Is the future farm intensive or extensive?

Sensemaking / Is the future farm intensive or extensive?

12 Apr 2011

Land shortages and environmental pressures mean farms have to change – but how?

Children's books and costume dramas fill our heads with bucolic images of farm life, but land shortages and environmental pressures mean farms have to change. But how? David Alvis, a farming consultant involved in setting up a large-scale dairy unit, believes an intensive system is best for both animals and the environment. It's a view firmly rejected by Helen Browning, an organic free-range farmer and Director of the Soil Association.

Put simply, what's best: intensive or extensive?

DA: If they're well designed and well managed, intensive farming systems can deliver significant sustainability benefits. They are by far the most resource-efficient way of producing milk or meat. Organic farming has a part to play, but it is a niche industry.

HB: It's not about intensive versus extensive. I'm looking for an eco-intensive system that means producing more than just food from a productive, varied system. We need to look at animal welfare, energy production, carbon sequestration and optimal food production. Diversity is strength.

To feed our growing population, do we need to promote production and profit over the needs of the animal and environment?

DA: Absolutely not. No one is going to make a sustainable return on investment from unhealthy animals under poor conditions.
The dairies we propose are designed from the outset from a 'cow comfort' perspective, as well as meeting production and sustainability criteria. They have optimum levels of natural light and ventilation, clean beds, constant access to food and fresh water, and an exercise yard.

HB: No. It's possible to meet all needs. There are some interesting trade-offs if you look just in carbon, methane or climate change terms between different systems and we have to acknowledge that. A free-range chicken will be less carbon-efficient than one that's kept in a battery cage. We have to decide if a lower carbon footprint is the ultimate goal.

Housed animals need to be grain fed which is more environmentally damaging. Surely grass fed is better?

DA: Take the Holstein cow. Grass alone simply isn't an adequate diet for her productivity. But I'm not for one minute suggesting feeding purely prime grains. As ruminants, cows also exploit a lot of the by-products already present in our food system, such as sugar beet pulp and certain grains that have little or no value to humans.

HB: The less you rely on grains to feed animals the better. Grassland is one of the best ways to sequester carbon. Grass provides omega 3 and ruminants are designed to eat it – it's the most sensible approach.

Are there technological fixes on the horizon that will change the way we view intensive/extensive systems?

DA: There's a lot of technology around animal monitoring which allows farmers to observe and manage cow wellbeing and comfort without disturbing the animal. This could help alleviate people's concerns about welfare in intensive systems.

HB: We already have the technologies we need to feed the world sustainably. The problem is that we're always looking for new products rather than new approaches. I want to know how we can move to full ground cover systems so we never plough the land but maintain a leguminous cover into which we plant the cash crop. That kind of breakthrough would revolutionise agriculture and deliver for biodiversity, soil protection, carbon sequestration and disease control

Debate convened by Claire Wyatt.

A tale of two systems

Intensive farming has traditionally involved high inputs of capital and labour, and high use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Agricultural mechanisation, monocropping, or housing as many animals as possible on the land make for impressive yields, but often at a significant cost to biodiversity, soil fertility and animal welfare.

Extensive farming uses small inputs of labour, fertilisers and capital, relative to the land area being farmed. Examples include sheep and cattle grazing widely in areas with low agricultural productivity, and organic farms. Yields are low, but the focus is on maintaining the long-term health of the ecosystem, so that it can be farmed indefinitely without recourse to artificial inputs.

This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition, Tomorrow's food, tomorrow's farms.

Image credits: LUGO / istock

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