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7 May 2003
Sustainability in Agriculture
Dr James Irvine
FRSE DSc FInstBiol FRCPath FRCPEd
Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Perthshire
Teviot Scientific Consultancy, Edinburgh
(Filed 7 May 2003)
Sustainability in Agriculture is the title of
an excellent and thought-provoking article included in the Annual
Report 2001/2 of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) at
Invergowrie, Dundee that has recently been published (1).
The article is written by the director of the Institute, John Hillman
and colleagues Donald McKerron and Jim Duncan (2).
"The trouble with "sustainability" is that it
has become a fashionable term, Worse! It is politically correct!
As a result the term is used to qualify and justify courses of
action or policies that are thought subjectively to be desirable
for other reasons. It has become a term that is forced to mean
any one of many things and, when used by some people, can change
meaning within the course of a single speech or article."
Remember what the Scottish Executive says in its
"A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture" (2001) (3):
"We want a prosperous farming industry, one of Scotlands
success stories, which benefits all the people of Scotland. It
be focused on producing food and other products that the customer
play a major role in sustainable rural development and
help to maintain the prosperity of our rural communities
be a leading player in the protection and enhancement of our
embrace change and new opportunities
Professor Hillmans group exposes the emptiness
of these high sounding words. All very well in intention, but what
do they mean in practice?
The article from the SCRI is so well thought out
and so articulately written that it is difficult to avoid quoting
it when trying to highlight its main points.
"Debates on issues, such as the use of external inputs such
as fertiliser, tend not to resolve the issues but to illustrate
how the judgemental values of the debaters can seriously affect
their conclusions and recommendations, e.g. on the significance
of soil erosion. However, to be sustainable, agriculture must
provide the farmer with a living. The idea of sustainability must
distinguish between, yet be required to accommodate, both 'ecological'
or 'biological' or 'environmental' sustainability and 'economic'
sustainability, or it is not a useful concept ...
"..the products of our agriculture are sold in commodity
markets that are increasingly open to global competition. That
competition is usually based on price alone and, with he principal
buyers being relatively few and large, these buyers are able to
maintain a continuous downward pressure on prices.
"Under a global free-market, production will move to (or
survive in) areas where the climate is benign, soil suitable,
and land and labour are cheap. What enables this global economy
is the relative cheapness of fuel. - Transport over long distances
appears to be hardly a consideration.
"As long as these conditions obtain, UK agriculture is scarcely
sustainable; not because it uses fossil fuels but because others
do. But these conditions, themselves, may not last. When they
change, when fuel becomes more expensive, the measure of sustainability
in UK agriculture will change also - an possible for the better."
With regard to the use of agro-chemicals the authors
go on to say that the common presumption that sustainable
farming will require a reduction of inputs, particularly those that
are chemical, is not a useful idea - until such time
as we can foresee synthetic chemicals becoming unavailable. Farmers
use agro-chemicals because they do the job of controlling disease
and because it is economic to use them - the financial benefits
outweighing the financial costs.
The authors give the example of dealing with late
blight of potatoes by the fungus Phytophthora
infestans. It is one of the most serious diseases of food
crops. Despite years of attempts to breed resistance into the crops,
it is still controlled by the use of fungicides. In organic
systems the yield of potatoes where copper-based fungicides are
used as protectants is only 60% of those achieved by conventional
agriculture. Copper itself is in fact highly toxic and approval
for its use is now being withdrawn. Without its use the yield of
organic potatoes falls to 40% of conventional. How is the word sustainable
to be interpreted in this context?
As regards the use of energy, Professor Hillman
and his colleagues point out that as long as energy systems survive
the chemical products can be synthesised. If the sources of energy
collapse then a whole lot more than agriculture will be in difficulty,
and agriculture is not a principal user of energy. Agriculture is
responsible for only 1% of the national consumption of energy.
DEFRA says that it is committed to making food
production more sustainable and part of restoring economic
sustainability will be making farm diversification easier. This
means farmers enabling farmers to spend less time on food production
and do other things instead. As the authors point out, this is an
example of the juxtaposition of two ideas, each of which seems laudable
but which simply cannot co-exist.
When considering the use of land the authors condemn
the continued loss of the good and not-so-good fertile land to urban
and suburban building developments. Developers like flat sites and
sites near the edges of cities and other urban settlements. These
are frequently the very best of farmland. Houses are only a once
ever crop, although lucrative for the developer. As far as agriculture
is concerned that is certainly "unsustainable".
With regard to farm animals the authors take issue
with the common assumption that intensification of agriculture involves
loss of micro-habitats and diversity of wildlife. They regard the
presumption that "sustainable" farming is less intensive
than otherwise as being simplistic. And they do so for good and
well presented reasons.
"To argue for higher or lower stocking rates without knowing
the circumstances of the place under consideration is to invite
not just mistakes, but the collapse of the very things one wants
The definition of sustainable anything that has
been most readily accepted and used by politicians and policy makers
comes from the Brundtland Commission (4).
It defines sustainable development as
"meeting the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs"
'Brundtland' Commission (4)
The Hillman group interpret this definition thus:
"We judge this quotation to be worthless, pious rubbish
because it says nothing but allows those who use it to appear
MacKerron , Hillman & Duncan
Rather they propose the much simpler idea that:
"To be sustainable, anything - agriculture, production etc
- should be capable of being continued for a long time and should
not make irreversible changes"
MacKerron , Hillman & Duncan
Refreshingly, MacKerron et al argue that:
"while we should not squander resources and impoverish others
whether in the future or the present, we must feed ourselves and
others now, and we must do it next year and the one after. When
the oil runs out it runs out. The needs of future generations
will be their problems - to be tackled by those same characteristics
of acquiring and developing new technologies that has brought
humanity and the world to their present condition".
They rightly maintain that for agriculture to
be sustainable the price that the farmer gets for his products must
be related to the cost of production plus a margin. To insist that
the cost of production be kept within an arbitrary price is to condemn
farming to failure. To avoid or to try to discredit the use of modern
products or techniques simply because they are not traditional is
very short-sighted and makes the farmer dependent upon the goodwill
and prosperity of special customers with a penchant for a particular
In their article the authors have set out some
guiding principles which include maintenance of diversity in terms
of agriculture and biology. They maintain that the idea of indicators
of sustainability is not practicable. Rather there should be indicators
of unsustainability and a set of guiding principles, foremost among
which should be no irreversibility. The scarcest resource is our
agricultural land - that should only be surrendered under duress.
This article is superbly well thought out and
written. It is highly relevant to present day. The politicians and
policy makers would do well to take note of it.
It is refreshing to read the comments of eminent
scientists who are clearly in touch with practical agriculture.
The subject is of course highly relevant as the
Government plans to develop a scheme to pay farmers to farm a more
sustainable way, a core recommendation of the Curry Commission (5).
That presumes that we know what sustainable is. The SCRI article
points to the possible fallacies in such a policy.
The article can be read in full HERE.
1. Scottish Crop Research Institute
Annual Report 2001/2002.
(6.3MB PDF file).
2. MacKerron, D. K. L., Hillman
R. J. and Duncan, M. J. (2003). Sustainability in Agriculture.
(120KB PDF file).
3. Scottish Executive (2001).
Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture.
(1.9MB PDF file)
4. World Commission on Environment
and Development (1987).
Our common future. Oxford University Press, New York (The "Brundtland"
5. Farming and Food - a sustainable
Report of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food.
Also on the Cabinet Office web site at:
Further Reading as recommended by Land-Care
Maxwell, Fordyce (2003). Sustainable: A word for almost every occasion.
The Scotsman, 14 April 2003.
Irvine, James (2003). Michael Meacher talks organic garbage.
(Filed 2 April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk,
here to view).
DEFRA (2002). Action Plan to Develop Organic Food and Farming in
Editorial (2002). Food Standards Agency does not Provide Support
for Organic Farming.
(Filed 14 November 2002, www.land-care.org.uk,
click here to view).
Organic Farmers will have to get real says Professor
(Filed 23 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk,
here to view).
Irvine, James (2001). New enterprise - new beginnings. LandCare
Scotland, Vol 1, pp. 45-50.
(Reproduced (with update) with permission
on Land-Care, click
here to view).
Prof Trewavas and other speakers at LEAF Conference 26 September,
(Filed September 2002, www.land-care.org.uk,
Watkins, Ruth (2002). Compassion for Health of Farm Animals 2003.
(Filed 31 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk,
here to view).