Wiggly Podcast 0172 In three by four by two

Two more Nuffield Scholars join the Team on a specially extended Wiggly Sofa. Corrine, of the gorgeous accent, is a French dairy farmer and Dr Nicky Cannon, is a lecturer at the Royal Agricultural College and an advisor to DEFRA: finally, Richard hopes, some high powered backing for his on-going arguments with Farmer Phil. But will everything turn out the way he hopes?

Let us know what you think and in the meantime here is Nicky's Nuffield Precis:

Sustainability within the organic and conventional farming sectors
A Central Region Trust Award


Newspaper selling headlines on food security, our ‘doomed planet’, social correctness, concern or lack of concern for those less fortunate than us, yummy mummies making sweeping environmental statements, heightened interest in local and organic food, peak oil production and rising fuel costs, moaning farmers, increased food imports, changing weather patterns, high food wastage, fluctuating food prices are all factors which are influencing the market for agricultural products in the UK. Each on there own are large topics to consider and in my Nuffield study I wanted to look at as many of these topics and see how other parts of the world are influenced in both sectors.


I obtained a degree in Agriculture at Wye College and then went on to gain a PhD in husbandry techniques to improve organic wheat husbandry. After this time my career seems to have dipped from between the organic and conventional cropping sectors and shown no bias towards either sector. Currently I am a Senior Lecturer in Crop Production and Organics at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester. I am married to Adrian and he has spent the last 8 years managing a large private mixed estate in North Oxfordshire. Recently we have moved to Dorset with our 3 young children.


Many times the question has been raised of “What is Sustainability?” and this is something I have found myself mulling over many times during my study. It is a very important question when looking for measures of sustainability whether organic vs. conventional or local vs. imported or sustainable livelihood, sustainable transport and energy, the list is endless. My view on this has changed dramatically and the question no longer seems to be about organic vs. conventional as, like many studies have shown this can be debated in either direction depending on which side of the fence you sit on or where the energy used for a system starts and stops being counted.

I have therefore viewed sustainability for this study in terms of agricultural systems which leave the land and water in a less degraded state and also have positive social implications in terms of poverty reduction. These are obviously extremely difficult conditions to monitor and are highly subjective, but, throughout my travels I have seen inspiring examples of pesticide reductions, soil fertility and structural improvements, effective water management, careful and sensitive farm management which can act as models to any global business. These businesses were operating in both the conventional and organic sectors and often techniques which had been developed out of necessity under organic management have now been adopted into conventional practice as they are such effective methods and help production in many ways.

The Millennium Development Goals were set up by the global community with targets for both rich and poor countries. For poor countries the challenges of demonstrating good governance and to make evident measure to reduce poverty. For the wealthier countries to make good their promise to support economic and social development.


With so much talk of emerging nations and the influence these countries are having on food and energy, I was very keen to take the opportunity to join the Australian Nuffield Scholars on the southern China tour. After China I decided to visit Kenya due to its very diverse environment and its importance in terms of food imports to the UK. Kenya has received a great deal of criticism in recent years for the air freight export of green beans and cut flowers and questions have been raised over the sustainability of such practices, in response to this the organic sector announcing that they planned to ban air freighted products from organic certification. After Kenya I decided to visit South Africa as it has a well developed food economy which has both an important high value domestic food market as well as highly developed export markets.


At the end of the 1940s China had 69 cities, by 2007 it had 670 cities and 89 of these have populations of over 1 million people. However, despite this very rapid urbanisation there are very low levels of urban poverty and unemployment. Now over 50% of the population live in cities and in many respects the urbanisation and industrialisation of China has been a huge success. However, the income gap between villages and cities has become very large and urban air and water pollution has become a serious problem. Food hygiene and safety is nationally a large concern.

China has experienced a colossal increase in demand for food due to increasing population, higher disposable incomes and a large increase in the demand for meat products. In response, farming in China seems to have jumped a developmental phase going straight from peasant farmer to very large scale industrialised farming. There are producers growing certified organic products on a large scale but these are mainly crops which store and transport for export relatively easily e.g. garlic. The big impact China makes on the UK and worldwide agriculture is on its demand for food but also the countries ability to produce agricultural inputs initially at a much lower production cost.

In several cases it could be seen that the urbanisation of China has provided new opportunities for rural businesses to look at high value crop or livestock options and thereby increase the financial productivity of their land.


Whilst in Kenya I had the opportunity to look at a very wide range of agricultural and horticultural operations from subsistence agriculture to highly sophisticated businesses. Like many African countries Kenya’s population has increased dramatically in the last 30 years and the traditional family unit is starting to dissolve. Kenya has also been greatly affected by HIV/Aids and this factor along with poverty has lead to a life expectancy of just 49 years compared to 79 years in the UK and because of the number of deaths from Aids the average Kenyan is just 18 years old. Kenya has benefitted from a free education system since 2003 thereby enabling the younger generation of poor subsistence farmers for the first time to dream of a future away from the land for their children, although, like most of sub-Saharan Africa, many people still do not have any concept of education and children will leave school early to ensure that there is food for their family.

Many of the more fertile areas and land with desirable characteristics like good transport, water for irrigation, or desirable climatic conditions were colonised by the whites back in the colonial days. This has left some land distribution discrepancies which continue to plague the country. There are stark differences in production systems between industrialised agriculture and the traditional farming techniques. Products grown for export have increased dramatically in the last 15 years and this has been greatly encouraged by a large reduction in the export taxes imposed on these products.

Horticulture for Export in Kenya
The media have been very keen in the last few years to criticise the supermarkets for buying horticultural products which are out of season in the northern hemisphere from the southern hemisphere to insure year round supply of perishable fruit, vegetables and flowers. Many supermarkets have now adopted a labelling system to inform the consumer that the produce they are buying has been air freighted and the message implied to the consumer I feel is one of shame and guilt for their purchase. But, I feel this is a simplistic view which is easy for us westerners to adopt who are not on the poverty line.

Under the Millennium Development Goals a report has been written ‘Unleashing Kenya’s potential for trade and growth’. The report highlights a recovery strategy for wealth and employment as well as implementing a National Export Strategy. In sub-Saharan Africa export horticulture has often been proposed as a pro-poor development strategy due to its intensive use of land and skilled labour. The follow on benefits of export horticulture have been seen as a good source of foreign exchange currency, employment and results in an upgrading of agricultural production skills. The criticisms of export horticulture have been claimed as workers having to work very long hours in poor working conditions for low pay, however it is now generally considered that the reduction in poverty resulting from this trade is far greater than the problems encountered.

The Organic Industry in Kenya

Once again I observed a huge divergence between local based organic products (mainly uncertified) and export organics. I felt that the overall benefits explained of export horticulture are exactly the same for organic production. Initially I felt really disappointed by the local organic sector in Kenya and the vast differences I observed but, on reflection I fill that the production techniques which are being pioneered for organic farming are useful for helping most local agriculture in Kenya.

The Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (a very large governmental body) seemed to have no knowledge of any work relating to organic techniques and many of the scientists were looking towards biotechnology for solutions to improve productivity. However, I visited the Kenyan Institute of Organic farming (KIOF) and saw students and farmer groups being instructing in techniques such as composting, mulching, crop rotations, weed management, integrating livestock and alternative crops and animals into the system. This information all seemed very basic but I feel that not only in Africa we often need to go back to the basic principles and consider working with nature to solve some of the problems we are facing in terms of energy i.e. fertilizer production, pollution and poisoning from pesticides and affordable production techniques.

In the export organic production I saw very clean looking highly productive crop rotations often performing at a similar level to conventional crops. There was wide scale use of integrated pest management, composting and well designed crop rotations. Many of the producers had been persuaded to go organic due to pressures from their buyers but had gone on to develop very successful systems and often pioneering new techniques which they were then adopting in their conventional crops.

South Africa

In South Africa, like in Kenya I saw vast differences in the main between foreign owned agricultural businesses or money which has initially come in from foreign investment to that of local production. However, in South Africa a Code of Practice has been gazetted by the South African Government of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) 2007 and is intended to transform the economy to be representative of the demographic make-up of the country. This should be a big driver to improve productivity of local farming systems and get small farms to co-operate to meet the bigger opportunities out there. However, for many this challenge seems daunting and many carefully managed field officers will be required to promote good sustainable agriculture techniques, but, these people do not exist.


Sustainable agriculture and sustainable development can be two very different things and result in different outcomes. The poorest people have been some of the first to be effected by climate change even though it is the richest countries which have caused the problem. Therefore to make agriculture more sustainable reliable carbon credit systems must soon become commonplace to reward good sustainable farming practices.

In sub-Saharan Africa only 4% of public spending and 4% of foreign aid goes towards agriculture. The World Bank states that growth in the agricultural sector has a four times greater effect on poverty reduction than any other sector. Therefore, far more effective aid must be given to sub-Saharan African farming to enable it to undergo a sustainable ‘Green Revolution’ like that which has occurred over much of Asia.

Governance and policy remain vital tools in creating sustainable agriculture systems. I was in Kenya during the 2007 elections and it was devastating to see a country jump backwards so quickly when the trouble erupted. Although most of the trade with Kenya has now resumed, a great deal of damage has been done both in terms of buyer’s confidence and in workplace harmony. Leadership in Africa has obviously hit our headlines many times in 2008 already and targeting aid to improve sustainability for any agricultural sector is a challenge to guarantee that the results benefit those for whom it is intended.

Recommendations for the Industry

*Agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and ALL farming systems throughout the world must strive to adopt systems which reward good farming practice.
*Organic and conventional farming systems have a great deal to learn from each other and technologies from both sectors need to be adopted to ensure the most sustainable agricultural systems become commonplace.
*Collective action must be taken on a global scale to ensure that all farmers are given a fair chance to develop sustainable agricultural systems and to minimise food shortages especially in relation to rising global food demands.

Nicky Cannon

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