Category Archives: Food security

Sustainable farming requires nutrient-rich soil with a complex organic structure

Receiving news of the extensive research undertaken by Mark Measures and the forthcoming workshop led the writer to remember Winin Pereira and Rashneh Pardiwala who recognised the importance of good soil structure.  

Winin Pereira’s paper Energy & Lifestyles was originally prepared for the Traditional Science Congress, held at Varanasi in October 1998 (updated November 1998).It noted some causes of soil acidification adding that sustainable farming requires that all crop ‘wastes’ be returned to the soil. If this is not done, soil erosion will increase, the soil’s nutrients will be mined and the land will require additional synthetic fertilizer. However, the soil organic matter, soil biota, and water-holding capacity cannot be replaced by applying fertilizers. This may result in serious degradation of fertile farm land which will ultimately make the land barren. soil erosion and water runoff, which would ultimately reduce the overall productivity of the land forest clearing erosion flooding (water runoff)

From Western Science to Liberation Technology he notes that Warli farmers tried synthetic fertilizers.out but soon abandoned them. They said that the fertilizers damaged the soil and that larger amounts were required each year. In consequence, they use very little, and then not every year. use of Sesbania bispinosa, and later ref to rui (Calotropis gigantea) leaves as a green manure. The leaves have very small percentages of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus they use it widely and it is evidently effective in improving crop productivity.

A couple of years later another colleague, Rashneh Pardiwala, completed her doctoral research with distinction at Edinburgh. Professor Grace wrote: “She has worked on the loss of carbon dioxide from heather-moorland soils, using a site near Edinburgh which is fairly typical of the peaty spoils which are widespread in northern Britain. The context of her work is the impact of climate warning on the flux of CO2 from the soil to the atmosphere (11.10.00).

And today soil-related references in an article from the Shenzhen Daily caught my eye

When landscape designer Wang Xin, with a degree in landscape botany, realized he could no longer stand being an office drone, he left his job, rented two plantation sheds in the suburbs and started farming from scratch. After a rough start he has learned valuable lessons going back to his university and visiting colleagues in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, to study the most modern organic farming techniques. In July he prepared all-natural organic matter to enrich the soil. his fertilizing formula has been perfected through years of research in collaboration with Beijing University of Agriculture to simulate the formation of the fertile dark forest soil in Northeast China, known for its high crop productivity.

Logically, the true foundation of organic farming lies in soil content: if the soil is right — if it is a living organism with a complex organic structure — the outcome is safe and tasty food farmed without the need for fertilizing chemicals, according to Wang. But that is not the only objective. Wang hopes to build a production model that rehabilitates the soil itself. On regular plantations, the soil can degrade within a matter of years after being over-exploited. “For organic farming to become truly sustainable, revitalizing the soil is key. I am certain that in three to four years, the soil that I have been reviving will only be healthier,” he said.

The strawberries from his organic plantation in the southern outskirts of Beijing are believed by his clients to be “the best in China.”

As part of Mark Measures’ Churchill Study Fellowship (Soil Management for Sustainable Production and Environmental Protection), he travelled to the US and Europe in 2017-18, visiting researchers, advisers and farmers. His final report (January 2019):”Soil Management for Sustainable Food Production and Environmental Protection” can be downloaded here (pdf).

In the next post, farmers, growers and advisers are invited to his one day workshop

Donald Trump unwittingly encourages local food production in China



The Times reports that President Xi is attempting to move China away from dependence on US soya beans and increase domestic production.

Soya beans, rich in protein, are essential to China’s national diet, steamed and salted as summer snacks, turned into bean curd and fermented for soy sauce. Soya beans are also crushed to produce soy meal, which is fed to its livestock herds.

Beijing has decreed that farm workers contribute to a “soya bean revival”. Xinhua, the official news agency, reported. “. “We must steadily restore the soya bean fields . . . accelerate in cultivating premium, high-producing bean varieties.”

Experts in Beijing, who had not been authorised to speak to foreign media, said that subsidies have been introduced to ensure food security. “Soy products are an indispensable part of the Chinese daily diet,” one said. “We must think of food security.”

Readers commented: “It must be good news if transportation of soya is considerably reduced. The same can apply to almost all exports” and, ironically in view of recent measures: “So Trump is an environmentalist – after all he is encouraging everything to be produced locally” and:

“Maybe a Brexit lesson here – the UK becoming more productive and less dependent!”






Towards a Global Organic Future: Devinder Sharma

A valued colleague, Devinder Sharma, in The Tribune (May 1, 2019), stressed the paramount importance of working towards a sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture.

Small and mid-sized farmers located in hilly regions and tribal belts find it difficult to access the market

A few months earlier – to set the scene – Kiran Pandey and Rajit Sengupta recorded that India is home to 30% of the total organic producers in the world, according to the World of Organic Agriculture 2018 report but most are struggling due to poor policy measures, rising input costs and limited market (a study by ASSOCHAM and Ernst & Young. 0

Sharma points out that, at a time when global temperatures are soaring, the latest study by a French think tank – Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) – has shown that agro-ecological farming alone has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 47% and thereby keep global temperature rise below 2degrees.

This study comes at a time when the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) is already talking of green direct payments to organic farmers who opt for sustainable farming practices.

At the Regional Symposium on Agro-ecology for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems for Europe and Central Asia, 2016, one of the policy recommendations was to shift 30% of the European budget on agriculture to green direct payments.

The IDDRI study in addition shows that a transition from intensive farming to agro-ecological farming will bring down the pesticides consumption by 380,000 tonnes per year in European farming.

And yet most climate mitigation studies point to more crop intensification, which will be expected to free up larger proportion of cultivable lands and thereby ensure there is no drop in food production.

This is a push for a hyper-intensive farming system that leads to more toxic soils, more water mining sucking the remaining aquifers dry and more contamination of the food chain. This flawed assumption was essentially behind the launch of the New Vision for Agriculture at the World Economic Forum 2009 (updated link; no record of the original document had been found) It aimed to increase food production by 20% decreasing greenhouse gas emissions per ton by 20% and reducing rural poverty by 20% every decade. In other words, it is more of the same leading to more catastrophic outcomes in the future.

The 17 agribusiness giants that spurred the launch of New Vision for Agriculture include Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), BASF, Bunge Limited, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro AG, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart, and Yara International.

The IDDRI study provides a lot of hope at a time when the UN-sponsored TEEB initiative – The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – for agriculture and food, has in its latest study warned of a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions emanating from farming practices:

“Accordingly, the entire farming production systems, stretching from cutting down of forests for making land available for cultivation to food waste dumped in landfills, account from 47 to 51% of the global gas emissions. This factor alone plays a prominent role in world’s climate going topsy-turvy, and which returns to haunt farming community reeling under the terrible impact of climate change”.

The challenge therefore is how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which becomes a surer form of mitigation for farmers from the chaotic implications from climate aberrations haunting them in the years to come.

Before apologists for Green Revolution kind of farming systems raise an uproar over declining food production from a shift to organic farming, it is important to know that in an earlier study undertaken with the UK-based Soil Association, the IDDRI has, in ‘Ten Years of Agro-ecology in Europe’, clearly showed that it is possible to feed Europe a healthy and sustainable diet by transiting to natural farming systems.

Earlier, an International Assessment for Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report, which was ratified (India included) during an intergovernmental plenary in Johannesburg, April 7-12, 2008, had warned that ‘business as usual’ is not the way forward.

Over the years, an emerging consensus has developed around agro-ecology, which has the ability to reduce the damage being done to the planet.

In India, a major initiative was launched when village elders in Punnukula village in Khamam district in Andhra Pradesh came together to stop the use of chemical pesticides. This was way back, more than 15 years ago. This local initiative, and exemplary testimony to the richness of available local knowledge, led to the introduction on Non-Pesticides Management (NPM) under the Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) expanding to 3.6 million acres without the use of pesticides. After the State’s bifurcation, and driven by the enthusiasm shown in adopting NPM practices, Andhra Pradesh launched Zero Budget Natural Farming aiming to bring its nearly 60-lakh farmers under the fold of non-chemical agriculture by the end of the year 2024.

Surprisingly, there is no drop in crop productivity. Just a year after the introduction of ZBNF, a study by Azim Premji University showed that crop yields in fact had gone up from 11 to 79% – 11% in paddy and the highest 79% in brinjal.

Since wheat is not grown in south India, it is not possible to know the impact on wheat yield when grown without chemicals but I am sure suitable farming practices can be evolved that keeps productivity at par. More so in a state like Punjab, which ironically being the country’s food bowl still imports a significant proportion of its wheat requirement. Much of the wheat that is imported is from Madhya Pradesh considered to be free of chemicals. I fail to understand why can’t Punjab instead focus on organic wheat production within the state if the domestic demand is so heavy.

This will require a paradigm shift in the way agricultural research is being conducted.

All these years for instance crop varieties have been evolved based on its response to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s time to move to organic breeding, developing future crop varieties responding to organic manure, less water and needing no chemical pesticides. This has to be followed by adequate reforms in agricultural markets, providing a higher price for organics and also providing for exclusive procurement of organic produce coupled with policies that encourage farmers to make the transition. With soaring demand for safe and healthy food, mainline agricultural research will have no option but to keep pace with the changing times.

According to Friends of Earth, in Europe alone, climate change has taken the lives of more than 115,000 people since 1980, causing an economic loss of Euro 453 billion. In the global south, floods, drought, heatwaves and other extreme climate related events/disasters result in hundreds of thousands of people dying every year.  Instead of just blaming the weather gods, the time has come to reform the prevailing farming systems so as to move away from intensive cultivation that has denuded soils, mined groundwater and is increasingly leading to desertification.

It is of paramount importance to bring in policies that help farmers to make the transition to a more climate resilient agriculture.






80% of the world’s food is produced by small farmers – the rest comes from industrial farms


“Don’t industrial farms produce most of the world’s food?” A Moseley reader draws attention to this question posed by Fiona Harvey in the Guardian.

Her answer: “No. There are more than 570m farms worldwide; more than 90% are run by an individual or family and rely primarily on family labour. They produce about 80% of the world’s food”. (Below, small farmers in America.)

If the global population reaches 10 billion by 2050 as expected, the world’s food production would need to rise by half in the next 30 years. Small farmers will be key to the transition according to Ronald Vargas, soil and land officer at the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – an organisation which is charged with care of our future food supply. Many small farmers are poor and insecure, but FAO considers investment in smallholder production to be “the most urgent and secure and promising means of combating hunger and malnutrition, while minimising the ecological impact of agriculture”.

Problems highlighted in a report published in December by the World Resources Institute include:

  • Finding enough land suitable for agricultural production would encroach on the earth’s remaining forests, peatlands and wild areas, and release the carbon stored in them, hastening climate change.
  • Intensive farming has had a huge effect on biodiversity and the environment worldwide. Pesticides have killed bees and myriad species of insects in large numbers.
  • Fertilisers that improved poor soils have also had unintended harmful consequences. The largest maritime “dead zone”, discovered in the Gulf of Mexico last year, was caused by fertiliser and manure from the meat industry running off the land.
  • Chemical fertilisers also contribute directly to climate change, through the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, and to air pollution through ammonia.

In 2018, the FAO called for “transformative change in our food systems”. This will affect growing methods, consumption habits and our entire food economy, involving farmers, retailers, governments and consumers

Organic farming is far more productive than previously thought; when the environmental and other damage caused by high energy and chemical inputs in non-organic farming are factored in, organic food is cheaper for society and better for the planet. But organic farming makes up only 2% of food sales in the UK and about 5.5% in the US.

With developing different consumption patterns encouraging those who can afford meat to eat less of it, Rob Percival, head of policy at the Soil Association, believes that organic farming can feed the world: “We need an urgent shift in both production and consumption if we’re to avert the worst consequences of climate change, including a dietary shift towards less and better meat,” he says. “Livestock grazing on pasture can support soil health and carbon sequestration, and manure can provide soil fertility for other crops.”

Agroecology is the name given to a range of farming techniques using natural systems nourishing the soil, taking account of the natural pest cycles, natural predators and crop cycles. It encompasses organic farming, but is informal and does not require expensive  certification and inspection.

Using hardier native trees, cattle, plants and poultry, with their natural resistance to certain diseases, pests or conditions, can also yield benefits. “You might get a lower yield [by these methods],” Vicki Hird, food and farming campaigner at Sustain, concedes, “but you get a higher level of nutrients in the food produced.”

Some farmers adopt permaculture methods which involve understanding the relationships between plants and using them in combinations, while reusing any waste products, often as fertiliser.

Dried out peatlands should be restored: paludiculture includes the re-wetting of dried-out peatlands and looking to alternative plants that grow well there, including forestry and medicinal plants such as sphagnum moss, and allowing animals to graze (above, in Australia) significantly reduces environmental impacts caused by drainage.

Urban farming, which already produces about a fifth of the world’s food –  more detail here – can efficiently deliver some fresh produce to dense populations without the greenhouse gas emissions and loss of nutrients due to long distance transport. There are currently more than 3,000 people employed in urban farming schemes in Greater London alone.

GPS, drones and fine-grained data on topography, soils and other aspects of farmland allow farmers to target specific areas with fertilisers, pesticides and water, instead of blanket spraying. Drones and robots are already in use, delivering targeted pesticides and picking out damaged or diseased crops before they can infect others around them.

Vertical farming, though energy intensive, is increasing in parts of the world where space is at a premium. Crops, usually vegetables, are stacked in shallow containers in layers, which can use the full height of the building. This saves on space and can use water and energy more efficiently, as water can be pumped to the top and allowed to flow down by gravity.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient dissolved in water.  Temperatures can be carefully controlled, water reused, and nutrients recycled. Software systems can control the delivery mechanisms and monitor how the plants are faring.

Due to the ability to control light, temperature, air and other environmental factors, a far greater variety of plants are now being grown underground, as LEDs take the place of sunlight.

A wealth of scientific evidence shows that continuing to rely on artificial fertiliser and intensive farming techniques would risk runaway climate change, increase the extinction of species vital to human life and further pollute soil, water and air.





Highlights from a speech by The Prince of Wales to the Future for Food Conference, Georgetown University, Washington DC

We have to maintain a supply of healthy food at affordable prices when there is mounting pressure on nearly every element affecting the process . . . soils are being depleted, demand for water is growing ever more voracious and the entire system is at the mercy of an increasingly fluctuating price of oil . . . and under the current, inherently unsustainable system, in the developed world we actually throw away approximately 40% of the food we have bought . . . In developing countries approximately 40% of food is lost between farm and market. Could that be remedied too, this time by better on-farm storage?

There are many now who consider that global food systems are well on the way to being in crisis . . .

There is an umbilical dependency on oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources Here in the U.S., I am told, four out of every ten bushels of corn are now grown to fuel motor vehicles . . . One study I have read estimates that a person today on a typical Western diet is, in effect, consuming nearly a U.S. gallon of diesel every day!. .

For every pound of beef produced in the industrial system, it takes two thousand gallons of water . . . And when you consider that of all the water in the world, only 5% is fresh and a quarter of that sits in Lake Baikal in Siberia . . . By 2030 it is estimated that the world’s farmers will need 45% more water than today . . .

(G)enuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply and in the wildlife – the birds, insects and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change. To do this it must be a mixed approach. One where animal waste is recycled and organic waste is composted to build the soil’s fertility. One where antibiotics are only used on animals to treat illnesses, not deployed in prophylactic doses to prevent them; and where those animals are fed on grass-based regimes as Nature intended . . .

Equally, it includes the need for producers to receive a reasonable price for their labours above the price of production.

Having myself tried to farm as sustainably as possible for some twenty-six years in England, which is not as long as other people here I know, I certainly know of plenty of current evidence that adopting an approach which mirrors the miraculous ingenuity of Nature can produce surprisingly high yields of a wide range of vegetables, arable crops, beef, lamb and milk. And yet we are told ceaselessly that sustainable or organic agriculture cannot feed the world. Consider the findings of an impeccably well-researched International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, conducted in 2008 by the U.N. I am very pleased, by the way, to see that the co-chair of that report, Professor Hans Herren, will be taking part in the International Panel discussion towards the end of the conference.

(Ed: Hans Rudolf Herren who co-chaired the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) – on behalf of the UN and the World Bank, involving more than 400 scientists over a 4 year process, published in 2008. (Ref 4, pp. 48-52) Herren indicates that embracing agroecological/regenerative practices can by 2050 produce enough food in the quantity and quality needed to nourish well nine to ten billion people, while using less land and water.)

His report drew on evidence from more than 400 scientists worldwide and concluded that small-scale, family-based farming systems, adopting so-called agro-ecological approaches, were among the most productive systems in developing countries.

This was a major study and a very explicit statement. And yet, for some strange reason, the conclusions of this exhaustive report seem to have vanished without trace . . .

My International Sustainability Unit study looked at five case studies and discovered two things:

  • firstly, that the system of farm subsidies is geared in such a way that it favours overwhelmingly those kinds of agricultural techniques that are responsible for the many problems I have just outlined.
  • And secondly, that the cost of that damage is not factored into the price of food production.

If it is the case that the present low price of intensively produced food in developed countries is actually an illusion, only made possible by transferring the costs of cleaning up pollution or dealing with human health problems onto other agencies, then could correcting these anomalies result in a more beneficial arena where nobody is actually worse off in net terms?

It would simply be a more honest form of accounting that may make it more desirable for producers to operate more sustainably – particularly if subsidies were redirected to benefit sustainable systems of production . . .

It seems to me that we would also have to question whether it is responsible in the long-term to have most of our food coming from highly centralised processing and distribution systems. Raw materials are often sourced many thousands of miles away from where we live; meat is processed in vast factories and then transported great distances before being sold . . .

We have to consider how we achieve food security      could one way be to put more emphasis on re-localising the production and distribution of key staple foods? Wouldn’t that create the sort of buffer we will need if we are to face increasingly volatile and unpredictable world market prices? . .

if there was a global food shortage and it became much harder to import food in today’s quantities, where do countries turn to for their staple foods? Is there not more resilience in a system where the necessary staple foods are produced locally, so that if there are shocks to the system, there won’t be panic? And what is more, not only can it be much more productive than it currently is, strengthening small farm production could be a major force in preserving the traditional knowledge and biodiversity that we lose at our peril.

Food production is part of a wider socio-economic landscape. We have to recognize that social and economic stability is built upon valuing and supporting local communities and their traditions. Smallholder agriculture has a pivotal role.

So might it be wise, given the rather difficult situation we appear to be in, that if we do look at re-gearing the way subsidies work, we include policies that focus funding on strengthening economic and environmental diversity? This diversity is at the root of building resilient economies that have the adaptive capacity to deal with the increasingly severe and frequent shocks that affect us all . . .

In essence what I am suggesting here is something very simple. We need to include in the bottom line the true costs of food production – the true financial costs and the true costs to the Earth.

It is, I feel, our apparent reluctance to recognize the interrelated nature of the problems and therefore the solutions, that lies at the heart of our predicament and certainly on our ability to determine the future of food. How we deal with this systemic failure in our thinking will define us as a civilisation and determine our survival.

Full text here:






When will British farmers appear on the ‘economic radar screen’ of their country?

Devinder Sharma notes that in India, the only time farmers appear on the economic radar screen of the country is when elections are around the corner (Ground Reality).

Not so in UK. Whereas 43% are employed in Indian agriculture, British farmers and employees registered to vote are only 1% of the country’s population according to the World Bank’s interesting list and so are not regarded as a ‘vote bank’, despite their vital role.

The Government of India is honouring their commitment keeping minimum support prices at one and a half times the cost of production for 13 food crops and cotton (listed here). As this excludes fruit, many vegetables and dairy produce, Sharma notes that only 6% farmers get the benefit of these procurement prices.

The only parallel price policy in UK is operated by most large supermarkets, which have a system of aligned contracts ensuring price stability, but only for a minority of milk producers.

The Grocer states that just 30% of milk is produced by farmers on supermarket aligned liquid milk contracts and the IPA newsletter describes the current differential in price as ‘staggering’: “For example, the November AMPE (Actual Milk Price Equivalent) was 31.5ppl and the November Muller non-aligned standard liquid litre price was 20.94ppl (plus 2.623ppl retail supplement) making 23.56p”. 

Sharma’s vital but rhetorical question is: “Who will bear the loss a farmer incurs in selling his produce at a lower price in the market?”

 If selling food at below cost of production plus continues, this banner’s legend will be fulfilled.

In both countries, as he says, “Little effort has been made to understand the economic design that hardly leaves any policy space for farmers”. An honourable exception in Northern Ireland is the ongoing campaign by Farmers for Action, outlined here in 2016. Sharma continues:

“Farmers need to seek details from political party leaders on how their party, if elected, will be able to find adequate resources for what they promise for agriculture”.

No promises to British farmers ever hit the UK headlines before elections; they have been disregarded to date – though there are signs that post Brexit apprehensions are causing some re-evaluation.

Ed: the international prices quoted in commodity markets should be irrelevant to food grown in this country and bought by British residents; a farmer should never be forced to sell food – which is all-important – below cost of production plus.



Climate-smart agriculture in Africa – two approaches

maize-cutting at St Matthias Mulumba

Inspired by Pope Francis’ concern for those who suffer from MISSIO Invest develops hyper-local solutions to the global issues of food insecurity and unsustainable farming practices.

The MISSIO Agriculture Initiative is dedicated to generating both measurable social impact and strong financial returns for the conscientious investor by providing farm managers resources and training to carry out their work.

It identifies undeveloped church-owned land that can be transformed into ecological solutions to food insecurity through an investment of funds and technical assistance. Local entrepreneurs – priests, sisters and lay people – develop self-sustaining businesses, providing food security to surrounding communities and developing locally owned, sustainable, and environmentally responsible agri-business.

Joelle Birge of MISSIO Invest (New York) reports that just over two years ago, the Missio Invest Social Impact Fund gave St Matthias Mulumba Senior Seminary in western Kenya a small loan of $38,000 to upgrade its equipment and modernise farming practices on its 14-hectare maize and livestock farm. Through targeted investment in infrastructure, equipment and materials, along with strategic planting and feeding practices, the seminary has:

  • quadrupled milk and pork production,
  • nearly doubled maize production
  • reduced firewood consumption by 40 per cent.
  • conversion of maize cobs into animal feed using chaff-cutting and hay-grinding machines
  • a biogas digester provides clean cooking fuel and organic fertiliser for crops.
  • a fitted self-control water system (drinking fountain for pigs) facilitates efficient water use
  • in the maize fields, aligning planting with the start of the rainy season has yielded a more abundant harvest.

The seminary even stores its dried maize kernels in hermetic bags, which eliminates the need for chemical preservatives, while also extending shelf life into the dry season, when food supply is lowest.

Joelle ends: “St Matthias is one of many such farms in Africa that could reap great benefits from small, strategic investment in equipment and infrastructure. Investing in African agriculture is becoming less prohibitively risky than once thought. Although the investors are few, the harvest is plentiful”.

Evan Girvetz, a senior scientist with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (known as CIAT, Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical) writes about others investing in Climate-Smart Agriculture, helping farmers to adapt to changing weather patterns. while reducing emissions and boosting food security.

He commends:

  • F3 Life operating in east Africa, which provides credit to farmers at lower interest rates, if they use climate-smart agriculture to protect them from climate related risks — the more climate smart they are, the better the terms of the loan. See video (above):
  • The Senegalese National Meteorological Agency, funded by the United States Agency for International Development, which produces seasonal forecasts, 10-day forecasts, daily forecasts and instant forecasts for extreme events. They are helping farmers to adjust their agricultural management to respond to weather forecasts. Farmers can avoid losing their seedlings due to early planting in a season where lower than average rainfall was projected and can plant crops with lower water requirements.
  • Biogas digesters in Tanzania have helped farmers to reduce firewood and charcoal use, providing an effective fertiliser and insect repellent. Farmers have been able to generate up to six times their usual income from boosted output since the introduction of biogas.
  • Rabobank and UN Environment have launched a new $1bn facility to finance sustainable agriculture using a combination of public and private funding. The facility will provide grants, de-risking instruments and credit for sustainable agricultural production.

Girvetz reports that such private sector-led effort to promote investment in African agriculture through climate-smart agriculture can help to lower interest rates and insurance premiums, provide safer economic returns and produce a more consistent supply of food.





Swiss farmers’ union backs food sovereignty referendum demanding fair prices, which cover the costs of production

In Britain and Switzerland, small farms are closing and larger farms are taking their place. Deregulation is benefiting middlemen and retailers but not farmers themselves. They say producers are no longer getting a fair wage and neither farmers nor consumers have benefited from the changes of the last two decades.

As imports of cheaper food rise, many people are feeling that Switzerland’s high food standards are under threat. Concerned consumers, Greens, Socialists and around 70 organizations including Slow Food Switzerland are looking for ways to ensure the sector can survive.

On September 23rd, Swiss voters will cast their ballots on two referendums on the future of the food industry. The food sovereignty initiative calls for a far more radical overhaul of the agricultural sector, with a new focus on small, family farms. The most far-reaching proposals include

  • a ban on gene technology,
  • measures to boost the number of people working in agriculture,
  • the setting of fair prices for all agricultural products
  • and higher duties and quotas for imported foodstuffs.
  • Imports of products that don’t meet Swiss standards could be banned.

Supporters of the food sovereignty initiative – a group that includes the Greens, the Socialists and around 70 other organizations including Slow Food Switzerland – say current agricultural policies are killing off the Swiss agricultural sector.

The initiative “For Food Sovereignty”, was launched by a committee set up at the instigation of the Swiss agricultural union Uniterre. It proposes measures to promote local, diversified, sustainable agriculture without genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The state should guarantee good working conditions and decent wages for people working in this sector.

Food sovereignty demands fair prices, which cover the costs of production and make it possible to get out of debt.

In Switzerland, the amount spent on a litre of milk does not allow farm families to bear all the production costs and even less the hidden costs. Only one fifth of the price pays for the work of the producers, while the rest ends up in the pockets of the big retailers. Food sovereignty can provide farmers with a fair and dignified income.

Local agriculture should be protected by levying tariffs on certain products or even banning certain imports. Food produced should meet the social and environmental expectations of the population.

Food sovereignty concerns the entire agricultural production chain: from the field to the plate and from the fork to the fork. In Switzerland, local contract farming (similar to our box schemes or community supported agriculture) is boosting the local economy by enabling job creation and the development of local products. It guarantees transparency throughout the production chain and reduces CO2 emissions caused by long-distance transport.

Smaller agricultural estates, with fewer machines and buildings, greater diversification, and a recovery of part of the food chain, will put people back on farms rather than robotizing them. In 2012 a study found that 18% of young people from urban and farming backgrounds wanted to take over a farm but access to land is limited due to speculation, competition and direct government payments based on the size of the farm rather than the number of active people.

Those opposing the proposal point out that protectionist measures would break international agreements and voice concerns about higher prices for goods because the proposal calls for elevated duties on foodstuffs that don’t meet Swiss standards. However the budget spent on food for a person living in Switzerland is actually one of the lowest in the world, between 8 and 15%, calculated according to family income. 


See a virtual tour: – pages can be translated.




Peter Melchett: a celebration

A life well-lived.

Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association was on this site’s mailing list and responded occasionally to inform, gently correct or clarify.

Of late it has been pleasing to note the Association working more closely with the Organic Research Centre since 2015 in the Innovative Farmers not-for-profit network that gives farmers research support and funding on their own terms – a very effective combination of their individual strengths. The Soil Association, Organic Research Centre and Waitrose have been partners in the programme and are now joined by LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and Innovation in Agriculture, ensuring that the new network represents farmers and growers across the industry

Like many, including India’s Winin Pereira (Tending the Earth), he was inspired by the work of far-sighted Lady Eve Balfour, who back in the 1930s saw the dangers of chemical and industrial farming and food production and started the Soil Association the fight against those dangers. Another valued contact, David Fleming, similarly inspired, was the Soil Association chairman  from 1988-1991.  

On the SA website earlier this year, Peter recalled the best career advice he was ever given (unwittingly):

“I took part in an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration at a US Air Force Base near our farm in Norfolk in the early 1980s, and while I was giving a speech deploring the appalling risk that these weapons posed, someone called Lady Olga Maitland, with a small counter-demonstration called – I think, ‘families for the bomb’ – called out to me ‘Peter, Peter, think of your career!’.

“Immediately after that, with many others, I symbolically cut a link in the fence around the base and was arrested, and my subsequent criminal conviction helped get me a job at Greenpeace, where I worked for 15 years!”

Since 1973, he has managed the 890-acre Courtyard Farm in Norfolk, which went fully organic in 2000. The pride of the farm is herd of fine Red Poll beef cattle, an ancient local breed. Crops include barley, wheat, peas and vetch, clovers and grass. The farm is also well known for the wildlife conservation work done there over the last 50 years, and for the high level of access it affords to the public.

Peter listed some of the Soil Association’s campaigning work:

  • promoting healthy diets – particularly in schools and hospitals –
  • promoting the huge benefits of organic farming,
  • telling people why all cotton should be organic,
  • and campaigning for honesty and transparency in beauty products, and the expansion of certified organic health and beauty products.

“Our own healthy, environmentally friendly and locally sourced standards, Food for Life Served Here, now cover 1.7 million meals daily, in nurseries, schools including over half the primary schools in England, universities, hospitals, care homes, visitor attractions and workplaces”. He continued:

”One thing that still surprises me is just how secretive companies can be about products which they expect us to happily eat or spread on our bodies.

“In my lifetime, we’ve seen an explosion of information about the products we buy, how and where they are made, where the ingredients or raw materials come from, and so on. But in the areas where we work, with farming, health and beauty, and textiles, with still have a long way to go to anything like full transparency or honesty.

“Greater transparency is inevitable, and companies will come to be judged on their honesty, not the slickness of the advertising, and the Soil Association will do all we can to hasten that day”.

“We’ve had enough food scandals for people to be wary about how food is produced, and some of the concerns about ingredients used in beauty products have certainly driven the huge increase in interest in organic health and beauty products. But, this is an area where the term ‘organic’ is not protected by law, as it is with food, and we see terrible misuse, with labels suggesting products are organic when they contain ingredients which we would never allow, or contain only a tiny proportion of organic ingredients amongst the sea of non-organic.

Jonathon Porritt: Peter was a consummate campaigner (at Greenpeace and Soil Association), a wise and compassionate advocate for everything that really matters and a true friend.





The production impacts of a widespread conversion to organic agriculture in England and Wales

Laurence Smith (School of Water, Energy & Environment, Cranfield University & the Organic Research Centre) and colleagues assessed the production impacts of a 100% conversion to organic agriculture in England and Wales.

The abstract summarises this study, published in Elzevier’s Land Use Policy, Volume 76, July 2018, Pages 391-404. It notes that, while acknowledging the sustainability benefits and the potential for further growth in the market for organic products, some commentators have suggested that the lower yields observed in organic agriculture would mean that widespread conversion to organic production could be detrimental to food security.

Because the land area devoted to organic farming globally currently remains very small (i.e. organic farmland is approximately 1% of the total global agricultural area), it is difficult to assess the impacts of much larger scale adoption. Despite this, a few studies have attempted to explore the production and food security impacts of a widespread conversion to organic farming, the most recent of which, with a focus on the UK, was undertaken in 2009 by Jones and Crane.

The abstract summarises the results of this study:

  • An increase in the production of minor cereals such as oats and rye.
  • Major reductions in wheat and barley production.
  • Monogastric livestock (poultry & pigs) and milk production decreased considerably, whilst beef and sheep numbers increased.
  • Vegetable production was generally comparable to that under conventional farming.
  • Minimising the area of fertility building leys (eg clovers, lucerne, sainfoin) and/or improving rates of nitrogen fixation increased the food supply from organic agriculture at the national level.
  • The total food output, in terms of metabolizable (usable) energy, was 64% of that under conventional farming.

This would mean that substantial increases in food imports would be needed, with corresponding expansion of cultivated agricultural land overseas.

The continuing expansion and intensification of global agriculture presents a clear need to develop modes of production that can supply sufficient amounts of food for growing populations with more efficient use of resources.

Significant changes in diet and reductions in food waste would be required to offset the production impacts of a 100% conversion to organic farming. The populations of western countries should move towards more balanced diets to promote public health, with particular regard to increasing the share of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet.

The significantly higher soil carbon sequestration rates observed in organically managed soils have led to suggestions that wider use of this production system could help to delay the onset of damaging climate change although others have noted that these benefits would be offset by the requirement to increase the area of land in agricultural production to meet food demand.

The benefits provided by organic agriculture in areas such as soil protection, on-farm employment, rural development, reduced input intensity, fossil-energy use, biodiversity and the maintenance or enhancement of ecosystem functions have been identified and quantified in various studies. They align with the dimensions of sustainability proposed by the United Nations following Rio + 20 through the Sustainable Development Goals and EU action plans such as the Biodiversity Strategy (European Commission, 2010) and Soil Thematic Strategy (European Commission, 2006).