Landlines: Organic production can’t feed 7 billion

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A development I seem to have missed until last week is that there are now two Oxford farming conferences in early January. One is the long-established, and farming establishment, event. The other, now apparently in its third year, is an alternative “real farming” conference organised by writers Colin Tudge and Graham Harvey.

For both – conferences and organisers – I’m tempted to echo the legendary comment from the audience at a Glasgow theatre when London comedian Mike Winters spent a minute or two on stage on his own, dying on his feet, before brother Bernie came on to join him.

“Oh my God,” came the despairing voice from the audience. “There’s two of them.”

My sentiments exactly. There’s always a lot written in the farming press about the official Oxford conference because there’s little else on in January, but I’ve always thought if, say, reports from 2010 were run again in 2013, no one would notice much difference.

Or perhaps that’s just my general disillusion with conferences over the years. This year’s highlight seems to have been the performance of Owen Paterson, head of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

But his assertion that he would argue at European Union meetings for abolition of the farm subsidies that account for much EU spending has surely been Westminster government policy for at least ten years, possibly longer? And, as Mr Paterson admitted himself, the chances of getting subsidies scrapped against opposition from most of the other 27 EU member states is approximately nil.

He did agree that not all subsidies – or support payments as farmers prefer to call them – are bad. Farmers should be compensated for what they do for the environment and for provision of so-called “public goods” which presumably means things such as access. But farmers should stand on their own feet and rely on the market for returns from crop and livestock production.

Which is where, I guess, the “real farming” lobby and conference comes in because its organisers, Mr Tudge and Mr Harvey, are dead against what they see as the horrors that have been inflicted on what they think used to be our green and pleasant land by modern farming methods, although I’m not sure where they stand on subsidies.

Mr Harvey, who began his career on Farmers Weekly, has been among other things an agricultural story-line adviser for ‘The Archers’, which saves me making any further comment about how he thinks.

Mr Tudge, also with a journalistic background, has a special interest in farming history from its earliest origins. I can safely say that neither take kindly to large scale, modern farming or techniques such as genetic modification (GM), a view also taken at the official conference by Prince Charles in a video presentation.

They are not alone. The “real farming” conference at Oxford last week attracted an audience of about 300, representing, it was suggested, the traditional farming that still produces about half the world’s food in all its forms. They believe organic farming is a good thing and that GM is bad, that small-scale is good and large-scale bad, that there was a golden age of farming with the work done by happy, horny-handed peasants using tools with wooden handles, and the sooner we get back to that the better.

Sorry, I got slightly carried away with the last bit. Perhaps they don’t actually want to go back. But they certainly don’t want to move forward much, if at all. They also ignore the fact that when push came to shove – that is, we all have less to spend – sales of organic food have fallen by 25 per cent in the past four years.

As I have said before I don’t take pleasure from being right in what I thought 20 years ago and think now, that there is a place for organic food producers who sincerely believe in what they are doing and can convince higher-income consumers to pay higher prices for food.

But organic production can not provide the competitive prices most supermarket customers now look for and as a system of production it can’t feed a world population that has now passed seven billion. It simply can’t.

I see that a recent meeting of Scottish Environment LINK, “the umbrella organisation” for environmental organisations, covered much of the same ground as the Oxford conferences.

One conclusion was the feeling among farmers that environmentalists would achieve more if they were prepared to compromise. But environmentalists argue that more farmers must accept that society – that is, taxpayers – expect more from them than just food production and that some farming methods are causing environmental harm.

I get the feeling, from that meeting and from Oxford conferences, that the opposing factions remain some distance apart.

The last word on the disastrous weather of 2012 was that for England and Wales it missed by a millimetre or two being the wettest on record – which was 1768. Scotland’s total rainfall was lower because, thanks to where the jet stream parked itself for months, the Western Highlands had one of their driest-ever summers.

How we could have done with some of that dry weather in the Borders.