June 14, 2012

Cereals 2012 Debate: Chasing yields and feeding the world

Five prominent ag specialists from the political to the producer participated in an public debate on how the United Kingdom might increase yields to meet a growing global food demand. Opening the debate, which attracted some 130 visitors, chairman Richard Whitlock who is president of the Oxford Farming Conference which hosted the event, put the question: 'Do we have the political, scientific and economic means to significantly increase UK crop output?'

He also asked where the barriers were to increased yields, particularly from wheat and said that tensions between food production and environmental protection meant the right balance had to be struck in terms of global food security issues and climate change.

A central outcome was that increasing yields was not at odds with environmental protection and that the two could develop side-by-side. Other points made included more emphasis on looking at the complete supply chain, including breeding and genetics, that GM was not 'a white knight in shinning armour' and that minimising post-production waste should not be overlooked.

UK farmers were praised by panellists for their use of new technologies and were considered the most innovative worldwide and were in a 'fantastic position' to use new tools - from new machines to new web applications - to increase output.

While it was fair to question the recent flat lining in wheat yields, the UK was not lagging behind and had one of the highest average yields foe wheat in the world. However, the question was also how to integrate research and the environment. "We need to employ our resources very cleverly," said one panelist.

The old perennial statement of "there's enough food, it's just a question of distribution" was raised but panelist Andrew Wraith, head of agribusiness for Savills, made the point that farmers were driven by supply and demand. Producing 99 percent rather than 101 percent of total demand would make all the difference in maintaining a sustainable food production system or returning to the prices that made farming unsustainable.

"Producing three percent more each year to meet growing population requirements is significant," he said. "As a grower do we need to be chasing this production?"

He acknowledged that his position might be considered selfish, but farmers had to know the demand was there in order to produce more. His view was "to produce enough from less". And as with any farmer anywhere he considered his neighbour to be his biggest competitor and the driver to make his business the best.

"We must not loose sight of sustainability which must come from profitability," he added.

Professor Wayne Powell, director of The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, Wales, said that yield stagnation was largely due to a narrow genetic base in wheat varieties. The UK needed "strong vibrant breeding programmes" to fully capture scientific findings.
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