A forward looking archive by Jim Orson

There is a real concern that important research papers published more than a couple of decades ago will be ignored because they cannot be accessed through online searches. This is why the British Crop Production Council (BCPC) archive of its annual crop protection conferences and occasional specialist colloquia has been digitised and made available on a free searchable online database. This was made possible with funding from five agricultural charities*, co-ordinated by the Agri-Food Charities Partnership (AFCP).

There are 65,000 pages in the archive, all packed with data and information, much of which is still very relevant today. Overall, the archive gives the details of the scientific development in crop protection since the first papers in 1954. In addition to the science, the conferences from 1973 onwards have a keynote address (the Bawden Memorial Lecture) by a major player in the industry on the strategic issues that may influence the future of crop protection and the wider industry. The initial Bawden Lecture was delivered by Sir Henry Plumb, then president of the NFU. These lectures make fascinating reading and describe the then informed views on issues related to food production.

The 1997 Bawden lecture

I have just read the Bawden lecture delivered in 1997 by Dennis Avery who ran the Hudson Institute in the US. It is amazingly perceptive. He concluded that the way to provide food sufficient for the needs of a burgeoning world population whilst looking after the environment is through growing high yields. These should be achieved through the responsible adoption of technology.

He came to his conclusions because conservationists at the time were finding that species extinctions and reductions in biodiversity were mainly due to loss of habitats.  The same seems to be true today.

Dennis Avery highlighted his particular concern over the pressure on land in Asia.  The picture, which some Microsoft Windows users may recognise, makes the point with rice terraces being squeezed precariously into an otherwise unspoilt valley in China.

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In his Bawden lecture Dennis Avery also presented his opinions on how to feed a much larger world population in the future. They included continuing to adopt new and safe technologies as well as ensuring free trade in agricultural products. He added that production subsidies should be withdrawn and any financial support for farming should be to provide habitats for wildlife…. sounds familiar? Remarkably, remember that it was written in 1997, he raised the possibility of an expansionist Russia being a threat to global food production.

The one current major issue he did not predict was the need to reduce greenhouse gases attributable to food production. However, his message of the merits of high yield farming would be untroubled by this issue.

What happened next?

Dennis Avery’s views on the virtue of achieving high yields were treated with suspicion at the time but gradually gained traction to such an extent that other forms of production felt threatened, I think unjustly.  This included some in the organic movement and a paper was published in 2007 stating that organic yields and conventional yields were remarkably similar.  However, a subsequent analysis by Dennis Avery’s son Alex found that such a conclusion was highly suspect because of cherry picking results, multi-counting favourable studies and including many studies that did not even include organic comparisons.  It was just as well that it was not really championed by many in the organic movement because they themselves could not really believe it.

Recently Dennis Avery’s views have been reinforced by a number of leading independent researchers in papers published in highly regarded scientific journals. In addition, a recent paper concluded that not only is sustainable high yield farming best for the environment but also for the taxpayer.

Have his messages been adopted? … not really.  Pesticides are still seen by many as having pariah status. For instance, EU policy makers have adopted a Farm to Fork framework that aims to reduce considerably pesticide usage. Independent analysis shows that this will very significantly lower food production in the EU. Hence, such a policy is likely to have a large deleterious impact on the global area of natural habitats. In my mind, this populist policy is a massive strategic error based on emotion and misconceptions rather than cool analysis. Some conservationists are now so concerned that they are beginning to adopt a social science approach to convince the public, and particularly politicians, that policies resulting in sub-optimal responsible pesticide usage are a threat to global biodiversity.

There is so much more to discover and learn from the BCPC archive.   There may even be more blogs on its contents!  In the meantime, why not look it up?

*The Chadacre Agricultural Trust, Felix Cobbold Trust,  Perry Foundation, The Douglas Bomford Trust, The Morley Agricultural Foundation