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David McKay: Chemical-reliant farmers can’t go cold turkey

by Atlanta Business Journal

IT IS with dismay that we’ve watched the crisis unfold in Sri Lanka, as farmers deal with sky high inflation and failed crops following a ban on chemical fertilisers.

Artificial fertilisers are banned in organic farming, so it may come as a surprise to see the Soil Association – long term advocates of organic – with our heads in our hands.

But Sri Lanka’s crisis tells us nothing about organic farming.

Governments across the UK and Europe are backing organic because evidence proves that agroecological, regenerative farming can feed everyone a healthy diet while restoring nature, removing chemical inputs, and slashing farming emissions.

Those threatened by that vision are jumping on the crisis in Sri Lanka, pretending it is a cautionary tale about organic when it is only a tale of failed governance.

A panicked Sri Lankan government imposed chemical bans overnight because it ran out of foreign exchange to buy fertiliser.

In a recent Herald article, climate-change sceptic Bjorn Lomborg was one to jump to this conclusion – incorrectly stating it’s not possible to farm without chemicals.

But chemical-reliant farmers cannot go “cold turkey”.

Switching to chemical-free farming involves a complete transformation in the way a farm operates, and this must be done carefully and over a period of time.

Initial support from government is often essential to help the transitioning farmer stay afloat, as yields may suffer while their land adapts.

Strict standards mean that organic farmers can only use manures from livestock reared on chemical-free pastures. But the most common technique that organic and regenerative farmers deploy is to grow nitrogen-fixing legume crops like clover or peas to build soil fertility as part of a crop rotation.

This type of farming system is so vastly different to the more conventional farming style of applying artificial fertilisers in between crops, that it takes time to build.

It cannot be done overnight. But it must be done.

The Ukraine conflict has led to fertiliser and gas prices rocketing because much of it comes from Russia.

Aside from the hefty environmental price tag behind these products, we are seeing how unsustainable it can be for our food chain to be reliant on fossil-fuel derived products within geopolitically unstable markets.

Farmers need government support to shift to diverse, resilient, nature-friendly farming – which is the most evidence-based solution for restoring climate, wildlife, and public health.

This needs to take place alongside government intervention to help everyone to eat a healthy, sustainable diet – following the example led by schools across Scotland working with our Food for Life programme.

We all need to take a “less but better” approach to meat, and we should all have access to fresh, healthy, and sustainable fruit, vegetables and pulses.

The Scottish Government has set out a vision for Scotland to be a ‘global leader’ in sustainable and regenerative farming. Encouraging more farmers to switch to organic will be an important part of that transition.

David McKay is Head of Policy for Soil Association Scotland

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