My role on the Agriculture Committee: Paul's Journal column

19 October 2015

It was a pleasant surprise to read this week that the region has claimed a new world record with the highest ever yielding wheat crop produced on a farm overlooking Holy Island in Northumberland this year. Congratulations to Rod Smith of Beal Farm.

‘We plough the field and scatter the good seed on the land’ was sung at harvest festival services in churches across the country yesterday.  It’s an iconic image, the tractor working its way across the stubble, the blades of the plough turning over the brown earth, the seagulls following. 

But this much loved scene may be something we need to see less of in the battle against climate change. Our soils are a major depository of CO2, the same as our forests, and the more bio-mass they contain (think compost) then the more CO2.  Soils that are fed fertilisers may produce high yielding crops but the soil itself is increasingly devoid of nutrients and carbon matter.  The act of ploughing breaks the surface, turns the soil and releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

On a recent agriculture visit to the south of France I met with farmers who are experimenting with a no till approach.  In the autumn they sow what is called a cover crop, say turnip and sweet pea. Through the following months the crop soaks up the free energy of the sun, which would be wasted on a fallow field (think turning off solar panels in the winter), and at the same time holds onto winter rainfall, reducing wasted run-off.  Come the early spring the cover crop is not harvested - rather, its crushed by the roller on the front of a tractor while on the back of the same tractor the seed drill plants the main cereal crop for the year. The cover crop is now rotting and releasing nutrients into the soil, increasing the capacity of the soil to hold more CO2.  Fertiliser consumption goes down, saving carbon emissions, and diesel use is also down as the tractor only traversed the field once to both ‘fertilise’ and plant. 

As Labour’s spokesperson in the European Parliament on Agriculture and Rural Development I’m lucky enough to meet a wide range of people representing also sorts of different organisations and outlooks.  At one level it is totally fascinating but at another it is completely bamboozling, so many issues!

A few of the live issues on which it is tricky to know exactly what position to take include: Genetically Modified Organisms, the cloning of animals, biomass for energy (think Drax fuelled by woodchips from North America) and novel foods (foods that have so far been unknown to the EU market and are therefore either freshly discovered, like stevia or the newly engineered, like the cholesterol-beating ingredient of bread spreads or foods like goji berries).

In addressing any such thorny problem it is good to have a guiding star or some clear bigger goals into which to place the issue at hand.  After just over a year in my role I’m of the view that the battle against climate change, and the numerous threats it presents, is potentially the predominant guiding star.

In addressing climate change, a primary focus must be on agriculture, which produces a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions - think farting animals and heavy use of fertiliser. Why fertiliser?  Because fertiliser is heat intensive to manufacture and the energy source is usually fossil fuels. 

There are also hopeful sign too.  If the rich world halved meat consumption, recycled animal and crop waste better, and used biofuel crops better, we could feed 9.3 billion by 2050 without destroying more forests.  If we had more agro-forestry, the introduction of trees to farming, we could increase agricultural production by up to 40%. These was some of the many fascinating facts I learnt from a hugely informative encounter with Patrick Worms of the World Agroforestry Centre, a German who lives at Waterloo, just outside Brussels and who was fresh off the plane from Tanzania.

Now, where did I put that packet of lentils?


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