Future of Farming: What needs to Change?

Mike Donovan reviews the seminal Hugh Bunting Memorial Lecture given by Professor Amir Kassam titled The Future of Farming: What needs to Change?

The audience learned that, in the opinion of the professor at any rate, it was quite a lot. His concern is that agriculture has moved dangerously off course onto a path of declining productivity, and at the same time has negative impacts both ecologically and socially.

“The intensive tillage-based interventionist farming with its high and addictive dependence on agrochemical inputs and heavy machinery — is no longer fit to meet the agricultural and rural resource management needs and demands of the 21st century.”

His concern reached tipping point in 2011 when he learned of a dust storm in Germany which caused an 81 car pile-up on the autobahn, and this was after a huge 3m tonne soil plume that took off from Ukraine and dumped on Kent; and the reduction of farm wildlife; the increasing presence of pesticides in food products. His conclusion was that farming did, indeed, need to change if these problems were ever going to be addressed.


Professor Amir Kassam of Reading University

Politics, both national and international, have not helped. The UK refused to sign the EU Soil Directive, so preventing remedial changes being made across Europe. The UK’s DFID continued to fund international agricultural research in the name of poverty alleviation which does no produce sustainable production solutions. DEFRA’s “Soil Strategy for England” features a five furrow reversible plough with digger bodies, and LEAF’s document ‘Simply Sustainable Soil Solution’ for improving land sustainability displays on the cover page a picture of a plough at work. As an educator, Prof Kassam sees that agricultural students across the EU, and that includes Britain, graduate with a poor knowledge of soils and their protection and sustainable management.

Industrial agriculture with its reliance on genetics, agrochemicals in a tillage based system is one that has both fed the world and damaged the major factor of production – soil – over the past century, and has come to rely on inputs of mineral fertiliser which has resulted in the in situ loss of traditional germplasm resources.

Time off from teaching and research in 2004 gave Prof Kassam the opportunity to reflect on the wider aspects of the industry which he had spent his life, and to interpret and make sense of things that he had observed and questioned over the past five decades. He says:

My personal view and conclusion is: the root cause of our agricultural land degradation and deceasing productivity – as seen in terms of loss of soil health — is our low soil-carbon farming paradigm of intensive tillage which disrupts and debilitates many important soil-mediated ecosystem functions…” and goes on to say:

Further, I concluded that the condition of our soils was being exacerbated by: (a) applying excessive mineral fertilisers on to farm land that has been losing its ability to respond to inputs due to degradation in soil health, and (b) reducing or doing away with crop diversity and rotations (which were largely in place around the time of WWII) due to agrochemical inputs and commodity-based market forces. Furthermore, I and others determined that the situation is leading to further problems of increased threats from insect pests, diseases and weeds against which farmers are forced to apply ever more pesticides and herbicides, and which further damage biodiversity and pollute the environment.”

He notes that these ideas are not new. Edward Faulkener’s The Plowman’s Folly (published in Britain in 1943 as Ploughman’s) is uncanny in its vision, so much so we have reproduced the chapter titled “Why Plough”.

Prof Kassam says that warnings of the degradation of soil have been almost continuous since the 1940s, and No-Till or Conservation Agriculture (CA) “is an effective solution to stopping agricultural land degradation…”. The method has gained momentum in North and South America, in Australia and New Zealand, in Kazakhstan and China and in the southern African region. It has three core inter-linked principles:

• Minimising mechanical soil disturbance and seeding directly into untilled soil
• Enhancing and maintaining Carbon-rich organic matter on the soil surface using crops, cover crops or crop residues
• Diversification of species – both annual and perennials – together or in rotation sequences. This can include trees, shrubs as well as crops and pasture.

system is a lead example for sustainable crop production now adopted by the FAO in their publication ‘Save and Grow’.

These fit in with the advice from the US National Soil Resources which is:

• Disturb the soil as little as possible
• Keep the surface covered throughout the year
• Have plants growing all the time


This satellite image, taken on 16 February 2014, shows how soil is washed off our fields and out into the sea.
©NEODAAS/University of Dundee

Opportunities for farmers, and mankind

Against the background of rising input, food and energy costs, CA can decrease fertilizer needs by 30-50%, water needs by 20-30%, fuel consumption by 50-70%, pesticide and herbicide use by 20%. Reduced cost of production with CA is a key to better profitability and competitiveness, as well as keeping food affordable. For example, using CA on Tony Reynolds‟ farm at Thurlby, Lincolnshire (UK), crop establishment cost comparisons show that costs are £245 and £36 for traditional method and for no-till seeding respectively. Similarly, his fuel use dropped from 96 litres/ha under the traditional tillage method for land preparation and crop establishment to 42 litres/ha under the no-till method. Reynolds‟ experience of switching to CA confirms that the known advantages of CA include higher soil carbon levels and microorganism and meso fauna activity over time, minimisation or avoidance of soil erosion, the reversal of soil degradation, improved aquifer recharge due to greater density of soil biopores due to more earthworms and more extensive and deeper rooting. CA advantages also include adaptation to climate change due to increased infiltration and soil moisture storage and increased availability of soil moisture to crops, reduced runoff and flooding, and improved drought and heat tolerance by crops, and climate change mitigation through reduced emissions due to 50-70% lower fuel use, 20-50% lower fertilizer/pesticides, 50% reduction in machinery and use of smaller machines, C-sequestration of 0.05-0.2 t. ha-1. y -1 depending on the ecology and residue management, and no excess CO2 release as a result of no burning of residues.

Advantages offered by CA to small or large farmers include better livelihood and income. For the small farmer under a manual system, CA offers ultimately 50% labour saving, less drudgery, stable yields, and improved food security. To the mechanised farmers CA offers lower fuel use and less machinery and maintenance costs. To the community and society, CA offers public goods that include: less pollution, lower cost for water treatment, more-stable river flows with reduced flooding and maintenance, and cleaner air. At the landscape level, CA offers the advantages of better ecosystem services including: provision of food and clean water, regulation of climate and pests/diseases, supporting nutrient cycles, pollination, cultural recreation, conserving biodiversity, and erosion control. At the global level, the public goods are: improvements in groundwater resources, soil resources, biodiversity and climate change.

Prof Kassam concludes his talk on a positive note. The quiet no-till revolution which has been led by farmers across the world, in particular Brazil since 1971-72, has been spreading in all continents (but very slowly in UK and Europe), now accounts for 117m ha globally. The principles are better understood by the farmers who have adopted the system, and those advising them. he says that “Although agro-business money has captured government policy through controlling research and therefore our universities in the UK and mainland Europe, this can be turned into a win-win collaboration as has occurred in countries such as Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Canada, Australia/NZ and now happening in Kazakhstan, China and parts of Africa.”

The changes he would like to see include all involved to work together to gain a better understanding of no-till from both a scientific and practical point of view. He would like to see more farmers themselves being a force for change and disseminators of knowledge, and believes that funding would provide real benefits for farmers and the countryside. Integrating the three basic components into the next CAP would be hugely beneficial, as would the expansion of university courses and agri education which incorporates CA. If DEFRA, DFID and other government departments were to employ staff with knowledge of CA, and if European donor and development agencies were to adopt and disseminate its principles in their strategies, the movement in Europe could start moving at the same speed as it has in other parts of the world.

Written by Mike Donovan of @Practical Farm Ideas