19 January 2021
Intercropping for sustainability

Two-day Conference with AAB, DIVERSify and ReMIX at Reading University

6 September 2021
Organic World Congress 2021

New date! Postponed from September 2020

30 July 2020
ORC welcomes the National Food Strategy

The first major reviewof our food system in 75 years

24 July 2020
The future of organic farming and the environment

All to play for if full benefits of organic farming for wildlife, the environment and health are to be realised

29 April 2020
Tim Bennett is the new Chair of ORC

Former NFU president takes on chairmanship of Organic Research Centre

Making farming more sustainable: tools for the job

This session seeks to improve the understanding of what sustainable farming and growing is really about, to explain the use of the tools available, and to motivate farmers and advisers to use them. (Organised by IOTA)

Mark Measures (IOTA): Chair

Session Summary

The session outlined the various tools that can be used to quantify, compare and track levels of sustainability on farms, and how the different assessment tools can be used by farmers and consultants. 

Organic farm consultant, William Waterfield, began by talking about the farm assessment tool that he uses to survey organic dairy farms as part of the SOLID project .The tool is based on 2-3 hour interviews with farmers to collect data on their inputs/outputs and management practices.  This data is then then used to score each farm on a scale of 1-5 on a range of parameters which gives a value for each of the ‘spurs’ that includes-

  • Soil Management, Biodiversity. Landscape and Heritage, Water Management, Nutrient Management, Energy and Carbon, Food Security, Agricultural Systems Diversity, Social Capital, Farm Business Resilience and Animal Welfare.  

Laurence Smith, Senior Sustainability Researcher at ORC, outlined the various tools available to farmers and advisers for assessing and comparing the carbon footprint of farms.  One approach involves looking at the greenhouse gas emissions per cow or hectare of land, and then the carbon sequestrated per hectare of grassland.  This approach with farmer interviews means there is a trade-off between the simplicity and accuracy of the tool.  Various web based open access tools are also available, each with their own advantages,  limitations and parameters.  It is difficult to compare results between tools as parameters such as sequestration are measured to varying degrees or not at all.        

Christine Watson who leads the Soil Science and Systems research team at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) discussed how nutrient budgeting can be used to improve nutrient use efficiency in rotations for organic and conventional farms.  Nutrients are lost, gained and recycled in different ways for arable, mixed and livestock only farming systems.  It is often difficult to quantify inputs such as nitrogen fixing rate of legumes varies greatly with climate species and soil. 

Soil testing can track trends in nutrient depletion or accumulation. As budgets vary greatly year to year, data should be looked at over a whole rotation to get an overview for each farm.  Traditionally only Nitrogen Phosphorus and Potassium are given priority but micronutrients such as Sulphur should also be considered.  

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points and actions:

  • It is difficult to compare carbon foot printing using different tools but can be used to track trends and compare relative benefits of different management changes or areas for improvement.
  • Carbon neutral does not necessarily mean sustainable.
  • Farming should not be thought of as mining the soil of nutrients.
  • As Phosphorus and Potassium fertilisers are produced unsustainably from only very few countries around the world, importance should be given to nutrients from organic fertilisers, green manures and activity of soil microbes.    

Action Points

  • Comparing farm sustainability should be considered with local regional baselines.
  • Continued research is needed to look at approaches to measuring carbon sequestration more accurately.
  • We should not rely only on figures for carbon emissions but focus also on other socioeconomic values to assess sustainability.
  • Address the potential use of human waste which is not currently allowed under European organic standards.

Speaker presentations and abstracts

William Waterfield (Consultant): Farm assessments to develop organic farming sustainability (140KB)

Developing sustainability in organic systems involves a range of issues from soil management and animal health to engagement with the public, but without financial stability a farming business cannot have a long term future. The paper will look at results from the survey carried out as part of the SOLID project which involved an assessment of the sustainability of 102 dairy cow and goat farms in 9 EU countries. Sustainability was assessed on each individual farm across the 12 “spurs” of : Soil Management, Biodiversity, Landscape and Heritage, Water Management, Nutrient Management, Energy and Carbon, Food Security, Agricultural Systems Diversity, Social Capital, Farm Business Resilience and Animal Health and Welfare. The paper will examine the lessons that farmers can learn from this survey and how it might be used to bench mark their business and help them to develop a more truly sustainable business.

Laurence Smith (ORC): Carbon benchmarking tools and how they help reduce energy and emissions (200KB)

A number of tools have been developed in recent years which allow farmers and landowners to assess the ‘carbon-footprint’ of their holding and identify areas for improvement. The array of tools available can be confusing however as a result of differences in scope, the data sources used and the time investment required. For example, some tools provide a quick overview of an entire farm and consider only emissions within the farm gate, whereas others provide a product focussed assessment that accounts for emissions throughout an entire production life-cycle. The issue of carbon sequestration is also left out in some cases, whereas other tools provide a detailed breakdown of this area. This presentation will provide an overview of the tools that are available, the different approaches and how each of the tools can help to improve your farming businesses.

Christine Watson (SRUC): Nutrient budgeting for rotations, manures and mineral fertilisers (590KB)

On organic farms, where external inputs are restricted, soil fertility needs to be maintained by balancing nutrient removal in produce with inputs from acceptable sources. Nutrient budgets at farm/field level are a useful tool for evaluating sustainable nutrient management and the environmental risks of different farming systems. Nutrient budgets can be applied to both major and micronutrients. The calculation can reveal unexpected sources, losses and imbalances of nutrients. Understanding how efficiently nutrients are used can help decision making in relation to rotation design, manure management and choice of inputs.