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Farming revolution – at what cost?

Posted 24/11/2010 by KatieJ

The world’s farms are undergoing an agricultural revolution of the like never previously imagined. In the next 40 years they are going to have to produce twice as much food from the same land area to feed the world’s burgeoning population. There are also increasing pressures on the countryside as a source of biofuels and chemicals as the planet’s petroleum and other fossil fuel reserves are beginning to dry up. Scientists reassure us – and I have no doubt that they are right – that the available land matter will be sufficient to feed and fuel us all. But the big question is: at what cost?

Intensification of farming has already begun. But what is occurring today is on an even grander and more alarming scale. Witness, for example, the industrial scale milking farms in the US, which could soon be coming to the UK, according to a recent edition of BBC TV’s Countryfile programme. Thousands of cows that never venture into the outdoors but spend their entire lives in sheds, hooked up to milking machines. Or the US pork farms where pigs barely ever get chance to turn around in their pens. It takes the idea of battery farming to a whole new level.

On the plant side, we already have vertical farming – enormous greenhouses crammed floor to ceiling with plants grown in minimal amounts of soil containing carefully measured nutrients; GM crop species that thrive in conditions where such plants have never previously existed or with other hitherto impossible traits all geared around maximising productivity; or biorefineries that convert plant sugars and turn them – uneconomically in some cases – into biofuels.

But it doesn’t stop here. New precision genetic engineering technologies promise to accelerate the development of new GM species with multiple or stacked traits; biorefineries are coming onstream that use not only plant sugars but also waste cellulosic biomass, for conversion into fuels and chemicals without competition with food. Often the biorefineries will also be drawing on different non-traditional crop sources: tall and fast growing grasses, such as miscanthus and switchgrass.

Many of these new technologies will have environmental benefits: fewer agrochemicals, less CO2 emissions, use of waste products and so on. But it would be foolish to believe that they will be entirely without serious – and often unforeseen – risks, particularly to biodiversity. Unchecked population growth dictates that the world’s farms must change. But are we really ready for what might follow for our countryside?

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    21/06/2013 10:00

    I agree with you on that. But, I think electric cars are ok in a liemtid use. For someone who never leaves the city, an electric car would be fine, but it would not work for most Americans. Most Americans would not get enough savings out of an electric car to justify it (since most Americans do a signifigant amount of open road driving). Besides, you can't make an electric car loud and obnoxious like you can an internal consbustion engine. Where's the funs at?

  • Anonymous said:
    13/06/2012 09:46

    I like your blog very much. Thank you for your very nice articles. As a farmer i always search for farming blog or farming related articles or recent news. And i look forward to visiting your site in the future! <a href="http://www.vlfarming.com/">Methods of Modern Farming</a>

  • Anonymous said:
    01/12/2010 02:47

    I think vertical farming offers a positive solution to an increased food demand. For a given acre of arable land, considerably more food could be produced in a vertical system with the same foot print. A vertical farm could also be situated within (or very close to) an urban area thus reducing food transport issues. As a relatively closed system, water usage is much more efficient and may even utilise domestic waste water. There would also be no agricultural runoff polluting water sources. As consumers, we would also benefit from year round food production regardless of the season. This could perhaps reduce our need to import various foods during our cooler months.In theory, if enough of these were built, we could consider allowing some agricultural land to return to its natural state or at least slow down the destruction of ecosystems to make way for more farms.Needless to say that some crops would be easier to adapt to a vertical system than others but I believe vertical farming is a viable option for future food production

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