A forward looking archive27th January 2023
By Jim Orson, BCPC Advisory Board Member
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 AgriFood Charities Partnership (AFCP).
There are 65,000 pages in BCPC’s archive Knowledge Bank, 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 had 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 (BCPC-Weeds-Conference-1997-Vol-I-Bawden-New-Herbicides.pdf) by Dennis Avery who ran the Hudson Institute in the US. It is amazingly insightful. He concluded that the way to provide food sufficient for 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 conclusion 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 (Reversing declines in farmland birds: How much agri‐environment provision is needed at farm and landscape scales? – Sharps – Journal of Applied Ecology – Wiley Online Library).
Dennis Avery highlighted his particular concern over the pressure on land in Asia. The picture of Rice terraces of Yuanyang, Yunnan, China | Windows 10 Spotlight Images, which some Microsoft Windows users may recognise, makes the point with rice terraces being squeezed precariously into an otherwise unspoilt valley in China.
In this Bawden lecture Dennis Avery also included 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 (The greenhouse gas impacts of converting food production in England and Wales to organic methods | Nature Communications) by this issue.
What happened next?
His 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 (Organic agriculture and the global food supply | Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems | Cambridge Core) was published in 2007 stating that organic yields and conventional yields were remarkably similar. However, a subsequent analysis by Dennis Avery’s son Alex (‘Organic abundance’ report: fatally flawed on JSTOR) 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 in papers from a range of leading independent researchers 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 (BalmfordCollas | SSA (scienceforsustainableagriculture.com).
Have his messages been adopted? Not really, pesticides are still seen by many as having pariah status. So much so that EU policy makers have adopted a Farm to Fork framework that aims to reduce pesticide use considerably. 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 so concerned about the loss of habitat that they are beginning to adopt a social science approach (Why facts don’t change minds: Insights from cognitive science for the improved communication of conservation research – ScienceDirect) to try to convince the public and particularly politicians that policies that reduce responsible pesticide use below what is the minimum necessary to optimise sustainable yields and financial margins is just ill-informed and a threat to global biodiversity (Making more effective use of human behavioural science in conservation interventions – ScienceDirect).
BCPC would like to thank the following charities for supporting the the BCPC Knowledge Bank Initiative