Farming methods may to modern eyes seem to have once been more natural but are we being romantic and nostalgic?
A great website that traces the history of the countryside and agriculture – ukagriculture.com – is an easily digested history of UK population and economic developments and their impact on farming from the days of Saxon England onwards.
One small example is the fluctuation in the country’s woodland from approximately 11% woodland cover during the Roman period (100AD) to 15% in Norman era. It was down to around 7% by 1350AD, even less than today, and then climbed to a broadly stable 10% while the total length of hedgerow continued to grow as more fields were enclosed.
Meanwhile there was from very early times an inexorable drift of population from the countryside to the towns and cities, which accelerated after c1750 and the onset of the industrial revolution.
Two more significant moments in history are the Second World War with the need to increase domestic food production and then, fuelled by a rural labour shortage, the development of the combined harvester.
Add in population growth, the search for profit and the need to increase food production and the result is so-called agribusiness, getting rid of the hedges that used to enclose our fields and the woodland that got in the way of the big machines that allegedly made farming more efficient.
It’s pretty clear, therefore, that producing food – farming – has always been driven by economics and by population changes.
So while in the past there may have been a better balance in the way farmland was used thinking nostalgically is something of a red herring. Farming is now and historically always has been a commercial activity.
Urban population growth and production costs are the twin pressures to produce more from the same amount of land, especially on an island like Britain. They led in the 1960s and 70s to using more and more chemicals to get rid of pests and diseases and to increase yield per acre.
Then came the wake-up calls: the BSE and other scares, tales of hormones in our chickens, increasing evidence of chemical-induced carcinomas from our food.
A couple of decades on and we no longer tolerate damage to people’s health from chemicals in our food, or the threatened destruction of the environmental balance on which we all depend for life.
The growth in global communications and in global travel have also opened people’s eyes to inequalities in both food production and people’s access to enough food.
It’s becoming urgent that we balance the need for more food against the imperative to preserve the quality of the land it comes from. It’s commonsense, it’s not about nostalgia.
That’s why the growing emphasis on sustained farming, organic and more natural agriculture and on biological agricultural products like biopesticides and biological yield enhancers that could arguably be as crucial to the small developing-world farmer as they are to bigger operations in the developed world.
It’s about trying all kinds of things appropriate to the local ecology – as illustrated by this story about Zambian farmer Elleman Mumba a 54-year-old peasant farmer growing maize and groundnuts on his small plot of land in Shimabala, south of Lusaka.
Feeding his family used to be a problem and the yield was very little. “We were always looking for hand-outs; we had to rely on relief food.”
With no oxen of his own to plough his field he had to wait in line to hire some, often missing planting as soon as the first rains fell. for every day of delay the potential yield is shrunk by around 1% – 2%.
In 1997, Mr Mumba, thanks to free training given to his wife, switched to conservation farming. It uses only simple technology, a special kind of hoe and Instead of ploughing entire fields, farmers till and plant in evenly spaced basins.
Only a tenth of the land area is disturbed. it reduces erosion and run-off and in the first season increased his yield to 68 bags of maize – enough to feed the family and buy four cattle! (his full story is on the BBC Africa website)
That’s what innovation, sustainable farming and thinking outside the box are all about. It’s about economics and what works, not about nostalgia.