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What can resaerch deliver for organic farming? Key note presentation

Raven, Hugh (2006) What can resaerch deliver for organic farming? Key note presentation. Paper at: What can organic farming deliver? COR 2006, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 18-20 September 2006.

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Summary

It’s a great pleasure to have been asked to speak today, and on a subject that – while I can claim no expertise – has occupied my thoughts intermittently over the last 25 years.
I did at one stage seriously consider whether your profession was the one I wished to follow. I attended agricultural college in the late 1970s, and while my family had a farm, it seemed unlikely I would be the one asked to manage it. So I thought if I were to pursue a career in agriculture, either writing about it or researching how to improve it seemed very real career opportunities.
I took a different route, for a variety of reasons – most of them not germane to our subject today. But it is true to say that much of what I saw then had the effect of turning me away from agricultural research.
I first went to college shortly after the 1979 change of government, and some here will recall the incoming minister – Peter Walker – exalting the UK’s farmers to ever greater levels of production.
I had looked for a college at which I could study organic agriculture – unsuccessfully, as the only place I could find as a small place in Sussex, which I didn’t think would fulfil the other needs typical of a male teenager.
At Harper Adams, which I therefore chose, there was with one honourable exception no interest whatever among the 80-odd staff in organic production. The college bursar, a well-respected figure, openly derided it as “muck and magic”. That was typical of the time and of the place.
The quality of much that was taught was highly dubious.
During my sandwich year, I looked after a herd of freerange pigs on fertile but heavy land in the English county of Buckinghamshire. I could not fail to note that the sows derived a significant proportion of their nutritional needs from grazing the rye grass on which they were folded. From memory, I think we concluded that a breeding sow could obtain about a third of her nutritional needs from grazing over the course of the production cycle.
So I was surprised to be told by our lecturer in pig husbandry that this was physiologically impossible. Monogastric animals are incapable of digesting cellulose, we were informed, so all the nutritional needs of the domestic pig – whether kept indoors or out – had to be met by supplementary feed. To have written anything else in an examination would have been to court failure. We learned agronomy and modern techniques in pest and parasite control that relied very heavily on poisons. One such chemical – I recall its name as Temik – was so toxic, we were told by our lecturer with a quiver of excitement, that a single speck would be a fatal to a human being. It was incorporated in soil, to control nematodes in potatoes.
At the time the college was involved in a range of agricultural research, including a project investigating the effects of feeding various unusual substances to cattle. I don’t think they included ruminant derived protein – an experiment conducted elsewhere with an ultimate price tag of over £4 billion. But I do remember considerable interest in the effects on growth rates of feeding beef cattle the dust scraped from the inside of power station chimneys.
These are random recollections from a typical agricultural education a quarter of a century ago. To me they represent the perversion – almost the corruption, although I don’t think that is quite an accurate term – of what should be one of the noblest professions.
And I find it very heartening that the priorities have changed so much in the intervening years as to fill a hall such as this to debate what is, I believe, genuinely the public interest in agricultural research.
I have been asked to think about what would be my priorities for that research community. I’d like to outline four areas that I think each deserves far greater attention than they have received so far.


EPrint Type:Conference paper, poster, etc.
Type of presentation:Paper
Subjects: Environmental aspects
Knowledge management
Research affiliation: UK > Soil Association
UK > Colloquium of Organic Researchers (COR) > COR 2006
Deposited By: MILLMAN, Mrs Carol A
ID Code:10151
Deposited On:20 Dec 2006
Last Modified:12 Apr 2010 07:34
Document Language:English
Status:Published
Refereed:Not peer-reviewed

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