Making sustainability happen!

During the conference, we debated the theme of ‘Intensive Sustainability or Sustainable Intensification’, and we hoped that many positive ideas for really improving the sustainability of food production systems wouldl emerge. This session highlighted some of the most innovative ideas discussed and concluded with thought-provoking analysis of the potential of organic farming to deliver food security and sustainability. This session was organised by the ORC
Lawrence Woodward (ORC): chair.

Nic Lampkin addresses the closing plenary

Session summary

Nic Lampkin’s presentation challenged the common assumption that organic farming does not contribute to sustainability. In the UK, there is a difference in yield between organic and conventional of about 30%. Yield differences are highest where most N fertiliser is used and it appears very clear that further increases in productivity in key crops can only be achieved if more N is used, e.g. 200 to 300 kg/ha. Milk is interesting, as higher yields relying on borrowed land in the form of concentrates grown elsewhere in the world. Nic concluded that improving systems productivity should not be at the expense of genuine sustainability, but by focussing on yield alone there is a danger that more non-renewable resources are used, soil/water degraded, production is wasted, diets stay unhealthy and environmental trade-offs are ignored.

Innovative actions to meet the sustainability challenges

This was followed by short concluding statements from four participants showing how the organic sector is making an active contribution to sustainability.

Peter Brown (Tablehurst Farm) presented the Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-operative, an exciting new initiative that aims to establish a seed production enterprise that is able to meet the growing demand for high quality organic UK produced open-pollinated seeds, breed new varieties suitable for organic farming in the UK and provide education to growers and the general public.

Left to right: Simon Crichton, Rob Alderson, Peter Brown
& Heather Anderson

Heather Anderson (Whitmuir Farm) introduced Growing Global Food Citizens a continuing professional development course for primary school teachers that Whitmuir is involved with. They are enabling children to learn about the history of the culture of food, about how food affects the body and planet, everything from boiling an egg to carbon sequestration in grassland. One teacher concluded that teaching about the soil was as important as teaching to read and write.

Rob Alderson told about the Manchester Veg People a cooperative for supply and distribution to the catering sector, which includes growers, workers and chefs from the coffee shops and restaurants. The project is about developing consumers into citizens, creating new alliances with consumers and has shown that there is a demand for sustainable food in cities.

Simon Crichton from Triodos Bank saw strong similarities between the bank and the organic sector, both are small but perfectly formed and building on the savings of the past to build a better future, rather than borrowing from future generations. He reminded us that things can be done differently tomorrow with what we have learned over the past couple of days.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • In the debate about organic food it is important to engage with the global citizen, not only the consumer.
  • There is a considerable amount of evidence about organic farming that can be communicated, no need to apologise for being organic.
  • The organic sector should not always feel that we have to answer the conversation of others. Working together the organic sector can be strong.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Nic Lampkin (ORC): Reconciling food security and sustainability organically

Feeding the world is not just about how many people there are to be fed and how much we produce. On the one side is how much and what we consume – diet matters, not only for sustainability but also for health. On the other side are the resources we consume to produce what we do – it’s no good producing more if we use up our non-renewable resources faster and damage the environment and the ecosystems services that sustain us in the long term. What matters here is not individual crop yields, but overall system productivity – how many people’s food, fibre and fuel needs can we sustain per hectare – and if livestock are competing for resources, what role should they really be playing? Even if we can get the input-output balance right, which is where organic/agro-ecological practices have a significant role to play, what about the economic, political, legal and other institutional frameworks within which we operate and their impact on enabling, or impeding, genuine food sovereignty and sustainable food systems?


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