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Challenges of sustainable farming

Professor Julian Parks looks in more detail at the three pillars of sustainability, and discusses the work of farmers and researchers.
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Many of us consider sustainability in terms of three pillars– economic, environmental, and social. In terms of the farming context, it’s often the economic pillar of sustainability which is the most prevalent. Farmers are businesses. They are often quite small businesses in relation to multinationals. But they have to make money to survive. So that financial sustainability is key, economic and financial sustainability. But at the same time, unlike many other businesses, the landscape, as we see here, is part of the farming system. So it’s also important that they maintain and enhance the environment in which they work.
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Farms and farmers are highly reliant on the environment to provide services like pollination, the delivery of water, the light needed for crops to grow, the soil in which crops grow, et cetera. So farming is highly reliant on a good, working environment. We often think about climate change and the impacts that is having in terms of both water availability and heat. We have a number of tunnels set up here. This work is looking at wheat in particular. It’s looking at excluding rainfall during a critical phase, what’s known as the grain filling phase. And what we’re looking at is how different varieties respond to different amounts of drought stress.
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We’re trying to work out and try to predict for the future which varieties may survive if the climate gets hotter or if there is more extreme heat events or, in particular, if there’s a different distribution of rainfall. As the climate is changing, as both farmers and researchers, we’re having to redouble our efforts in terms of the mechanisms in which we can adapt to mitigate to that climate change.
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As many economies develop, the number of farms reduces, they become bigger. Therefore, less people are involved in farming. There’s greater mechanisation, greater use of technology. So the people that are actually involved in the primary production of food is much reduced. And that has led to some disconnect between the– if you like– the people that are directly involved in farming and the consumers that eat the food. There’s a real question, I think, that is about the connectivity between farms and farmers and the local rural environments, but also, more importantly, the wider environments, the urban environments into which those food products are being sold and eventually consumed.
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And a huge amount of social science research as well going on both here at Reading and elsewhere to look at how we can produce more integrated systems, how we can bring consumers into the food chain, how we can listen more closely to what consumers have to say, and how they can influence the types of things we grow and the ways in which we grow them.
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Sustainability isn’t an end state. We constantly need to evolve in terms of becoming more and more sustainable incrementally. We’ll always be trying to improve to reduce the amount of nutrients we put onto the land for each kilogram of crop we harvest. We’ll be trying to reduce the amount of feed in terms of every harvested kilogram of beef. We’ll be constantly looking at ways we can grow crops that are more environmentally sustainable. We’re trying to look at ways of including consumers more holistically in the food chain and therefore taking account of that kind of social dimension of sustainability. We’ve got to make farming financially sustainable.
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But we’ve got to do that in the context of maintaining and improving the kind of landscape and the environment in which farming takes place.
In this video, Professor Julian Park looks at economic, environmental and social sustainability in more detail, and discusses the work that farmers and researchers are conducting to make farming practices more sustainable in all three areas.
Professor Park is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Education and Student Experience at University of Reading and previously Head of the School of Agriculture, Development and Policy. He discusses how consumers can become more involved in sustainability practices.
  • Which of the three pillars do you feel you have most influence over?
  • How do you think you could be more involved in these sustainability practices?
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