Klaus Laitenberger’s Nuffield Travels
I feel so privileged and lucky to have been selected as one of five Irish Nuffield scholars for 2018 to explore agricultural innovations, observe trends in global agriculture and, most importantly, to explore what the future of agriculture will be.
Some people probably don't appreciate to the fullest extent that the future of agriculture will also determine the future of humanity. With a growing world population, an increasing decline in soil fertility as well as global problems of water availability, the state of world agriculture is a very challenging one.
Nuffield International offers this scholarship every year to people who are involved in the agricultural and horticultural industry. Here is a brief overview of my trip:
- Week 1: Contemporary Scholars Conference in the Netherlands. 80 scholars from all over the world meet for an introductory week.
- Weeks 2-7: Global Focus Program. In these 6 weeks I travelled with 7 scholars from Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, UK and US to Italy, Washington, Texas, Canada, Argentina, finishing in Chile. This section of my trip was fully organised by Nuffield and we visited the whole range of farming enterprises.
- Weeks 8-10: During these three weeks, I travelled on my own in pursuit of my research topic "Neglected food crops from the Andes mountains" or "The Lost Crops of the Incas".
Contemporary Scholars Conference in the Netherlands
On the 9th of March we met at the Contempary Scholars Conference in the Netherlands. There were over 80 scholars from Australia, New Zealand, Brasil, Uruguay, Ireland, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Kenya, Tanzania, UK, US, Canada, Japan, Mexico and South Africa. This was such an amazing week and difficult to describe as there was so much going on. There were lectures on Dutch agriculture, the geology of the Netherlands, the state of world agriculture and trends. There were panel discussions, workshops and an early morning meeting at the swimming pool (sitting - or half floating - on plastic chairs in the pool).
The vast knowledge and experience from this group of international scholars was incredible. The diversity of topics was equally interesting. There were deer and poultry experts, aquaculture experts, a number of dairy, beef and sheep farmers, an organic grower of medicinal herbs (echinaceae and valerian), a Tasmanian grower of pyrethrum, a soil scientist from Iowa, an avocado grower from Australia, a plant breeder from Japan, a chia seed producer from Australia and even an insect farmer from the UK. There were researchers, traders, and even a Dutch TV icon who presents the popular TV series "Who Wants to Marry a Farmer?" Apparently the success rate of the programme is measured by the number of babies produced! I was glad to find such diversity and learned so much during the week from other scholars.
Dutch agriculture has been under the limelight in the last year. In the National Geographic magazine there was an article entitled "A Tiny Country Feeds the World" and shortly afterwards The Guardian carried the title "Dutch Cow Poo Overload Causes an Environmental Stink." The Dutch are in serious trouble. On the one hand they were aiming to further increase production with the intention to feed a growing world population, but the outcome is an excess of phosphorus which can be a major pollutant to water courses at this level. There are now strict measures in place to reduce phosphates by 8.2 million kg per year. This calls for a reduction in dairy cow numbers of 170,000.
The Netherlands are the second largest exporter of food in the world (after the US). However, the figures are a little optimistic. For example, €7 billion of fruit and vegetables are exported, but €5 billion are imported. They export €7 billion of processed food, but also import €4 billion.
Global Focus Programme
After the week in Holland, I continued to travel with 7 of the scholars, spending six weeks together exploring farms. Scott from Australia is a cereal grower and Merino sheep farmer, Brian from Iowa is a soil scientist, Robin from Tasmania runs the largest pyrethrum growing enterprise (75% of all the pyrethrum in the world is produced by this company), Emma fom Australia is a poultry specialist, Andy from New Zealand works for a Maori company as a business developer and also specialises in aquaculture and Dudley is an avocado grower from Australia. Jonathon from Wales designed the first arable field where no person has set foot in – all with the use of drones that control the machinery.
Perhaps surprisingly, Italian agriculture is still very traditional and small scale. I was surprised to hear that the average farm size in Italy is only 8.4ha. Italy has 60.5 million inhabitants and 16.7 million ha of agricultural land. So each person has about 3.6ha available. Again surprisingly, only 1.3% of Italians are involved in primary agriculture. This is about half the percentage compared to Ireland.
An interesting fact is that Italians spend nearly 18% of their income on food. As a comparison, Americans spend only 6.4% and Irish people spend 9.6% of their income on food. It really shows where their priority lies. People often complain that food is expensive and organic food is not affordable. Nobody ever questions though the cost of the latest mobile phone model that all children need for survival!
Italy was the driving force of the "People For Soil" campaign last year. Only Italy and Ireland achieved their targets during this campaign. Italy is also one of the top organic nations in the EU. It has the highest number of organic farms in the EU. It leads the way with 49,000 registered organic farms, Spain is at number two with 30,000 certified farms and France is third with 26,000 organic farms. Italy has the second largest land area as certified organic after Spain - Spain has 1.7 million ha certified and Italy 1.4 million ha.
Water usage is in competition with food production and household usage. In some areas of Italy the groundwater has already dropped by 30m, which has caused a subsidence of land and as a result some buildings in these areas have cracked and been abandoned. Another massive problem is sea water intrusion – where sea water is sucked into groundwater due to excessive extraction of groundwater. The researcher from the University of Pisa came up with excellent and even low cost solutions by building deep aquifers which could collect any excess water during rain and bring it down into the groundwater rather than letting it run out into the sea (Managed Aquifer Recharge Strategies). Unfortunately, the Italian government is not acting on their suggestions and the problem will continue.
I'm in danger of giving out a little about my week stay in Texas and I really don't want to because we had a wonderful week there and met the most hospitable, warm people and real gentleman who take their cowboy hats off when they great a woman. Texas in early April is also absolutely stunning; fresh green grass and lots of trees in fields to provide shelter for cows. You could nearly call it Agroforestry; combining agriculture and forestry in the same area. I know it's not always like that and in a couple of months it'll be all brown and unbearably hot.
But now comes my gentle giving out: I didn‘t see any vegetables anywhere in the seven days I stayed there, apart from potatoes in the form of chips and cabbage in the form of coleslaw. It was illuminating when I asked a Texan if they ever eat vegetables and his response was "well we have chicken and pork – that's vegetables."
JD Hudgins‘ Brahmin Farm
This farm visit impressed me the most in Texas. Here is a young farmer, John, who really cares about his farm, his animals and his soil. His main objective is to improve the fertility of his soil and to leave it more fertile for future generations. John practices Regenerative Grazing which is also known as Holistic Grassland Management or Mob Grazing.
This is how John works it. He has 40 paddocks which can be further divided with an electric fence and he moves the whole herd of cattle at least 10 times per day onto a new paddock. They only eat the top third of the grass. John doesn't believe in tight grazing. This system has proven itself as a means of sustainable farming. The only challenge he has is to improve his system of opening gates. They are already semi-automised but a few discussions with Jonathon (our fellow robotic engineer) may simplify the system even further.
John's biggest thrill and proof that he was on the right track was when he noticed the first dungbeetle in a manure pat. He knew that his yields will increase by 30%. John made a very excited phone call to his wife with his good news – however, she wasn't quite as enthusiastic...
Canada, British Columbia
We spent just over a week in Vancouver and in the Okanagan Valley. Vancouver must be one of the most organic cities in the world. It’s harder to find a non-organic coffee than an organic coffee. There are large supermarkets and small shops that only sell organic produce. The mayor of Vancouver used to be an organic farmer himself and converted the lawn at City Hall into an organic community garden. Apparently there are 120 community gardens in Vancouver. It’s a young, buzzing and very international city. The hotel we stayed in was a zero-waste hotel.
Canadian Agriculture in the Okanagan valley in British Columbia and surrounding area is coming close to perfection if you dream of how agriculture, the environment and people can co-exist together. The agricultural environment is well managed with small fields of diverse crops - mainly apples, pears, peaches, grapes - but also ground crops (that's what they call vegetables there) such as tomatoes and courgettes. Most farms have a wine shop, cider shop or vegetable shop so they really build a strong link with consumers. Even our own food capital Cork would be jealous of the numbers of small artisan craft and food shops in this area. From an environmental perspective, agriculture only occupies a small area in this vast valley and there is so much nature and wilderness just a few hundred yards up the hill.
Canada is still struggling with the word ‘organic‘. In 2006, the word ‘organic‘ was protected by law, but this was never implemented. Only towards the end of 2018 will it be enforced, so that only people who are certified with an approved certification body can sell their produce as organic. This law is strictly enforced in Ireland and is monitored by DAFM - quite rightly so - as organics can be interpreted in many ways by growers and if there is no regulatory body it is easy to mislead consumers.
After an exhausting 20 hour journey we arrived in Buenos Aires. I had imagined hustle and bustle and people running around everywhere, but no, it was one of the most relaxed and friendliest cities I have come across.
Farming in Argentina is large-scale and reliant on GM soya and maize seeds along with the weed killer Roundup. We were told that 90% of Argentinean agriculture has adopted the “No-till System”. They no longer plough their fields but instead spray the weeds off with Roundup.
First, they introduced the no-dig system to save money as soil cultivations are costly and time consuming especially on such a large scale. Then they found that yields were improved, soil organic matter increased and carbon dioxide was sequestered in the soil. The flaw with this system is that it is completely dependent on herbicide use to kill off the weeds before re-seeding the next crop. This will be an ongoing discussion and more research is necessary.
Many environmentalists promote this system as the carbon is held in the soil, often causing an increase in soil organic matter. I’m not an advocate of this technique as it requires high inputs of herbicides as well as synthetic fertilisers, but still there is a lesson to be learned – organic farmers also need to come up with solutions to minimise soil cultivations in order to keep the carbon in the soil or other ways to increase the organic matter content in their soils.
Another problem with the over-reliance on one weed killer is the fact that there are now many weeds that have developed a resistance to Roundup and can no longer be controlled with it. These are now called superweeds. So farmers have to use additional herbicides just to deal with these superweeds. Roundup Ready is probably the single most important ingredient in South American and US farming. Monsanto managed to breed crops (soya, maize, oilseed rape and cotton) to develop resistance against this weedkiller. This allows farmers to spray a crop even while it is growing: it kills the weeds around it but not the crop itself.
We saw wonderful co-operation amongst farmers in Argentina. They formed a group called CREA (Regional Consortium of Agricultural Experimentation). It was founded in 1957 by farmers in response to soil erosion problems and decline in soil fertility. The organisation is managed and financed by farmers. There are CREA groups in Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and Georgia. CREA’s mission statement is: "we are agri-businessmen who work together in groups. We share experiences, generate knowledge & power ideas to foster the sustainable development of our companies and nation.” There are 2000 members and 227 regional groups. Each group meets once per month on one of the farms and employ an agronomist. In the morning everyone shares practical information and technical details. In the afternoon the owner of the farm presents a problem that he has on the farm and the group, with the support of the agronomist, tries to solve it. This system works extremely well for all farmers.
Michael Dover - our host farmer - explained to us that the impact of climate change plays havoc in Argentina. The climate is far more extreme now, with prolonged droughts followed by extreme rainfall. Flooding of the fertile plains is becoming an increasing problem causing many crop failures. But he also points his finger to how the land is managed. Grassland can absorb twice as much water as soya beans and as there was a massive shift from pasture land to the more profitable soya bean production, the land is more prone to flooding. There is no governmental legislation to encourage farmers to grow less soya and more grass in flood prone areas. Michael is fully aware that changes to agriculture are imminent as Argentinean society is demanding different ways of producing food.
In every town and village in Chile you come across a statue or street named after their national hero – Bernardo O’Higgins (1778-1842) – who freed Chile from the Spanish occupation. He was a landowner of Irish-Spanish descent who was fighting against the injustice of the cruel occupation of the Spaniards. Bernardo O’Higgins was one of the leaders in the Chilean War of Independence and ruled as the Premier of the new state of Chile. He is worshipped around the world and there is also a plaque in his honour in my local town Sligo along the Garavogue River: Bernardo’s father was a Sligo man.
Chile was our last stop as a group. We spent eight wonderful days there. Chileans are completely different to Argentineans but their hospitality even exceeds the Argentinean’s. I noticed on the first day arriving in Santiago that everything is faster – there are no leisurely strolls through the city parks – everything is quick and so is their farming system. Chilean farmers and growers are professionals who employ well trained agronomists who have made Chile into the centre of expertise in horticulture, especially in fruit production. Chile is already one of the world's largest producers of fruit in the world. There appears to be no limit to land availability for further expansion. They are such good agronomists that they follow the conventional route of pest, disease and weed control to produce the most perfect looking fruit that the world market demands.
Chile is a very flexible country with a young population and ideas here move fast. I asked about organic production (at a meeting with the fruit marketing board) and the CEO said "if the world wants organic produce, we'll produce it“. Chile has established free trade agreements throughout the world and has access to 94% of the world trade. There is such a diverse climate on this long and narrow strip of land, ranging from the Atacama Desert in the north - which is the driest place on earth - down to Patagonia, and ranging from sea level to the high Andes. This enables them to get a long harvesting season as well as being able to increase the range of crops grown.
The next visit was to Sven’s Farm near Pucon. This is a 6th generation family farm started by German immigrants (who are still German speaking). Sven specialises in cereals, potatoes and dairy cows. He showed us his unique milking machine equipment. His father-in-law started to design mobile milking parlours and Sven perfected them. They now have 660 dairy cows in 3 herds and the milking parlours are in the grazing fields. The cows are outdoors all year round and the milking parlour follows the cows around: quite different to the traditional system of bringing cows in for milking twice a day.
Co-operation amongst farmers in Chile isn’t the same as in Argentina. According to Sven “if you want to get 10 farmers to agree, you must kill 9!” This was our last visit on our Global Focus Programme and Sven put on an incredible barbecue for us. The next day brought our goodbyes. It is a strange concept in a way to throw a group of people together for 7 weeks, wherein they become so close...and then suddenly it’s all over and you go your own way again.
After these 7 weeks unforgettable weeks, I spent another three weeks by myself exploring vegetable crops in Peru, Bolivia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Unfortunately my word limit has already been far exceeded so there is no room left for my own reflection on the vegetable discovery for the Lost Crops of the Incas. Perhaps in the next issue of Clover...