Farming for the next generation


January 4
09:03 2018

Check against delivery

The age of acceleration

For anyone wondering what the focus of this years Oxford Farming Conference might be, The Archers provided an answer just before Christmas.

Brian Aldridge asked his step-son, Adam, whether he might be attending the conference. Adam replied wearily. I think Ill give it a miss this year. Its probably going to be all about Brexit. I get enough of that at home. I know how he feels.

I suspect everyone in this room knows how he feels.

And, of course, Ill say something in a moment about the opportunities and challenges for agriculture on leaving the European Union.

But if were going to make the most of those opportunities and overcome those challenges its critical that we recognise that there is much, much, more that is changing in our world than our relationship with the EU.

The worlds population is growing at an unprecedented rate, with a worldwide migration from rural areas to cities and a growth in the global middle class which is driving demand for more, and better quality, food.

Technological change is at an inflection point. Developments in big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning mean that processes which would have required the intellect and effort of thousands of humans over many hours in the past can be accomplished automatically by digital means in seconds.

These technological breakthroughs raise political and moral questions as we consider how we deal with the transformation of a huge range of existing jobs. And alongside these changes in the world of information technology there are bio-tech changes coming which also challenge us to think about the future, and how best to shape it. Gene editing technology could help us to remove vulnerabilities to illness, develop higher yielding crops or more valuable livestock, indeed potentially even allow mankind to conquer the diseases to which we are vulnerable.

Food in abundance, improved health, greater longevity: these are all goals to which our species has aspired since the first farmers waited for the first harvest. But in attempting to shape evolution more profoundly than any plant or animal breeder ever has done before are we biting off much more than we can ever chew?

And these are not the only changes coming. Our global environment is affected as never before by the population growth Ive referred to, and the consequent growth in demand for nutritious food, safe drinking water, comfortable housing, reliable energy and new consumer goods.

The growth in trade which will meet those needs will depend on more careful packaging, more journeys by air, land and sea, more logistics hubs and more work by designers, marketers and, yes, regulators.

The pressures placed on our global environment by this growth Ive sketched out will be formidable whether its greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere contributing to global warming, desertification and soil erosion reducing the space for cultivation, deforestation leading to the disappearance of valuable carbon sinks and precious habitats, air pollution from traditional industry and intensive agriculture adding to health costs, waste poisoning our oceans or iconic landscapes under threat from the need for further development.

Without action we face the progressive loss of the natural capital on which all growth - natural, human and economic - ultimately depends.

So the imperative to husband, indeed wherever possible, enhance our natural capital - safeguarding our oceans, cleaning our rivers, keeping our soils fertile, protecting biodiversity - has to be at the heart of any plan for our country and our world.

Because we cannot expect to live prosperous and civilised lives in the future unless we recognise that we have to care for that which gives us all life - our planet.

And that knowledge is itself a catalyst for further change. The need to protect our planet better is already accelerating innovation- with entrepreneurs exploring how to develop autonomous electric vehicles, how to change the energy mix we all rely on, how to reduce our reliance on plastics, how to derive more protein from plants rather than animals, how to grow produce, whether hydroponically or by other means, which leaves a lighter imprint on the earth, how to use distributed ledger technology to protect habitats and so much more.So the reality of our times is not just change as the only constant but accelerating change as the new normal. Which is why the title of this conference - Embracing Change - is so appropriate.

Because the changes which are shaping all our futures are so historically significant, technologically revolutionary and economically transformative that we have no choice but to embrace them and try to shape them in a progressive and judicious way.

A state without the means of change is without the means of conservation

Now I know there is, of course, a natural human desire to stick with what we know, trust to experience and hope things can go on much as before. To prefer the tried to the untried. You hear it when some in industry, and indeed some in the farming industry, say that what we need most at the moment is certainty.

I understand that sentiment all too well. As I think does almost everyone in politics.

But the truth is that if we try to avoid change, hold the future at bay and throw up barriers to progress then we dont stop change coming, we simply leave ourselves less equipped to deal with change as it arrives.

The history of nationalised industries, state subsidies for particular sectors, guilds to restrict access to trades, high tariff walls and all the other tools of so-called economic protection is a melancholy one. The road is paved with good intentions - preserving strategic assets, insulating communities from change, protecting our home market, guaranteeing a supply of essentials.

But the path inevitably involves higher costs for consumers, lower productivity from producers, less pressure to husband scarce resources, less concern about sustainability, more rent-seeking and capital accumulation, less investment in innovation, less dynamism and ultimately, less security as others forge ahead economically, scientifically and socially.

If we want to preserve that which we cherish - a thriving agriculture sector, a healthy rural economy, beautiful landscapes, rich habitats for wildlife, a just society and a fair economy - then we need to be able to shape change rather than seeking to resist it.

And the best way to deal with change is to develop adaptability. As we know from the natural world, the best way to thrive in a new environment is to evolve. What we should, therefore be looking for in agriculture policy, indeed in all economic policy, is not an illusory fixity or a false sense of certainty, which by definition future events we cannot foresee will always upend.

What we should instead be seeking to cultivate are the resources, policies and people that will allow us to adapt, evolve and embrace change as an ally.

Taking back control

Which takes me to Brexit.

Of course Brexit will mean change.

But, critically, what it means most of all is that we can once more decide how we shape change and how we meet the challenges ahead.

It means we dont need any longer to follow the path dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy. We can have our own - national - food policy, our own agriculture policy, our own environment policies, our own economic policies, shaped by our own interests.

The CAP was designed, like so many aspects of the EU, for another world, the post-war period when memories of food shortages were hauntingly powerful and the desire to support a particular model of land use was wrapped up with ideas of a stable countryside that seemed reassuringly attractive after the trauma of industrial-scale conflict.Of course, the CAP has evolved, and indeed improved, over time. But it is still a fundamentally flawed design.Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes.

It gives the most from the public purse to those who have the most private wealth.

It bids up the price of land, distorting the market, creating a barrier to entry for innovative new farmers and entrenching lower productivity.

Indeed, perversely, it rewards farmers for sticking to methods of production that are resource-inefficient and also incentivises an approach to environmental stewardship which is all about mathematically precise field margins and not ecologically healthy landscapes.

As recent scholarship has shown, the so-called greening payments in Pillar One have scarcely brought any environmental benefits at all.

We can, and must, do better.

Reform begins at home

And by we, I mean Defra most of all.

Now I dont want anyone to get hold of the wrong end of the stick.

The Department I am privileged to lead has some of the finest public servants in the country working for it. Whether its the policy professionals, economic analysts, vets, IT engineers, botanists and horticulturalists or hydrologists and geologists, it is a pleasure to work with such dedicated, idealistic and passionate people.But while the people are brilliant, some of the processes have not been.

The ways in which we provide financial support to farmers have been far too bureaucratic not helped by the ludicrous rules and red tape of the CAP that Defra must try to enforce.

The Rural Payments Agency has historically taken

Related Articles


  1. We don't have any comments for this article yet. Why not join in and start a discussion.

Write a Comment

Your name:
Your email:

Post my comment

Recent Comments

Follow Us on Twitter

Share This

Enjoyed this? Why not share it with others if you've found it useful by using one of the tools below: