The Future of Farming

Part 2

Part 2 of our interview with Achim Dobermann focuses on China’s efforts to feed its burgeoning population, and on the possible role of organic farming in helping resolve problems in present-day agriculture.

In Part 1 of our interview with Achim Dobermann, we discussed the role of Rothamsted Research in developing science-based solutions to the problems facing farmers today, with a particular emphasis on the problem of soil erosion and degradation.

We now continue with Part Two.


DH In your February 2019 research paper about China’s sustainable-food future, you wrote, “Despite formidable technological, social, educational, and structural barriers that need to be overcome, our study indicates that the ambitious targets of China’s new agricultural and environmental strategy appear to be achievable.” What are the formidable barriers, and how can a country that is on its way to a population of 1.8 billion even think about feeding itself when it couldn’t come to that conclusion a few decades ago, when it had 650 million people?

AD I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about doomsday scenarios, because in the end we need to look for ways forward. That’s why I tend to generally be a bit more optimistic, although I don’t ignore the threats we have to face.

The first point to note is that China has, in fact, succeeded in feeding its massive population. That is unprecedented at that scale. Compare where it was during the Great Leap Forward period, with millions of people dying, and where China is now in terms of economic development and its ability to feed its people.

The Chinese government has always been extremely conscious about food security, much more than any other government. In the UK I don’t think we have a clear food security strategy, for example; we rely on the supply chains of six or seven supermarket companies and think we can always get what we want from anywhere in the world. China cannot afford this, because there are just too many people to feed.

Until recently they had a policy that was largely driven by the need to achieve 95 percent food self-sufficiency for major staple crops, such as rice or wheat. Beginning around 2015 there has been a rethinking, in the sense that the implications of high-yielding, intensive agriculture for the environment are too great to ignore. There are concerns about soil acidification, air pollution, water pollution, health issues. This has led to new environmental and agricultural policies being developed. A key element of the new Chinese policy is to achieve all future agricultural production growth with a net-zero growth in input use—so no more absolute increase in the use of fertilizer, water for irrigation, land used for agriculture, or pesticides in particular. I don’t know of any other country that has ever stated that kind of ambition so clearly. Now, of course, the scientific community and others are challenged with how to do this. After all, previous growth has been driven by input growth.

In the paper we took that as the backbone—to look at modeling their entire food system based on the nutrient flows. What would you have to do, in theory, to achieve that?

A key component is technology improvement—not just new inventions but also adoption of good practices by farmers. That still has huge potential in China. I’ve conducted many experiments there, where we showed that you can get the same yield of rice with half the amount of nitrogen that the farmers were using. Others have done the same with wheat and maize, or cutting back on pesticides.

The barriers are, by and large, the thinking and behavior of people—not just of farmers but also of consumers.”

Achim Dobermann

Farmers need to see that you can grow things differently; the technologies exist or can be invented, and it is of benefit for you. And that needs to be supported by government policy. On the consumer side, if China follows the Western consumer model in terms of further rises in meat consumption, or meat-based diets, it will always be a challenge to be food-secure. You will end up massively importing things because you cannot grow enough in China. So that behavior change toward a healthier diet is probably one of the most important factors in China. That is not easy to achieve, because a generation of people have greatly enjoyed economic growth in the last 20 years. If anything, they want to spend even more money.

I don’t think there is a huge barrier in terms of the ability of science and technology to come up with new solutions. There are still many things that China hasn’t used yet; for example, GM crops, except for cotton. Despite billions of dollars invested in China, they haven’t actually released much.

Perhaps the biggest barriers on the political side are land ownership and land reform, and then the policy systems to incentivize better practices. China will have to find a way to reach a certain level of small-farm aggregation so they become more sophisticated in management and also economically more viable and attractive to young people. Initially the Chinese government thought of bigger farms of the Western kind, but they have very recently concluded that this is not the Chinese model. China will need something that is smaller than that, but bigger than the current small farms.

DHThe Chinese acquisition of farmland in Africa, Asia and Australasia seems like an effort to feed its own people from other countries. Was this something you thought about in your analysis?

ADNo, we didn’t explicitly account for this, because we don’t believe it’s a major factor. Concerns about a land grab mainly started after the global food-price crisis in 2008; it hit the press with lots of unverified claims, but subsequent studies show that a lot of it never happened—that investors (not just Chinese but also Saudi Arabian and others) had often completely underestimated the difficulty in actually getting these kinds of projects off the ground in Africa.

I belong to those who believe that without large-scale foreign investment, Africa will find it difficult to feed itself.”

Achim Dobermann

I see a lot of underutilized land in Africa. If you go to Mozambique, for example—it’s over one thousand kilometers from south to north—you see huge tracts of what I would describe as potentially highly fertile soils, but for most of the year very little is grown. So Africa has a lot of potential, but without foreign investment of the socially and environmentally acceptable and sustainable kind, I don’t think it can do it by itself.

DHLet’s talk about the freshwater supply. It’s a real crisis in, for example, China, India, the Middle East.

ADYou have declining groundwater tables in part of the US too, in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, in south Asia and China. These are huge issues. They are not easy to correct, because they would require very strong political action and regulation, which is not popular in some places.

To me, water is also one of the big challenges for Africa. I personally believe that Africa cannot feed itself without making better use of its water resources. A lot of water is not used in Africa. I’m talking about new forms of smarter water use, and technologies for that, which Africa will need.

DHThere are about 30,000 edible plants, and yet we are only cropping about 200. Why?

ADIn principle, 30,000 plants may be edible, but it doesn’t mean that all of them are very producible or viable. But if they were, and they had the desirable features, I’m pretty sure people would make more use of them. You see more of what I would call exotic foods appearing. Not all of that is great; the effect of the quinoa boom on local quinoa farmers and prices in Peru, for example—making it almost unaffordable there—was not particularly positive.

I’m always in favor of diversifying crops; we need more crops in our field rotations anyway, for a variety of reasons. It’s agronomically better, and often also better for soil health. If there is a market and people want it, and if there is supporting research to help develop these types of crops, it would be great to have them.

Achim Dobermann at the offices of Rothamsted Research

Achim Dobermann, director and chief executive of Rothamsted Research, a UK-based nonprofit founded in 1843.

Photo: Rothamsted Research

DHIs organic agriculture part of the solution?

ADWe have to be realistic. At present organic farming isn’t much more than 1 percent of global agriculture. (Of course, it varies from place to place; in Europe in particular, it’s much higher.) I’ve seen papers where people say organic agriculture, in whatever way you define it, can feed the world. But I don’t believe that’s possible, certainly not for everything that we need to grow everywhere. It’s just not scalable. People often make these calculations or models based on single-crop comparisons with what is called “conventional farming.” But you need to look at the entire system.

The problem I have with organic farming as a large-scale activity is that you need to find a way to get the nutrients from somewhere.”

Achim Dobermann

If you’re a small farmer and you go organic, and you have enough land, you can have a crop rotation that includes some legumes to fix your nitrogen. But you would still need to find an outside source to replace potassium or phosphorus. You may get some manure from a conventional farmer, and through that manure you get what you need.

But if everybody was to do this, where is it supposed to come from? We would probably need to dedicate 20 or 30 percent of the agricultural land in the world to growing crops that we cannot eat, to produce nutrients for the organically grown crops or animals that we want to eat. It just doesn’t work. And you still don’t replace some other nutrients.

If you take over a farm as a reasonably young person, you only have about 40 crops to get it right in your lifetime. By the time you retire you will have done 40 experiments. For many farmers, going organic would be a massive risk and one step too fast. So we need to be realistic in terms of the role of organic farming. It is an important and growing niche, and I would encourage any farmer who wants to try it. Some do and some also stop doing it again after a while, because it’s difficult. But if there is a reliable market for it, with good premiums being paid, it can play a role.

By and large, if you have an organic system that has more organic inputs of various kinds—crop residues or green manure or manure—of course it will be, on average, good for the soil. It will increase your soil organic-matter content faster than not having these organic inputs, and you’ll get better soil structure and maybe, therefore, less erosion. And with the organic system you also tend to have crop coverage for most of the year; that’s implicit in the design. So in principle it’s beneficial. I just don’t believe it’s scalable to the extent that it can be the one and only solution for the world.

DHCurrent world investment in agricultural R&D is about $70 billion a year (very little of which goes to organic methods). How can we redress the balance? Some suggest we should, for example, reallocate funds from the world’s military expenditures.

ADThat would be a very good idea. I’m all for that. The amounts of money that are being spent on agricultural R&D are far too small in general. Seventy billion sounds like a lot, but it’s a tiny proportion compared to what we spend on other things.

The general guidance is that countries that already have a pretty decent degree of agricultural development should spend at least 1.5 percent of their agricultural GDP on R&D; or better, 2 or 2.5 percent to stay up front. Low-income countries, for which agriculture is even more important as part of overall food security and the economy, should be spending up to 10 percent. Very few countries in the world reach these targets.

For me, the first measure is to increase the pot in general, and the second is to spend more of that money on the more forward-looking solutions (of which organic farming is one, but not the only one).”

Achim Dobermann

I also see a huge gap in investment for what I would describe as good agronomy research. There’s a lot of money going into biotech or chemicals—things that are more attractive as products—or breeding in general. But when it comes to changing management practices, and the thinking and behavior of farmers toward more sustainable systems, we don’t have that level of investment.

DHAnother key to successful organic farming, it seems to me, is consumer awareness—willingness to pay a premium, perhaps, for sustainable methods. How do we accelerate the rate of adoption of organically grown food?

ADI really don’t know, to be honest. Particularly in urban areas, people get more and more used to local or organic produce. Some of it you buy without knowing that it is organic, because it doesn’t actually sit on shelves that say “organic”—and that’s perhaps the right strategy. If it can ultimately compete better with “normal” products in terms of price and quality, or gets close, that will be the point where you see much broader uptake. If it always requires a significant premium, it will mean that we’re catering to the wealthy who can afford this or to a few people who, for lifestyle reasons, want to live more sustainably.

Processors and retail companies tell me that they would love to sell more locally produced things, or more organic, or both; but all of their consumer surveys show that people want it, yet as soon as they’re faced with the price question, they go back to saying it needs to be as cheap as the other product.

DHIs there a difference between organic and regenerative agriculture?

ADI’m not big into definitions. People throw all kinds of names around, and sometimes you don’t even know what they’re talking about anymore.

Organic farming is typically associated with certification schemes that often have a certain monitoring aspect, because you’re selling certified organic food to a commercial market. There’s a lot of potential for cheating there. Regenerative agriculture is a general set of principles and practices to improve your topsoil—conservation agriculture, better crop rotations, cover crops, other agroecological measures—or going from conventional livestock farming to a grazing livestock system. These are all types of regenerative farming. They are not the same as organic farming, because you can do these in combination with more conventional technology. You could even do it in combination with GM crops or with minimal fertilizers or pesticides. For me it represents more of what I would call good agronomic practices. From that point of view, I feel this has broader potential than the more specialized organic farming market.

DHThe fly in the ointment in getting producers to make the kind of radical changes we’ve been talking about, especially in food production, is often our selfish side. Soil erosion, soil degradation, pollution—all these problems can be linked to a profit-at-all-costs motivation. What can be done about that?

ADThis is for me the biggest question, and I don’t have an answer for you, because it goes to questioning the fundamentals of capitalism, which is based on profit. Certain parts of the world have more of a social type of capitalism, where it’s meant to be more socially acceptable and to some extent giving away some of that profit. That goes in the right direction. But it is not easy to change. This constant drive for economic growth and more consumption of goods and services is creating the biggest problems for us. The global economy in the last few decades has always grown at the rate of 3 to 4 percent a year, despite some ups and downs. At that rate the global economy doubles every generation. If you think about the problems we currently have, and that in 20 years the global economy will be twice as big as it is now, imagine the problems we’ll have then. At some point I don’t know how to cope with this anymore.

It’s also difficult because, of the 7-plus billion people that we currently have, perhaps about 6 billion still have the right to catch up, to improve their lives. What is our moral justification for saying you shouldn’t be doing this because it’s bad for the planet?

Who’s going to be willing to make cuts in our lifestyle, in our desire for profit, in our consumption, so that others can still improve and, on balance, that we don’t make the world worse? That’s the biggest challenge that I can see.”

Achim Dobermann

DHYou said earlier that generally you’re an optimistic person. What we’re faced with here is a somewhat pessimistic end to this interview.

ADI was part of the process that led to the formulation of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. I chaired a working group that provided technical input for the discussions on farming and food, which the politicians used to come up with the goals. For the first time the entire group of countries in the United Nations agreed to something of this scope, saying that these are, in principle, ways toward more sustainable development; one way or another, we need to do something about it.

For me, the fact that they did agree to this was a success. Will they reach all these targets? No, of course not, because they’re getting sidetracked by day-to-day political needs and things that are unpredictable. But one way or another they will keep thinking about them, they’ll come back to them, and there will be an action group or a ministry in this country or that country tasked with “What can we do in our country to meet Sustainable Development Goal number two?” (which is about food).

We need these kinds of ambitious goals and targets. If you do not have them, if you do not have any kind of guiding framework or ambition and leave it to everybody else, then some will do something about it, some won’t do anything. That is the part that still keeps me reasonably optimistic, although I’d love to see a lot more action on it and a lot more concrete investment in it than we have at present.