British farmers are best placed to lead the battle to feed the world, was the conclusion of debate at the annual South of England Farming Conference, held at the South of England Showground in Ardingly, Mid Sussex.
In front of an audience of 260 farmers and chaired by Charlotte Smith, presenter on Radio 4’s ‘Farming Today’, leading figures in agriculture debated whether British farmers were ‘in the game’ when it comes to feeding the growing global population or could they be left behind by those farmers around the world with greater entrepreneurial flair.
Kick starting the discussion, economist, Government adviser and university lecturer Séan Rickard said that British farmers were perfectly capable of rising to the challenge of adopting wholesale intensification. His argument focused on the importance of investment in research and scale of production to deliver sustainable intensification of farming, saying that we were on the cusp of a drastic innovation in bio-technology and that efficient, better educated farmers using the latest technology was the answer to feeding the growing population. Controversially, he also said that the Common Agricultural Policy causes chronic dependence and thwarts entrepreneurialism amongst farmers.
Second speaker, Alastair Leake, director of policy & public affairs for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, focused on ‘not trashing the environment’, presenting a range of ways in which he has learned to improve biodiversity alongside intensive farming on the Allerton Project, an experimental farm in Leicestershire. He urged farmers to work harder to preserve wildlife and soil, saying that we mustn’t get caught up with environmental legislation when we can do what works biologically and logically. He said, “It is possible for farmers to both increase production and biodiversity across their farming systems”.
David Christensen, a farmer from the Thames Valley area who sits on the Board of Representatives for Arla Foods, the global dairy cooperative, said that stability in Britain, in political, physical and climate terms, put British farmers in a unique and blessed position when it comes to leading the world in farming. Describing British farmers as ‘resilient and adaptable’, he pointed out that we have Europe on our doorstep and a relatively stable market offering reassurance of a continuing demand for our product. He said that efficiency was the bottom line and in future there would be less people farming, but in a more efficient way. He also encouraged collaboration, in terms of sharing ideas and experience through groups of farmers in the same areas or sectors, as well as joining forces to gain more leverage, something which the merger of Milk Link and Arla achieved.
He concluded: “Yes we are in the game – but most important for farmers today is an open mind and a willingness to change.”
Said Duncan Rawson, a Nuffield Scholar sponsored by the South of England Agricultural Society, who organized this year’s conference, “This year’s conference addressed a hugely topical debate with a very positive outcome. For agriculture, whilst the challenges facing us are immense, we sit on the precipice of a new era; an era when the farmer who is prepared to embrace change and do things differently can look forward to a bright future.”
Said Charlotte Smith, “The debate and contributions from the audience made it clear that farmers are thinking about how they can get their farms and businesses in the best shape to take advantage of growing demands on them.”
Sitting in the middle of 150 acres, the South of England Showground is the ideal venue to host the Farming Conference, sponsored by South East Farmer, Mayo Wynne Baxter, Complete Land Management (CLM) and Chavereys.