Mixed farming systems should not be promoted by policy-makers as a generic solution to making agriculture more sustainable, according to a prominent scientist.
Pieter De Wolf, a plant scientist at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, said encouraging diversified farming practices would not necessarily make farmers more economically or environmentally viable.
He said assumptions by policy-makers and environmental groups that mixed farms were automatically better were misplaced, and in many cases producers would be better off working on refining specific farming practices.
Speaking at the European Federation of Animal Science conference in Belfast, De Wolf said it was very difficult for producers to “unspecialized” their farming practices.
“You have to consider economies of scale and the lack of knowledge,” he said. “It’s very difficult to start crop production when you have been a livestock farmer for years, and understanding new supply chain networks is very difficult.”
Talking to delegates during a session on the potential benefits of diversified farming systems, De Wolf said policies related to mixed farming systems should only be promoted if there were clear objectives and an understanding of the problems it could overcome.
“It could be helpful in product differentiation, where mixed farming is key in a regional setting and it provides farmers with opportunities,” he said.
“It also works well on organic systems, where the use of organic inputs and certain crop rotations make it more natural to go into mixed farming. But it is not a generic solution. We don’t know exactly what we want to promote.”
In a bid to increase farm sustainability, De Wolf suggested farmers could work together to “trade” benefits, with livestock units sharing manure to fertilize arable crops and improve soil structures, and arable farmers growing feed for neighboring livestock farms.
“Co-operative farming systems combine the benefits of both systems,” he added. “It requires an overall perspective and proper coordination, but it optimizes inputs, economies of scale and professional organizations.”