THE Weekly Times and WeeklyTimesNow are inviting readers to contribute to an international poll on how best to feed the world.
How to feed the world is the most important question of the 21st century. It concerns everyone from the wealthiest business tycoons to the wide-eyed hungry of the poorest shanty towns.
As world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss a sustainable future for the planet the timing could not be better for a co-ordinated effort to ask the world’s farmers – the very people who are tasked with providing the solution.
That’s why The Weekly Times and WeeklyTimesNow are partnering with the Farmers Weekly, the UK’s best-selling farming title, which has initiated farming’s most wide-reaching poll.
Other leading farming titles around the world are involved, making it one of the most ambitious online projects the global agricultural community has seen. Almost a million farmers are being asked for their views on solutions to feeding the world.
Taking part is easy – all you need to do is go to www.fwi.co.uk/globalpoll. There you will find five key factors that will be instrumental in how we nourish a growing population. Just indicate which one you think is the most important. They are:
- Removal of trade barriers
- Government intervention in food production
- Investment in research and development
- Uptake of new technologies and genetic modification
- Broader expertise, through education and training
By voting on the poll you can make your voice heard and you can also see – thanks to a dynamic map – the views of your colleagues around the world.
Farmers Weekly in the UK is also running a forum at http://www.fwi.co.uk/globalpollforum where you can contribute further to the debate.
It is a unique opportunity to share your views and glean those of a truly worldwide audience. History will be made during this global gathering of agricultural minds – make sure you’re a part of it.
So what are farmers’ views on the big issues? A Dutch dairy farmer would have a very different stance on access to global markets to a wheat grower in Western Australia. Perhaps biofuels and GM offer most to a Mid-West corn grower. And where in the world will be the climate change winners? Few are better placed to comment on farmers’ concerns and aspirations than the editors of the world’s leading farming publications.
Being a global food producer is what being a farmer is all about in the US.
“It’s as analogous as fourth of July or flying the stars and stripes for a US farmer,” says Dan Looker, business editor of Successful Farming, the nation’s largest circulation farming publication. “But we’re close to a negative trade balance and the Obama administration is being urged not to ignore trade issues.”
The country is the bread basket of the world. It’s relatively consistent supply of wheat, soya beans and corn largely set the pace of world markets. There are 100 million head of cattle and GM technology is mainstream.
But $US5 billion per year in direct farm subsidies are proving unpopular to some farmers. These support the commodity producers, largely in the Mid-west, and the more entrepreneurial, unsubsidised fruit growers in California, for example, resent the subsidies. “The Senate doesn’t like them, but they survive and additional subsidies have been introduced. Farmers profess to be ambivalent to them, but most commodity groups fight to retain them.”
Meanwhile initial enthusiasm for biofuels has decidedly waned. “There’s a backlash from various interests against the biodiesel and bioethanol speculative bubble. Questions are now being asked about its carbon footprint – farmers are still very supportive, but the industry is struggling in the public eye.”
The nation’s cattle farmers are under pressure from the Carbon Cap-and-Trade Bill. This sets limits on carbon emissions which will affect the largest livestock producers. “No one is excited about the prospect of a carbon tax. A lot of farmers don’t even believe that global warming exists.”
The views of South African farmers are shaped by the varied climate they deal with. This shifts from highly extensive farming in the semi-desert through the maize belt of the Transvaal, to the rich tropical areas of fruit and vines.
“Nowhere in the world do you get so many different climate zones in such a small area, and it gives the farmers a very diverse outlook,” notes Chris Burgess, editor of South Africa's Farmers Weekly, the country’s largest farming publication.
Grain production is for the domestic market, or tends to travel no further than near-African neighbours. The country is a net red meat importer. But fruit and wine make South Africa a net exporter of agricultural produce, with the UK its biggest customer. “One of the biggest problems is that farmers compete with highly subsidised imports, so they are very much in favour of removing trade barriers.”
The government has largely shunned biofuels, saying it is not feasible to use food crops for fuel. But the nation’s agriculture is being affected by climate change. “It’s already affecting apple producers. But farmers are more worried about preserving their margins than the long-term effects of climate change.”
Land reform prohibits most the luxury of a long-term view. “It’s a huge issue for South African farmers. Since 1994 vast tracts have come under land claims. Many farmers have found it too much of a challenge and have decided to move elsewhere.”
Few nations feel more exposed to the threat of climate change than Australia. The debate on global warming and its effect on agriculture preoccupy many of the nation's farmers.
"There is a degree of scepticism surrounding the science of climate change in many rural communities," says Ed Gannon, editor of The Weekly Times. "But the farming community, which has been in drought for more than a decade, knows it will be the first hit by climate change."
A net exporter of agricultural commodities, much of Australia's wheat is grown in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. Dairy is concentrated in Victoria and Tasmania, while the big cattle stations are found in northern Australia.
The touchstone issues, beside the climate, are the availability of water, cheap imported food, particularly from China, free trade, increasing government regulation, the rise of the animal welfare lobby and the pressure on farming from urban growth.
"Australian farmers have a more global outlook because they export much of their produce. They are deeply concerned by what they see as unfair trade rules that see cheap food flood into Australia, but prevent access to export markets."
Opinion on biofuels is split. "There is a debate among farmers that it creates more problems than it solves, in terms of pushing up prices. But there is a push for renewable energy plants in Queensland to take up the sugar glut."
A polarising debate surrounds GM. There are limited commercial food crops as governments take a softly-softly approach to the issue.
Dutch farmers are masters of producing staggering amounts of food from a relatively small area, and are gearing up to supply more to a hungry world.
“Farmers here are very proud of the fact that they produce so much from a small country,” notes Rochus Kingmans, editor of the country’s leading farming publication, Boerderij. “And they can do more – they have mastered a more intensive way of farming because they have a history of doing so.”
Meat and dairy are two areas in particular where the Dutch see opportunities. “When quotas are abolished in 2015, milk production could easily be stepped up by 20-30 per cent. In the pig and poultry sectors there’s talk of mega-farms with up to 300,000 chickens, for example.”
The Netherlands has also learnt how to balance this intensive form of farming with the needs of society. Farmers operate under the most stringent environmental regulations in the world, and their units are never too far from non-farming neighbours. “We’re turning a potential minus into a plus through energy generation from anaerobic digestion, for example – in Holland we believe there is always a technical solution to any problem.”
Biofuels, however, are not part of the solution – “we’ve better uses for land.” But GM is welcomed by the vast majority of producers. “Dutch potato farmers are keen to grow new high-starch varieties. Using the best of technology arable farmers believe a 15t/ha wheat crop could be commonplace.”
What’s more a move towards more intensive agriculture will help in the battle against climate change, according to Dutch research. “Studies have shown that large industrialised farms, where all inputs and outputs are monitored closely, score very well on both animal welfare and the environment. Intensification is not necessarily the only solution, but it will be part of it, and Dutch farmers are very well placed to deliver it.”
New Zealand farmers are the most outward-looking in the world. The country has a huge agricultural output that dwarfs the domestic needs of its four million inhabitants. An eye-opening 96% of its dairy output is exported, for example.
“New Zealand is the protein factory to the world, and farmers take a level of comfort in that fact,” claims Tim Fulton, editor of New Zealand Farmers Weekly, the country’s leading farming publication. “Talk over here is dominated by how the industry can capitalise on it.”
The nation’s key strength and envy of the world is its grass-fed production system, supplying lamb and dairy products to European and US markets, among many others. But the national sheep flock has halved over the last 25 years while the dairy herd has risen spectacularly. “On the South Island in particular dairy has seen big growth with large-scale irrigation and cheap land key drivers. Producers are beginning to look at what housed production systems could offer.”
The nation’s level of agricultural production is not free of internal concern, however. It has been calculated that farming accounts for around 50% of total greenhouse gas emissions and there’s talk of making the industry pay. “Farmers feel unfairly targeted in the climate change debate – dairy in particular has a job defending itself.”
Renewable energy is still seen as a marginal enterprise – perhaps more a route for the country's state-owned coal exporter to offset its carbon emissions liability, rather than an opportunity for agriculture. Meanwhile farmers are mostly reserving judgement on GM.
“State-owned trials came under fire for cross-contamination, recently. Farmers see a place for the technology, but there’s no momentum and a small but loud anti-lobby. Besides, our focus is our overseas trade – New Zealand agriculture is a very sustainable system that sells well into key markets the world over. That’s a reputation to build on.”
The growing demand for food around the world has put UK agricultural production back at the heart of the economy and political thinking.
“For more than a generation, the output of British farmers has almost been taken for granted by consumers and politicians alike,” says Jane King, editor of the UK’s leading farming publication Farmers Weekly.
Now, she says, the scene is changing.
“UK policy is about producing as much food as possible in a sustainable way for the environment.
“We have first-class producers who can rise to the global challenge – we should see ourselves as part of the solution to feeding the planet. We have the products, technology, the practices and the know-how to improve efficiency and increase yield and quality without further damaging the environment.”
In 2008, the UK exported £13bn worth of food and British farmers see an opportunity to increase their contribution in the future, she points out.
“However, there are a number of domestic challenges to overcome – for example strengthening the farm businesses and producers who will be able to offer something on a global scale.
The UK can also make a contribution to feeding the world as a thought leader, and is likely to continue to deliver quality, add value and new thinking, she adds.
A growing number of UK farm businesses are positioning themselves as climate change champions, rather than carbon culprits. Assurance schemes have leant farmers an accountability many are now using to their own advantage.
“There are opportunities the world over to exploit a potential premium market – another prime example of the UK’s pioneering spirit.”