Opinion by Rob Yorke, Rural independent commentator.
I once had to ask two farmer panellists at a literary festival to “take it to the bar to sort out your differences” over how a primary industry was facing up to the future.
Today the challenges are laid bare with farming under scrutiny to improve productivity (not production), feed more people, reduce its footprint by using less resources, avoid pollution and enhance wildlife.
It is a problem of contradictory evidence, range of opinions, economic cost burdens and inextricable overlaps with other issues.
Context is required. The year 1861 marked the moment more than 50 per cent of the UK’s population started to live in cities – the first country in the world. China only passed that point in 2012.
For more than 150 years, our farmers have been improving efficiency, increasing yields, refining pesticides, and reducing the area of land required to feed an increasingly UK urbanised population.
About 85 per cent of people in the UK live in well-designed cities which, contrary to perception, are not currently such a direct threat to the environment as any form of agriculture, organic or otherwise, has been for 5,000 years.
As two different magazines ask: “How much growth do you sacrifice to protect the environment?” (The Economist), and “Should the use of fertilisers not go hand in hand with creating a healthier environment?” (British Wildlife), our Government is focusing its consultation paper on a Green Brexit being very much the zeitgeist, to the chagrin of some farmers who hanker after level playing fields, reduced regulation, consumers paying more for British food and certainty.
“The status quo is over,” said the outgoing CLA president last year at the Royal Welsh Show, reflecting the need to now reconcile how world- class efficiencies in food production have unbalanced agriculture’s close relationship to the environment.
The curlew’s decline, based on changing farming practices in tandem with rising predator numbers, is just one example.
I am not a farmer and my opinions can ruffle feathers. But I want farmers to remain the innovative drivers of a primary industry engaged in a tough balance of feeding us great food, laying on unique landscapes, championing farmland wildlife and collaborating with both each other as well as outside experts.
I will be hosting a conversation with NFU president Minette Batters at the Hay Festival (May 24) on how farmers can raise the bar in tackling this problem of food and environment. Do come.