British agriculture has to undergo a radical transformation if it has to survive.
Pic by Telegraph
Some years back I was at a dinner meeting hosted by the then British Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, in London. Among those present were a select group of leaders of charities and people’s organisations working on sustainable agriculture, biodiversity, environment and worker rights. The discussion was broadly on how Britain could extend help to developing countries in promoting sustainable agriculture and food security.
After the first round of discussions, Hilary Benn turned to me. Being the only outsider at the meeting, he asked me how I perceive Britain’s role in promoting sustainable agriculture in developing countries. In a sense the question related to my expectations from the DFID, the department responsible for promoting development and the reduction of poverty. If I recall correctly, I replied: “I don’t understand how UK can help India in promoting sustainable agriculture. Your own agriculture being ecologically and environmentally devastated, please tell me how is DFID qualified enough to teach us sustainable agriculture?”
It took some moments for Hilary Benn to understand the implications of what I was trying to say. He quipped: “Well, I get your point. In that case what do you expect British DFID to do?” My answer was simple. I told him that aid should be a two way channel. Instead of imposing the British development agenda, it was time DFID invited some farmers from India and make them go around the country educating farmers and educationists and thereby create awareness about the importance and need for sustainable farming practices.
As you would have guessed my suggestion never received a second thought. But if Hilary Benn, and also some of the agricultural experts present at the dinner, had actually ignored the national pride tag that they were wearing on their sleeves and launched a serious effort to resurrect British agriculture, the doomsday warning could have been easily averted. A study by the University of Sheffield warns of a serious 'agricultural crisis' unless dramatic action is taken. (Britain has only 100 harvest left .. http://ind.pn/1ySqLt9)
The Sheffield study only establishes what I have been saying for long. British agriculture is one of the most intensively farmed, and of course one of the most devastated. With cultivated soil turning infertile, researchers found that soils in urban parks and kitchen gardens were much healthier. "Allotment soil had 32% more organic carbon, 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios, 25% higher nitrogen and was significantly less compacted."
Britain, like many other countries, is encouraging people to farm in the available urban places. Citizens are allowed to apply for allotment plots -- small patches in urban centres where they can grow food for themselves and their families. Currently there is a waiting list of 90,000 people wanting allotment plots. Interestingly, unlike the corporate farms, the small scale producers know the importance of maintaining soil health and therefore tend the gardens to maintain an ecological balance. With the rural landscape turning unhealthy, the hope now rests on the urban farming.
But peri-urban agriculture may not be enough. Britain will sooner or later have to revert back to restoring its soil health. It is therefore high time that Britain sheds its false pride in agricultural superiority, and learns from countries which have shown an agro-ecological pathway. It's time DFID becomes a channel to draw from the expertise of ecological farmers from countries like India. There is nothing to feel ashamed. If only Hilary Benn had seen the merit in my argument, perhaps we could have identified a group of smart farmers from India who could have helped British agriculture to regenerate. It isn't too late even now.
Further reading: Climate change provides the right opportunity to reorient agriculture..
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