This year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference was a great success, featuring a diverse range of sessions and lively discussion. Our session on the second day posed the question, ‘Sustainable Intensification or Mixed Farming – which way for food security and a stable climate?’ Featuring SFT Policy Director Richard Young, farmer Tim May of Kingsclere Estates, NFU Vice President Guy Smith, and chaired by SFT Chief Executive Patrick Holden, it addressed the crucial issue of how agriculture should move towards a more sustainable future.

So what do we mean by mixed farming? Unlike some definitions, we view mixed farming as the integration of crops and livestock. This integration is vital for a healthy, sustainable farm system because it builds soil fertility without the need for chemical fertilisers, and increases diversity, which is beneficial for both people and wildlife. As Richard Young explains in his presentation, the complementarity of crops and livestock means the farm system functions in a much more healthy, holistic way, for example by breaking weed, pest and disease cycles which reduces the need for pesticides, wormers and antibiotics.

Sustainable intensification, on the other hand, is a fairytale vision, according to Richard, who argues we have been sold the myth that we can double agricultural productivity while halving its environmental impact.

But it seems full support for mixed farming is still a way off, as the National Farmers Union continues to emphasise the need for increased production in order to stay competitive on international markets.

Guy Smith emphasised the need to embrace change and new technology if farmers are to keep up with international competition. Farming is on the brink of a major technical revolution, according to Guy. In fact, he stated the role of the NFU is not to tell people how to farm, but to give British farmers the same access to the tools and technologies of their competitors abroad. When asked how farmers could intensify sustainably, Guy suggested leaving land fallow (after being sprayed off with Roundup) and to rotate fallow land with crops.

But is the push to increase yield necessary? The current problem of food shortage is not about production, but about equal distribution. While undoubtedly there will be problems of food security in the future, by placing the focus on increasing yield now rather than on preserving resources, we will be less able to meet food security challenges in the future. Soil fertility is perhaps the most important issue for food production. If we allow soil organic carbon to drop too low then we will not be able to maximise yields, no matter how much fertiliser we use. This is a key message for the future.

Watch highlights from the discussion below and add your voice to the debate by leaving a comment.

Photograph: Maria Faraone

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