Folder 6 Sustainability

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Sustainability – all things to all people

Like all over-used words the meaning of sustainability tends to vary and it can become little more than a politically correct platitude. So it might be instructive to explore a couple of definitions.The Chambers Concise Dictionary says: Sustainability: from the verb to sustain meaning: to hold up; to bear; to support; to provide for; to maintain; to sanction; to keep going; to keep up to prolong; to support the life of.

Another widely accepted definition of sustainable development is as follows: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". So here we have a time scale – future generations; are we marking fifty years or one hundred years on our time scale into the future? To “flesh” out the s-word perhaps I can draw on an example from several decades back and then do a leap of 100 years into the future.

Each year the Scientific American magazine used to offer specialized topics in their September issue. The 1980 issue was devoted to economic development and the article on Food ( page 74) was quite enlightening. Records were made over a year of a small farmer’s activities in Central America with input and output data being shown for this miniature “agribusiness”. A much simplified diagram is shown below:

As one can see, cash from both surplus food and man/ox power allowed the farmer on SIX hectares (15 acres) to support his family. The weather plays a crucial role in this type of farm. Sunshine for the growth of crops and major heating of the homestead although a little firewood for cooking would be needed and kerosene would be required for lighting. The crops also needed rainfall and, presumably, the storage of rainfall provided a water supply for the house. A combination of wind and sunshine would enable the crops to be dried thus allowing them to be stored until needed. Well, if we are looking for sustainability then this farm is near perfection as almost all the food is produced from a patch of land and energy comes from a combination of man/ox power. A relatively small number of items have to be purchased as external inputs and the vital requirements for living, FOOD AND WATER, are always there

The reader may well think that the above diagram would never mirror any farming activity in the UK. However, the author must assure the reader that he was brought up on a farm in North Yorkshire between 1938 and 1958 with many of the sustainable features of the above Central American farm.

The farm in North Yorkshire was 24 hectares (60 acres) but had moor grazing for sheep of about 18 hectares (45 acres). Mechanical power was provided by two horses and, again, person power was used for small tasks. Heating of the homestead was mainly by peat and waste wood but 5 tonnes of coal had to supplement these “free” fuels. Milk from twelve milking cows was sold to the newly formed Milk Marketing Board and this was our main monthly income. A mixture of bread and potatoes were our staple diet and the flour was an input to the farm as quality wheat, suitable for milling, was not grown in that part of England. The garden and orchard were the main source of fruit and vegetables although the hedgerows gave an abundant source of berries at autumn-time. The down-side of relying on horse power is that these animals have to be fed in winter-time when they are not providing a normal work load. Clearly, sustainable power has an unavoidable cost.

Seasonal work is listed below:

Constant work involved milking cows twice a day and feeding the animals which were kept indoors (pigs, and poultry, for instance). In the winter months the cows and horses had to be fed but in the summer months they fed themselves in pastures. As an additional supplement to the income we used to have paying visitors during the summer month. The conurbation of Tees-side was relatively close to the farm and families enjoyed coming for a change of scenery and lifestyle.

A fully illustrated description of this kind of life is given in the text:

“Life in the Moorlands of North East Yorkshire” by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby (Dent and Sons Ltd 1972)

I would like to suggest that both of the farms described above have a very high level of sustainability. In each case there is no “mains” water, gas or electricity as input into either farm. Pests are kept at bay by using the well established technique of crop rotation and only modest inputs, lime to adjust the acidity of the soil and DDT for pest control, were needed for the land and clothes, food and treats for the family. The Amish and Mennonite communities may well be farming in this sustainable way and their lifestyle could well be a lesson to us all. A recent conference describes some of the interesting features of Mennonite agriculture.

If we step forward 100 years in time then this mode of farming in either locality, UK or Central America, could still be carried out

(a) if the land was still available and

(b) if the weather does not changed significantly.

Alas, in the UK, the farming scene has changed alarmingly; even farming on the North Yorkshire Moors we see that mechanization has taken over. Most of the small family farms have been turned into holiday cottages and now farming has become an industry and not a way of life. This industry is so reliant on petrochemicals either for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, anti-fungal dressings etc or for fuel driving a multitude of mechanical devices needed to carry out the varied tasks in farming. The insatiable appetite for hydro-carbons will not be easily stopped mainly because the workforce has been so drastically reduced. In the early1940’s manual farm workers were at the 1 million mark, about 60% of the working population.This has now dropped to about 0.15 million and represents about 8% of workers. A recent briefing paper to the House of Commons ( number 03339, 21 Jan. 2016) gives a detailed account of the historical changes over the years but doesn’t give a detailed strategy for how farming will fare a 100 years from now. In the UK, farming is so wedded to petrochemicals which are bound to be depleted by the end of the century so we are totally unsustainable. In other parts of the world a more sustainable farming strategy may prevail and their food supply will be assured. Our future food supply will be much more uncertain as present mechanized farming will not be possible in the next century.

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