Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"it’s quite bizarre we’ve based almost our whole agriculture on annual plants"

Transition Culture | Cereals, agroforestry and droughts: an interview with Martin Crawford

Last week I cycled round to Martin Crawford’s house to interview him.  Martin runs the Agroforestry Research Trust, is one of the world’s authorities on the subject, and recently published ‘Creating a Forest Garden‘.  I had wanted to ask him about the drought in the southeast and the implications for the future of farming.  On the day I visited Martin though it was pouring with rain, but as you’ll see, that made little difference to his thoughts on the matter.  I have included a couple of films about his work as well, mixed in with the interview.

So Martin, the thing that inspired me to think I wanted to come around and talk to you was the drought situation in East Anglia and the southeast, which has been very much in the news in the last few weeks – although it does seem to be slightly superseded by events, as we sit here with the rain pouring down outside!  But I wondered firstly what your thoughts are on that and also what that tells us about farming as it’s currently practiced in that part of the country.

Yeah, it’s very easy to look outside and see it’s pouring with rain and think, “Oh, it’s actually fine now”.  And it’s even pouring with rain in the east of the country sometimes too now.  But it’s not all fine – the damage has been done.  Yields from arable crops in the East of the country, (which is where the main arable crops like wheat are grown in this country), are going to be down by at least 25% and maybe more, because the damage has been done.  It can’t be recovered – it’s too late for that now.  It’s not all fine now and it really shows that a spring like this, which seems to be becoming the norm…..for the last four years we’ve had pretty dry springs – not as dry as this one but it seems to be becoming a pattern.  Whether that continues or not, it’s impossible to say.

In such a dry spring, the value and resilience of perennial plants is very obvious, so in my forest garden for example where everything is perennial it has been looking lush this spring and not drought affected at all.  I haven’t watered anything in there and it’s been absolutely fine.  So I haven’t been one of the people complaining about lack of rain all the time – it’s people who are wanting to grow lots of annual vegetables or farmers growing annual plants that have been screaming about the weather because if you’re sowing annual plants in spring, you’ve got to have water – they’re not going to grow without it, and put their roots down and so on.

In terms of looking at the future – if we’re going to grow more of our own food as a country and as a region, this is going to have a significant impact.  And on a larger, world-wide scale, it’s actually quite bizarre in some ways.  If you look at it in an ecological way, it’s quite bizarre we’ve based almost our whole agriculture on annual plants because if you look in nature, annual plants are rare.  You only get them if there’s been a soil disturbance, and then for a short time because they’ve been taken over by perennials.  So in a sense our whole agriculture is quite unnatural, based on annual plants, and very prone to any kind of climate extremes – whether it’s drought or water-logging from extreme events or whatever.

Unfortunately, because of climate change,  those extreme events are going to get more and more frequent – all extreme events, not just droughts.  Annual crops are going to get more and more susceptible to crop failures as time goes on, certainly in the next few decades.  And that could have quite serious effects.  In terms of grain stores in the world – grain stores are lower than they’ve ever been because there are increasing failures of harvest in some of the big grain producing countries.


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