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The not-so-long history of “conventional” farming and how it got our farmers “hooked”

People often talk about conventional farming as if it were the gold standard, the only option for feeding a world population of nearly 8 billion. Yet as a method of farming that relies on chemical inputs and genetically modified seeds it is relatively new and far from conventional in the history of farming. Starting in the mid 20th century it was heralded as a “Green Revolution” that staved off predicted world famine and saved a billion lives. While this is true, it could come at the expense of costing us a billion lives further down the line, when our soils are so depleted that we struggle to grow anything effectively on them, our food is so full of the chemicals used to replace the nutrients in the soil, and climate change is regularly threatening whole populations with natural disasters. How have we come to view a method of farming that threatens to destroy our environment and poison ourselves as “conventional”?

The answer lies in clever marketing. After the second world war, several large companies supplying ammonium nitrate for the use of bomb production were left suddenly without a market and needed to find a new one. In the context of concern over world famine, directing their ammonium nitrate into fertilisers for agriculture seemed like a way of finally turning their product to good use. Yet to ensure a good return on their investment in creating a new market, they worked hard to get their unsuspecting customers, our farmers, hooked. This is what the process looked like:

  1. Invest in the development of genetically modified seeds suggested by agronomists such as Norman Borlaug for their high-yielding, disease-resistant qualities designed to be most effective in combination with their chemical products
  2. Contact government bodies to suggest that these seeds be registered as safe for human consumption, making all alternatives illegal
  3. Hire agronomists to advise farmers on how they could improve the productivity of their land by using their seed and chemical products
  4. Offer to guarantee farmers a buyer for their whole harvest and manage the logistics of getting it to market.

This might sound like a good deal for farmers. These companies are going to make it much easier for them to increase the yield from their land and will also promise them a route-to-market for their harvest. However, the cash starts flowing quite rapidly from the farmers’ pockets into the wallets of a handful of global companies, making them increasingly powerful. This is what the yearly flow of money and risk management looks like:

  1. Farmers pay a licence fee to grow the seed from these companies.
  2. Farmers pay to buy the seeds from these companies.
  3. Farmers pay to buy the chemicals necessary to grow these seeds as monocultural crops from these companies.
  4. Farmers take all the risk.
  5. Farmers sell their harvest to these same companies at a minimal price due to the lack of competition from other buyers.

So why are so many of our farmers still hooked? The issue is that, as with many addictions, even though we know what we’re doing is not good for us, once we start it’s very difficult to stop. The chemicals used in conventional farming damage soil health and reduce the biodiversity of the land each year. This means that every year a farmer continues with conventional farming, the worse his/her land becomes for growing crops without the aid of chemicals.

Not only that, but if they make the switch to regenerative farming, which seeks to limit the chemical inputs and diversify the crop base to regenerate the soil, the biodiversity, and the carbon storage potential of the land, they will have to (at least initially) accept smaller yields and lower harvest predictability. Given that their pockets have already been bled dry by years of high input costs and low margin harvests, most farmers are not in the financial position to take that kind of risk on a harvest even if they hear from some of those that have made the switch that they are more profitable once they are no longer saddled by high input costs and can sell directly into local markets at a higher price.

While the increased profitability may look attractive, the need to manage their own marketing and distribution could well put off farmers, who feel they lack the time and/or skills to do this effectively, as it hasn’t been part of their business model through conventional farming. They may also be concerned that they lack the knowledge of how to farm regeneratively after so long relying on the advice of agronomists and farming in a conventional way. Consequently, we can see that our current food system is fed on fear, and fear of loss is unfortunately more motivating than any perceived gain.

In this context how can we support and motivate farmers to change?

  • Financial backing
  • Sharing the risk through planning crops and products in line with demand and pre-ordering
  • Restimulating local demand and supporting local routes-to-market e.g. through sustainable food procurement software and marketplaces like Tried & Supplied
  • Make it easy to demonstrate the regenerative efforts of farmers and help them command a higher price for products while still granting them the flexibility to choose the methods best suited to their land and microclimate
  • Connect them with other regenerative farmers to help share knowledge e.g. through the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) and Agreed

Any other suggestions, we’d be keen to hear them.

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