In this instance, I found a viewpoint that interested me because it showed one field on the left that had an application of herbicide, indicated by the distinctive yellow line, and then direct drilled with a winter crop, and the other field on the right that has been ploughed and will probably await a dry spell so it can be harrowed and then drilled (I don’t know whether this will be a winter or spring crop) The two fields are under different management, but both are farmed conventionally with the standard goal of maximum yields. A number of people commented on one of my previous instagram posts that the approach on the left is the better choice for soil health and structure and that it also best protects the stream that runs along the tree line from run-off, as well as reducing diesel consumption. And yet, the field on the right has been managed in a way our great grandfathers would recognise (although the speed at which it was done would be baffling to them!) without utilising a chemical that has been proved to cause cancer.
Direct drilled with beans.
Already embedded in our great grandfather’s DNA, and passed down to every subsequent farmer, was the quest for the highest possible yield. It’s a quest that farmers have been on since the agricultural revolution, 1000s of years ago. But prior to agricultural chemicals, farmers were limited by the understanding that if they took too much from the soil this year, they would pay for it next year. Sustainability was an easy choice; it was as simple as ensuring your livelihood remained viable in anything longer than the very short term. You might be able to buy the odd load of manure or lime, but essentially you could only work with what nutrients were available in your own soil, water and air, and the natural speed at which those nutrients replenished, with the help of your rotation choices and management of the livestock, plough and water. But now the natural instinct to maximise yields is unfettered by closed loops.
I first became interested in this debate in agriculture about 5 years ago when my work in the deserts of the UAE was selected for a sustainability-themed photography award sponsored by the massive agribusiness Syngenta. I wasn’t so naive that I didn't realise that the awards scheme was a PR exercise to improve the image of Syngenta, who suffer from stories of poisonous chemicals and aggressive business strategies. But I decided it was better to engage with the subject and not refuse the opportunity to learn. The awards ceremony at Somerset House in London included a dinner with the organisers which afforded me the opportunity to have a conversation with Mike Mack, then the CEO of Syngenta. Of course, his well-practised arguments were difficult for me to counter with my unsubstantiated presumption that chemicals = bad, organic = good. The nub of his argument was that by maximising yields on existing farmlands we minimised the amount of land needed for food production. Of course, he would not accept that his agrichemicals were poisoning the landscape, or humans. He pointed to the work they do in the development of seed; for instance varieties that perform better under drought or flood conditions, contributing to food security, often in regions where it is fragile. He also argued that pesticides and herbicides, when synthesised in a laboratory, could be designed to target specific pests rather than being ‘broad spectrum’; they could also be designed with shorter half-lives and so become inert much sooner after application.
Spraying growth regulator.
In the intervening years I’ve found arguments to counter his assertions that evening, but they have always felt like ‘points of view’ rather than the killer blow. In the last couple of years I have seen wonderful organic and alternative farming operations around Suffolk, but the question always lingers in my mind ‘is this the way we will feed 10 billion people?' The output from most organic and permaculture operations is insignificant in comparison to the yields achieved in industrial agriculture. And most of the 'ideal' farm scenarios I've looked at freely admit that they make little or no money, or rely on other revenue streams than unprocessed produce: and that is despite achieving premium prices for what they produce. And how could they produce a lot of food or make much money when their outputs are effectively only equal to what inputs can be sequestered from air and water? So is there more than just the whiff of romantic idealism in these operations?
Doing it the old way. Pre-50s-style reaper-binder.
100 years ago we relied primarily on our domestic food production here in the UK. Our diets would have been less varied, because foreign imports (when they weren’t stopped by conflict blockades) would be limited to goods that could withstand a long boat trip, and the majority of people would have eaten substantially less meat. There were only about 40 million of us in the UK then, rather than the 65 million of today. Currently 60% of our diet is produced here in the UK. I don't know if it's a coincidence but when you calculate 60% of the current population of the country, it pretty much comes out to the population of 100 years ago. So, following that logic through: 100 years ago, armed with only plough horses and farmyard manure, we managed to produce enough (organic) food to feed 60% of our current population, and we did so without dramatically destroying wildlife. Doubtless, with just a few of our modern advantages, we could feed everyone in this country a healthy and reasonably varied diet, without over-pressuring our countryside.
A small parcel of meadow by the river Yox.
This is far from the end of the discussion, there’s so much more to consider (On what scale do we consider these issues? local? national? global? what about food logistics and distribution, waste, reliance on imports, economic value of exports? etc) but I have to draw a line somewhere for now, even if it’s an extremely blurred one. I think that the challenge for me might be accepting the inherent complexity of this subject and realising that there’s no neat answers that can be organised into a small rectangular frame.
If anyone has read this far (firstly I must congratulate you) and has a comment to make, please post it on the instagram post that led you here. I realise this is an emotive subject so please be kind: I acknowledge that this is still a learning process for me and I warmly welcome everyones' knowledge and opinion!