Winning is everything?

10 Mar 2014

Sainsbury’s was selling snow shovels at a 25% discount today so I have to assume that winter is over. The rush on the land is accelerating and as always it will be a busy spring season with multiple passes of fertilisers and pesticides in each field.

I’m developing the view that the current debate about funding elite sport is an allegory for the approach we take to crop management. It can be argued that elite sport and arable agriculture are both aimed specifically at being successful against international competition rather than establishing a sounder (I am trying to avoid the word ‘sustainable’) base.British Basketball v Spain

The debate in sport is about basketball losing its funding from UK Sport because it’s unlikely to get medals at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. This is despite the GB basketball team losing to the eventual bronze medallists by the narrowest of margins in London 2012. This decision is in contrast to the increase in funding for some less inclusive and less popular sports.  The question being asked is whether elite sport is just about Olympic medals. Basketball is much more popular than some of the funded elite sports, particularly so in the inner cities where it can transform the lives of teenagers.

The equivalent question in arable agriculture is whether it is all about increasing yields and high short-term financial margins. Certainly projects or initiatives to increase yields attract a lot of attention and are followed with great interest in the press. I still clearly remember a lecture in the late 1970s at which a plant physiologist explained the path towards higher cereal yields. It was all the more pleasurable because I had been in a university cross-country team with him and it was good to catch up, in more than one way, as he always beat me! During our conversation he said that the then current developments would lead to higher wheat yields and it was only a few years later, in 1984, that we achieved yields that were far higher than those of our dreams a few years earlier.

This was all part of a process that took the UK from being a producer of just over four million tonnes of wheat in 1970 to not only supplying our home market, but also exporting over four million tonnes by 1990.  This remarkable growth in production was a combination of both a significant increase in the area of wheat and a significant increase in yields.

However, as I have written before, there are now no imminent developments that will lead to significantly higher on-farm yields. It is more likely, in the short term at least, that we may not be able to maintain such high levels of cereal production partly because many farmers are having to replace some winter wheat with spring cereals. The main reasons for this are pesticide resistance, removal of pesticides from the market and more regularly occurring extreme weather events. It seems that our quest to optimise margins in the past has resulted in pesticide resistance that is compromising our current productivity.

A further reminder of this issue was a discussion that I had with some leading researchers last week. I was hoping that they would tell me that we should not be concerned about fungicide resistance because we would soon get disease resistant cereal varieties. However, they said that this is unlikely and that what the industry should be doing is reducing the number of fungicide applications in wheat to two in the season. This could be achieved partly by choosing varieties with reasonable all-round disease resistance.

However, this approach is rather pie-in-the-sky in the cold reality of having to survive financially. It is the crux of the problem; in order to compete internationally UK farmers have been forced, almost knowingly, into practices that they suspected would lead to problems.  What happened to Atlantis is a prime example. The threat of black-grass resistance was recognised before its commercial introduction and warnings of over-reliance on it were hard to avoid. However, because of a lack of alternatives for the control of high weed populations, the inevitable occurred.

So elite sport funding and arable farming are very similar in respect that competing successfully with international competition is essential to keep the coffers flowing. The difference is that in the recent past, in order for arable farming to survive financially, we may have reduced our ability to compete in the future.

Interestingly, the same has occurred for some of our international competitors and so the net result is likely to be felt in the consumers’ pockets. European producers are particularly hampered by the new pesticide registration requirements and the rather smug view of many politicians and bureaucrats that food supplies will be easily available without the aid of new technologies, such as genetic modification (GM). There have also been publicly expressed concerns over other new scientific developments that offer increased productivity in the medium and long-term. It seems that there is a part of our society that wants science taken out of agriculture. The net result could easily be increases in food prices that will dwarf any potential savings on snow shovels.