Sustainable Intensification – Integral Integration
Sustainability is generally regarded as meeting our needs today without compromising those of future generations. We are all becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that a range of environmental factors underpin our ability to produce food, clean water and, to an increasing extent, fuel. Look no further than the recent flurry of activity around soil health on farming-related social media as evidence of this. Integrating environmental objectives with agricultural ones is fundamental to productive land use, both in the short- and long-term.
There are two further ways in which integration is key to our productive management of the land. The first is a response to the polarisation of farming systems. While this may have delivered economic efficiencies in the short term, there is an increasing realisation of the benefits associated with the integration of food production systems, not least in terms of waste management, weed and disease control, and security of feed supply. The second relates to knowledge exchange. A long history of one-directional knowledge transfer, from scientists to farmers, is gradually giving way to a more enlightened approach, in which the skills and knowledge of the most pioneering farmers are recognised as having equal, or more, relevance to the current challenges associated with food production. Put the best scientists and the most forward-thinking farmers together and we have real dynamism that can help us to achieve sustainable intensification.
‘Intensification’ now is not measured in tonnes of fertiliser or litres of diesel or plant protection products, but through the knowledge and technology that are developed and applied to improve the efficiency with which those resources are used. As well as ensuring economic and environmental benefits arising from improved resource use efficiency, this approach harnesses natural processes for nutrient cycling and control of pests, weeds and diseases. Integration of environmental and production objectives, arable and livestock systems, and scientific and farmer knowledge, is integral to the activities on the SIP study farms. Together, our farms provide a platform on which science can be applied in a practical setting, and a focus for discussion with visiting farmers and advisors.
The Allerton Project at Loddington has been integrating its environmental research with its farm business objectives since its start in 1992. As our contribution to the Sustainable Intensification Platform (SIP), we are conducting research into various cover crop mixtures, as well as crop establishment methods with differing levels of soil disturbance. Both areas of research have potential for improving soil function, with associated benefits to crop performance and water-related objectives.
Our other area of research is on optimising the use of grass fields for sheep production, through better understanding of the role of sward minerals in those fields. This is highly relevant to the integration of farming systems. As well as improving the live-weight gain of lambs, grass leys within an arable rotation help to reduce parasite burdens in sheep, and grassweed populations in the subsequent arable crops.
The Allerton Project works with a wide range of research partners, with NIAB TAG (National Institute of Agricultural Botany/The Arable Group) and the University of Nottingham being our key partners on the SIP. We also work closely with retailers and a range of agricultural supply companies. But, most importantly, we work with farmers and their advisors. Last year, more than 2,000 agricultural professionals from across the country visited us at Loddington, providing numerous opportunities for two-way exchanges of information and ideas.
There is similar activity in the local area around Loddington, with a range of initiatives providing mechanisms through which researchers and farmers can exchange information and ideas, and develop plans for research. These specific opportunities for practical approaches to mutually beneficial collaboration between farmers, form part of our contribution to the SIP landscape scale work. Collaboration between local farms can have social as well as economic and environmental benefits. As one local farmer put it to me recently, ‘It makes life worth living’.
So integration is integral to all we are doing. Coming from a flour milling family, adopting a career in agrienvironmental research, and running a small farm business with my wife, integration has personal resonance too! But that is something that everyone with whom we are trying to engage should be able to say.
Chris Stoate, Head of Research at the Allerton Project for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at Loddington, Leicestershire, England.
You can find Chris’s blog at http://allertonresearch. blogspot.ie/ This article originally appeared in SIPSCENE – The newsletter of the Sustainable Intensification Platform. http://www.siplatform. org.uk/sites/default/files/newsletter_pdf/ SIPSCENE_3rd_Edition_final.pdf