Man of the soil Klaus Laitenberger on Nuffield scholarship and the food economy

Respected organic grower and lecturer at UCC’s organic horticulture programme, Klaus Laitenberger on his year-long experience as a Nuffield scholar and student of world agriculture and the food economy.

I feel so privileged and lucky to have been selected as one of five Irish Nuffield scholars to explore agricultural innovations, observe trends in global agriculture, and, most importantly, to explore what the future of agriculture will be. Some people don’t realise this to the full, but the future of agriculture will also determine the future of humanity.

Klaus Laitenberger.

With a growing world population, an increasing decline in soil fertility, as well as problems of water availability, the state of world agriculture is a very challenging one. Nuffield International offers this scholarship every year to people that are involved in the agricultural and the horticultural industry.

William Morris, Lord Nuffield, was the founder and manufacturer of Morris cars and as he had no heirs, he dedicated his money for various scholarships. He believed firmly that opening your mind and learning from everyone around, is the key to a better future.

He noticed that farmers rarely travelled and often get stuck in their own ways, so created a scholarship that encouraged them to travel and visit other farm enterprises, exploring new techniques, new challenges, and opportunities outside of their own sphere.

Geoff Dooley, chairman of Nuffield Ireland, said the most important benefit of the Nuffield scholarship is to give scholars a peripheral vision of agriculture. I got a great overview of all farming matters and perspectives from lots of different countries over the year, and met wonderful farmers, researchers, policymakers, and processors — everyone is trying to do their best.

Contemporary Scholars Conference in the Netherlands

On March 9 this year, we met at the contemporary scholars’ conference in the Netherlands. There were more than 80 attendees from all over the globe and it was such an amazing week, it’s difficult to describe, as there was so much going on.

There were lectures on Dutch agriculture, the geology of the Netherlands, the state of world agriculture and trends; panel discussions; workshops. and an early-morning meeting at the swimming pool — sitting or half floating on plastic chairs in the pool.

My roommates included fellow Irish scholar Tommy the Vet and then there was Archie, an American tobacco farmer; Gus, originally from Zimbabwe and now living in London, who is in charge of a 450,000-hectare farm in Brazil and who farms it from London with monthly visits to Brazil. (To put this into perspective, the whole of Italy has 16,700,000 ha of agricultural land and Ireland has 4,400,000 ha.)

Grant, from Australia farms 6,600ha of cereals and legumes in Australia. He alternates cereals with legumes on an annual basis and uses cover crops as much as possible.

With this system, he managed to increase the organic matter content of his soil. I wish Irish cereal farmers would adopt this crop rotation. Most of the Australian farmers own in the region of 5,000 to 60,000 hectares.

Apparently, you can’t make a living if you have less than 2,000 hectares there. (To put this in perspective: the average farm size in Ireland is 32.3ha, Italy has an average farm size of 8.8ha of land.) Rick is a dairy farmer from the Netherlands who faces the threat of his land sinking back into the sea.

The vast knowledge and experience from this international group were incredible. The diversity of topics was equally interesting.

There were deer and poultry experts; aquaculture experts; a number of dairy, beef, and sheep farmers; an organic grower of medicinal herbs (echinacea and valerian); a Tasmanian grower of pyrethrum; a soil scientist from Iowa; an avocado grower from Australia; a plant breeder from Japan; a chia seed producer from Australia and even an insect farmer from the UK.

There were researchers, traders, and a Dutch icon who presents the popular TV series Who Wants to Marry a Farmer? (Apparently, the success rate of the programme is measured by the number of babies produced.) I was glad to find such a diversity and learned so much during the week from other scholars.

As much as the conference was about learning, it was also about community building and getting a broad vision about farming systems throughout the world, to make links and friends and to become contributors to a more innovative, sustainable farming system.

The age profile for Nuffield scholars is 25-45. I’m not really sure how I slipped through the net — it could have been an old photo in the application form!

Dutch agriculture:

Dutch agriculture is by far the most efficient agricultural farming system in the world. When we arrived at our first meeting in Almere, we were told that we were actually under sea level and in the middle of a lake. If the Dutch run out of the land, they simply make more. Dutch agriculture has been under the spotlight in the last year, too.

In National Geographic there was an article entitled ‘A tiny country feeds the world’. Shortly afterwards, the Guardian had the title: “Dutch cow poo overload causes an environmental stink.”

The Dutch are in serious trouble. On the one hand, they were aiming to further increase production with the excuse of feeding a growing world population, but are in danger of an excess of phosphorus which can be a major pollutant to watercourses. There are now strict measures in place to reduce phosphates by 8.2m kg per year. This calls for a reduction in dairy cow numbers of 170,000.

The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of food in the world (after the US). However, the figures are a bit optimistic; for example, €7bn of fruit and vegetables are exported, but €5bn are imported. It exports €7bn of processed food. Fact: The Netherlands exports more oranges than Spain.

We visited the nearby organic market garden Bio Brass and as is typical for the Netherlands, they organised 100 bikes and we went on an 8km ride to the farm (luckily it was flat).

On the one hand Bio Brass is a great example of how organic production is just as efficient as conventional production with no loss of yield, but on the other hand growing 360ha of broccoli and 400ha of beetroot seems a little too big — I prefer the Irish scale of operations.

The Australians and New Zealanders work without farm subsidies and can’t understand the EU farm subsidy programmes.

Nuffield scholars on bikes exploring the Netherlands.

They feel it gives an unfair trade advantage for European farmers and that it leads to unproductive farms. I tried to argue that the role of a farmer is also as a steward of the land and that many of these subsidies are linked to environmental measures and will even be more so in the new CAP.

I argued around agriculture is the “culture of the land” rather than just mere agribusiness with its inherent problems.

But still, they argued back that a business that can’t stand on its own feet is not sustainable and will eventually crash. This is the beauty of this Nuffield trip: We come from different cultures and different farming backgrounds and we have all become great friends. And I’m sure the discussions will go on.

After a week in the Netherlands, I continued to travel with seven international scholars, spending six weeks together exploring farms in Italy.

Scott from Australia is a cereal grower; Merino sheep farmer Brian from Iowa is a soil scientist; Robin from Tasmania runs a large Pyrethrum growing enterprise (75% of all the [natural pest control] agent, pyrethrum in the world is produced by this company); Emma from Australia is a poultry specialist; Andy from New Zealand works for a Maori company as a business developer, and also specialises in aquaculture; and Dudley is an avocado grower from Australia.

We travelled from Turin down to Rome visiting farms, vineyards; olive oil producers; organic market gardens; universities; and, the highlight of the trip, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.

Italians are a very welcoming and caring nation. They have taken more than 5m refugees in recent years — this makes up 8.3% of the population. There aren’t many generous countries like this in the world.

Italian agriculture is still very traditional and small scale. I was surprised to hear that the average farm size is only 8.4ha. Italy has 60.5m inhabitants and 16.7m hectares of agricultural land. So each person has about 3.6 hectares available. Only 1.3% of Italians is involved in primary agriculture which also surprised me a little. This is about half the percentage compared to Ireland.

Italians spend nearly 18% of their income on food. As a comparison, Americans spend only 6.4% and Irish people spend 9.6%.

Italy was also the driving force of the People4Soil campaign last year. Only Italy and Ireland achieved their targets during this campaign. Italy is also one of the top organic nations in the EU. It has the highest number of organic farms at 49,000, Spain is at number two with 30,000 certified farms and France is third with 26,000 organic farms.

Visit University Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa:

Pisa is a wonderful city and has a really superior agricultural research university, which only allows 500 undergraduate students and 370 PhD students. It’s a public school, but even better — if you qualify for a place you get fully funded, even for accommodation and living expenses.

The application process is rigorous and students are continuously evaluated during the course and bad performers will lose their grant. They have a teacher to student ratio of 1:7. If anyone is interested, all of their PhD programmes are in English, (though it’s doubtful that overseas students would be eligible for the grant).

Water:

We had a great lecture from Rudi Rossetto of the university on water usage — particularly on the competition between food production and household usage. In some areas of Italy, the groundwater has already dropped by 30m and another massive problem is seawater intrusion— where seawater is sucked into groundwater due to excessive extraction of groundwater.

The university researchers from the University of Pisa came up with excellent and low-cost solutions to the problem — building deep aquifers which collect any excess water during rain which bring it down into the groundwater rather than letting it run out into the sea.

They’re called managed aquifer recharge strategies — but unfortunately, the government is not acting on their suggestions and the problem will continue.

Visit the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation headquarters in Rome

We were honoured to visit the organisation’s headquarters to meet with some of the key staff of this amazing organisation.

Its role is to see the bigger picture in agriculture and come up with recommendations and warnings for the future. During our People4Soil campaign [Klaus Laitenberger was heavily involved in this international movement], we used all of its data on land degradation.

In Ireland, there are still many cereal growers who have continuously grown a cereal crop for over 40 years on the same piece of land with no crop rotation. These cereals are grown on the best land, but unfortunately, no soil can cope with such a prolonged monoculture.

One thing I don’t understand is that we buy in most of our protein sources for animal feed from South America and other countries — mostly genetically modified — while we could grow field beans, peas, and lupins very easily here.

A rotation which would include legumes would help with diversity and more importantly, would be good for for fixing nitrogen, while it would stop the endless monoculture of just one crop of cereal grown in the same field for decades.

Current global challenges to agriculture

Dr Teodoro of the Food and Agriculture Organisation outlined the current and major issues that will face farming in the future:

1. Competition for land and water

With more people on the planet, there is an increased demand for living space but also increased the requirement to produce more food. An increasing population, especially in dry areas, has a rising demand for water. This is in direct competition with farming in these areas, which is dependent on irrigation.

2. Price increases of agricultural inputs (eg fertiliser)

Phosphorus is a finite resource as it derives from rocks and there isn’t too much left. The production of nitrogen requires a lot of energy — about 5% of the world’s gas consumption is used to produce synthetic nitrogen for agriculture.

As energy prices increase and phosphorus becomes even scarcer, the price of fertiliser will increase.

3. The reduced resilience of cropping systems

With the use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and large-scale monocultures, we have neglected to care for our soils. Many soils are now quite lifeless.

You hear it over and over again on countryside programmes: There are no longer any birds following the plough because the most important animal (the earthworm) is no longer there.

Many of these natural ecosystem services are not working any longer — in particular, worms that aerate the soil, mycorrhizal associations with plants, or nitrogen fixation with legumes and bacteria.

4. Impacts of climate change

The impact of climate change on farming shows its signs everywhere. In every country, we visited this was stated as one of the most important threats

5. Increasing population and patterns of consumption and the need to double food production

As populations increase and become more “modern”, their patterns of consumption change from a more vegetarian diet to a more meat-based diet (especially in China and India). Generally speaking, a more plant-based diet is more efficient in terms of land area.

How can agriculture feed a growing world population with less land?

Intensive farming systems that rely heavily on synthetic inputs and very little on natural resources produce a lotof negative externalities (energy cost, pollution, residues, soil degradation) while farming systems that harness natural resources (for example, nitrogen fixation by legumes and mycorrhizal associations), produce positive externalities.

With intensive farming systems, we will definitely be able to meet short-term food demands, but the question is for how long? Intensive farming is responsible for most of the soil degradation that happened in the last 50 years.

We cannot afford to lose more soil if we have to feed a growing world population. There was lot of talk everywhere I went, on how GM crops will be able to save the world. But really, at the end of the day, we’ll only survive if we manage to keep our soils alive.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation decided not to enter the GM debate, for reasons of neutrality. One of its recommendations is to diversify cropping systems and to integrate legumes crops (peas, beans, or clovers) into crop rotations.


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