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A look into the future of UK agriculture

It is March 20, 2040 exactly 20 years to the day since the Coronavirus pandemic forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson (remember him?) to acknowledge the Brexit transition period would have to be extended, says Cambridgeshire Fens farmer Tom Clarke. 

And thus it turned out that when it came down to it, what Brexit only ever really meant was… delay.

 

Our permanently stalled, semi-separation has left us more independent, it freed up our thinking, and the lack of security did make us sit up and sing for our suppers.

 

The two decades since the pandemic transformed the Commonwealth of Britain (the country formerly known as the UK) in ways that few predicted, and it is perhaps we farmers who have been at the front end of it, again in ways the previous generation could have hardly imagined.

 

While Coronavirus was the deciding factor, it hit at a time when several separate crises were converging. A decade of domestic austerity and global abundance had led to an interconnected world running on borrowed time.

 

Cities fed and watered by unseen human hands had begun to think of farmers as unnecessary and counter-productive. The climate transition was becoming unavoidable, but nationalism was rising and coordinated international agreements foundered.

 

Net zero

 

This year, 2040, was the date originally set by Baroness Batters (when she was merely President of the NFU) for UK agriculture to go “Net Zero”- as they called it back then.

 

I remember at the time a fair few thought it impractical or even impossible to achieve.

 

None would have believed we met and exceeded that modest target back in 2032, and that ever since British agriculture has earned almost as much from the London Carbon Exchange as we do from producing food, industrial feedstocks and public goods (or Goves as some still call them) combined, even taking into account our vast global plant and animal protein exports from the grassy uplands.

 

Though our friendly neighbours in the Irish Confederation would quibble over whose beef industry is actually sequestering the most carbon. We all have a lot to thank gene-edited non-methanogenic ruminant bacteria for.

 

Cooperation

 

Those exports really underline the transformation of the rural economy.

 

If the 2016 Brexit vote was, in part, caused by rural people feeling left behind – then despite Brexit itself merely evolving into a political self-isolation (like 1980s France, semi-in-and-out-of-NATO) it did give us the opportunity to embrace various policies and technologies shunned by the bloc.

 

But in the end it was farmers’ innovation and cooperation, which led to the revival of the rural sector, and not Government policy or subsidy alone.

 

Homegrown food

 

During the pandemic, Governments everywhere rediscovered the rationale for homegrown food production. Swine fever, difficult drilling conditions and freak weather events had already left the whole world more sensitive to disruptions in trade and food production.

 

Climate-friendly

 

While that didn’t last, over the following decade we discovered our own imperative to use our climate and natural resources to supply both ourselves and other countries with the climate-friendly food, which we can produce so comparatively easily.

 

The south facing slopes of Kent, Sussex, Essex and Hampshire now produce nearly 60 per cent of our fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables, irrigated by the Contour Canal & Pipeline, which transports waters from the rainy north and west to the dry and sunny south east.

 

Supply chain

 

As I look out over my mosaic fenland fields studded with small robots tending crops of self-fertilising ‘wet & dry’ wheat, suberin-rooted oats and bio-refinery beet thronged with birds, bees and other wildlife, I marvel at how, now each acre is profitable by itself, small farms have become viable again and at how collectively farmers own and control most of the food and bio-industrial supply chain.

 

As long as you are in one of the cooperatives or farmer-owned collectives which were set up in the 20’s and early 30’s which now invest more in technology and research than the entire Dutch economy and return sustainable dividends to their members.

 

We are in the third year of our “Fen rice” (or Glyceria) trial – it took about a decade longer than expected, but it could become a new staple in the next 20 years.

 

Carbon

 

Further north from here in The Wash, the 14 mile Great Tidal Weir both protects the wetlands and reseeded seagrass meadows from the rising seas, and enables them to suck in 35 times more carbon than the same area of rainforest while providing a steady 7 per cent of British energy needs.

 

It also spawned a vibrant shellfish farming industry. Oysters, mussels, shrimp, crab etc now make up more of our diet and our exports than at anytime in our history – British farmers and their co-ops are again behind much of this new ‘littoriculture’.

 

Copies of these tidal weirs (which delay each ebb and flow tide by a couple of hours) are under construction at Morecombe Bay, Cardigan Bay and in the Solent.

 

Most farms still have a tractor or a telehandler, you really can’t pay a per acre sub for those sort of services, but nowadays they have a fuel cell under the bonnet – running on cheap Icelandic Double H.

 

A few of the old timers (like me) are still around but farming is now full of young people, everyone wants to get into ag-tech, carbon accounting or Bio-refineries. Hard to believe that 20 years ago everything looked very bleak indeed. It just goes to show, you never can tell.

 

Tom can be found tweeting at @Tom_Clarke


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