Sustainable Agriculture – Innovation v tradition

Sustainable Agriculture – Innovation v tradition

Sustainable Agriculture – Innovation v tradition

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Sustainable Agriculture – Innovation versus tradition – artisanal foods continue to surge, but should not distract from the need for the farmer to “feed us all”.

In the wake of the European Parliament Vote this week, it seems timely to examine one of the dilemmas at the heart of the European Agriculture debate and one that weighs heavily on its future. Is the most appropriate path for European agriculture one that favours the small scale, artisanal, locally source product and supply chains, or one that is increasingly focused on the search for technological sliver bullets to every problem.

The growth in consumer demand for food products with authenticity, where the story is part of that appeal appears to be a sustainable long term trend. All grocers’ response to this shows that this is a market trend that farmers should take seriously, even if some such as TESCO, by inventing fake farms risk undermining the market, as well as their own credibility.

Coming from a farming family (although my parents left farming before my second birthday), I remember the plates, plaques and tankards in my wider family homes proudly declaiming “The Farmer Feeds us all”. This growth in demand for “real food” still remains a minority market and the farmers’ mission to feed us all means that serious choices are necessary to ensure that markets and supermarkets remain able to provide for the whole population.

However, the challenges facing “mainstream” agriculture, such as a declining number of disease control agents, increasing disease and pesticide resistance alongside falling prices, mean that innovation is not just a nice to have, but it is essential for retaining our ability to ensure food is on the table for our growing population.

For this reason the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee report: “Technological solutions for sustainable agriculture in the EU” is an important step. Last week a further report from MEP Jan Huitema, was approved that promoted agri-innovations calling for a range of measures from soliciting European Investment Bank cash, to satellites and insect farming.

Innovative agriculture is the theme for both reports, e.g., calling for the use robotics and big data to deliver bigger yields. The McIntyre report asks that approvals for low-risk pesticides be speeded up and more controversially calls on the Commission not to hamper new plant-breeding techniques such as genome editing. Whether genome-edited plants count as GMOs or not is fast becoming a flashpoint between industry and NGOs.

These innovation initiatives from AGRI MEPs speaks to a growing divide between those wedded to traditional farming methods and those keen on technological solutions. For instance, it seems clear that the more specific recommendations in McIntyre’s report could make it more difficult to gain European Parliament support. “The McIntyre report pushes for further industrialisation of agriculture,” said Franziska Achterberg, a food policy adviser at Greenpeace’s EU office. “We need to move to agro-ecology instead, which is the only way to combine productivity and environmental protection.”

In the meantime, consumers continue to exercise their increasingly diverse choices and farmers continue to need to exercise production choices. It is clear to the observer that the crowded space of European Agriculture needs cool heads and the ability to achieve considered compromise that allows for a multi-functional agriculture to produce the food we need, alongside the cultural and environmental services that the CAP is designed to provide. Product and production Innovation should continue to play an essential role in enabling European farming to satisfy all its markets.

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