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R&D for the betterment of society

12/02/18
Helen Browning

Helen Browning, organic farmer and member of the Food Ethics Council, reflects on the history of organic farming research and describes her view of the future

R&D for the betterment of society

This is an edited version of Helen Browning's article in 'For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda'.

When I started farming organically, it felt like a research project. I had ideas that seemed worth investigating, and questions that I wanted to answer – one of these, still undeveloped, was whether we could grow an uncompetitive base ley of clovers, into which we could stitch the arable crops or productive grasses. This would mean we never needed to plough the land. But support for this kind of work, which I knew would have many environmental and potentially financial benefits (for farmers and consumers) was in short supply.

Indeed, one of the reasons that I began my organic farming life was that as a farmer, it seems everyone wants to sell you stuff that they tell you – often with little evidence –  will magically increase your yields by tonnes. I wanted to see what I could achieve using my own resources, such as rotations, good manure management and excellent husbandry

There was interest in organic methods; I sat for many years on an R and D committee devoted to this, but the main thrust was establishing the differences from a policy perspective, rather than improving the performance of the system. And even when the right work was commissioned, it was usually conducted on a research unit, rather than on a working farm. This was a long, drawn out process - the results took an age to come out and were notoriously hard to get hold of (unless you were really keen).  As the trend towards industry co-funding took hold, I was dismayed how inconvenient results could be smothered, and how the commercial partners could delay publication until they had taken advantage of the findings – despite the public finance being the lion’s share of the cost.

That’s why I’ve long been keen to see two things. In applied research, I want the farmer/end user to be in the driving seat, ideally being funded to do the trials themselves, with support from scientists, as in the Soil Association’s Innovative Farmers network (part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme).

For ‘blue skies’ research, the public should be involved in determining the work to be done. Otherwise, our new technologies will carry high levels of sunk cost that drive the need for them to succeed commercially – even though they may have little relevance to the public interest. This conflict wastes everyone’s time, energy and money, when R&D could be used for the betterment of society.