With future UK farm payments set to move away from BPS-style arrangements and be linked to delivery of ‘public goods’, min- and no-till, soil erosion, cheap labour, ‘hands free farms’ and landscape scale conservation were among the arable-related topics receiving attention in Defra Secretary, Michael Gove’s speech to the Oxford Farming Conference.
Mr Gove said: “We should build on the innovations pioneered by our superb higher education institutions like Harper Adams University by investing more in automation and machine learning, moving from the hands-free hectare to the hands-free farm, with drilling, harvesting, picking and packaging all automated, precision mapping of every inch under cultivation with targeted laser treatment of pests and weeds and highly-focused application of any other treatment required.”
He also highlighted gene editing technology as being beneficial in developing higher yielding crops.
On labour, a major concern in the fresh produce sector, although Mr Gove talked about ‘ensuring access to seasonal labour’ as we leave the EU, he also said: “Industries which come to rely on importing cheap labour run the risk of failing to invest in the innovation required to become genuinely more productive. Labour-intensive production inevitably lags behind capital-intensive production.”
However, on trade post-Brexit, Mr Gove said: “We are confident of building a new economic partnership with the EU that guarantees tariff-free access for agri-food goods across each other’s borders.”
Those implementing environmental enhancement measures are set to be the greatest beneficiaries of support payments in future, indicated Mr Gove. “Min- or no-till approaches are both economically more efficient and environmentally progressive.
“But under the CAP, farmers have been encouraged to focus on yield overall, rather than productivity specifically.
“This has led to decades of damage in the form of significant and destructive soil erosion – estimated in one study by Cranfield University to cost the economy around £1.2 billion every year.
“We now have opportunity to reverse this unhappy trend. But moving to more sustainable and, ultimately, productive farming methods can involve transitional costs and pressures. So we plan to provide new support for those who choose to farm in the most sustainable fashion,” he said.
There is also to be ‘a scheme accessible to almost any land owner or manager who wishes to enhance the natural environment by planting woodland, providing new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity, contributing to improved water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows or other more natural states’.
And there will be ‘additional money available for those who wish to collaborate to secure environmental improvements collectively at landscape scale’, said Mr Gove.
Reacting to the speech, Sam Watson-Jones, co-founder of the Small Robot Company indicated that, robotics wise, too much is being expected too soon.
He said: “While Gove’s vision for a sustainable future post-Brexit is clear, the technology to deliver this is not quite ready commercially. Gove places much emphasis on no-till, automation, robotics and AI, but this still needs to move from field trial to field.
“We will be one of the first companies to make the ground-breaking technology developed at Harper Adams university a reality, and yet we are still currently trialling our prototypes.”
Director and chief executive of Rothamsted, Achim Dobermann, said: “We welcome Mr Gove’s positive approach in encouraging the public to be open-minded to new technologies, such as gene editing. These technologies will be key in the revolution that’s needed to speed up improvements in crops, to ensure not only high yield but reliable nutritional value in our food and environmental sustainability.”
Jonathan Stiff, head of rural division, Cheffins, said: "A shift towards purely environmental work will increase the UK’s reliance on imported food which will have its implications for farmers and growers across the country."