Necessity is the mother of invention was the overarching theme adopted by vice president of Europe at Alltech, Patrick Charlton, who recently addressed members of the Guild of Agricultural Journalists of Ireland in Belfast.

He visited Northern Ireland to deliver three core messages: that agriculture will be at the very heart of every sustainability strategy conceived over the next decade and beyond; that a new green revolution - based on fast-evolving science - will drive all the sectors of agriculture forward; and that the days of cheap food are coming to an end.

Food supply and prices

While characterising the recent hike in fertiliser and all other farm input prices as a spike, the Alltech representative added that these costs may settle at levels well above that regarded as the norm some months ago.

“Consumers want a guaranteed food supply that is produced on a wholly sustainable basis,” Charlton said.

“Farming can and will deliver on these priorities. But it will come at a cost.

“Farmers in the 1970s and 1980s did a tremendous job of producing high-quality food very cheaply.

“And, this suited the business models put in place by all the supermarkets, so much so that retailers have managed to keep staple food prices.

“After so many years, this is now changing. And, I don’t think we will ever see food as cheap in the shops again as has been the case for the past 40 years and more.”

According to Charlton, farming is on a journey, and this has mirrored the development of Alltech as a business over the past four decades.

“Agriculture is so adaptable,” he added.“Farmers are some of the most innovative business people in the world.

“The biggest plus for consumers is now the transparency in the food chain. All the sectors within the farming and food chain are now talking to each other in a meaningful way.

“This dialogue is crucially important, and it can be built upon for the future.”

Sustainable future

Looking to this future, Charlton predicted that the evolution of sustainable farming models will be centred upon the sharing of information across all of the relevant stakeholder groups.

“We are going to have joined-up thinking when it comes to measuring sustainability on farms,” he further explained.

“The ability to deliver greater levels of mutual cooperation will be the factor that changes farming into the future.”

Commenting specifically on the future role of nitrogen within production agriculture, Charlton indicated that farmers are buying fertiliser at £900/t currently.

“Farmers will clearly say that they have no option but to go down this road at the present time,” he continued.

“But change is coming; necessity is the mother of invention," he said.

“In the short-term, the farming industry may well remain reliant on urea. However, into the future, we will see new ways developed to produce non-protein nitrogen.

“The reason why fertiliser prices are so high at the moment is because that industry is so gas reliant.

“And scientists may well come up with other ways of making nitrogen fertilisers available.

“However, there are other things that we can do to reduce our reliance on nitrogen-based fertilisers.”

He concluded by saying:

“Twenty years ago, the European Union banned the use of antibiotic microbial products.

“At the time, the entire farming industry simply put its hands up, asking the question: how are we going to do this?

“It took a while but evolution, in terms of improved husbandry, genetics and feed formulation got us over the line.

“There was no silver bullet. It took a number of factors to come to the fore. And this is the scenario that will continue to play out over the coming years," he said.