2011 message: Contradictory government policy on sustainability – is it time for the ‘specialist generalist’?


Practical solutions for a sustainable future  

Farming is facing a period of fundamental change that will impact on the viability of farm businesses, the rural economy, and the environment.

I believe that the drivers are in place for changes that are going to impact on the future sustainability of the countryside – unless government adopts the right policies. 

The greatest single driver for change in the immediate future is biofuels – in particular the intensively produced biofuels destined for global markets that the environmental organisations like to refer to as agrofuels. 

Increasing demand for agrofuel, whether to mitigate the impact of fossil fuel on climate change or the desire of governments to gain self-sufficiency in fuel requirements, is driving up the world price for grains and oilseeds.

The increase in price was foreseeable and is not unexpected. As demand for grains for both food and fuel has increased governments around the world have allowed the world stocks of these products to fall to historically low levels.

However the magnitude of increase has come as a shock. Largely driven by the US administration failing to secure its agrofuel requirements from Brazil, the US government has poured huge subsidies into its domestic agrofuels industry. This has increased the demand for maize creating a shortage that has cleared the previously unexportable surplus of maize production and in turn freed up the worlds grain supply. 

Just like the USA, the EU is looking elsewhere for its agrofuel requirement – especially the fuel needed to meet its goals for biofuel inclusion in road fuels. With a greater population density and lack of suitable soils Europe, has turned its attention on Central Africa where, according to a report from the African Biodiversity Network 239 million ha have been identified as suitable for biofuel production. 17 million ha in Ethiopia, a country synonymous with the regions problems with drought and starvation – of which 1.7 million ha is fertile and currently producing food for the domestic population. 

What I find most shocking is that the same resources of soil, water and knowledge are required for both food and fuel production. If the EU is looking to Africa for its biofuel requirements then surely the EU should ensure that the region is able to feed itself first. 

Closer to home the impact of biofuels is most noticeable as a huge price hike in the raw material needed for fuel production – but the same raw materials are needed for livestock production. Arable farmers are enjoying a very welcome bonus but livestock farmers will find it difficult to survive – especially pig and poultry producers. Many will be forced out of business leaving those remaining to become more efficient – which, as we know, has implications for animal welfare and rural employment. 

The EU has recognised the threat of rising grain prices and has moved to curb the price increases by suspending setaside and increasing the area of land available for cropping. And yet setaside, whilst loathed by the majority of arable farmers, has benefited wildlife. I believe its irresponsible for EU ministers to reduce setaside without putting in place proper safeguards – and its irresponsible of farmers leaders to gamble the reputation of farmers as custodians of the countryside whilst assuring government that farmers can increase production and maintain environmental benefits.

Agrofuels will drive a change in cropping as farmers increase the area of profitable winter sown wheat and oilseed rape and reduce the area of spring-sown crops and fallow. This will lead to a ‘bi-culture’ of wheat and rape, further intensification, a loss of diversity, loss of habitat, and less opportunity for wildlife to share our farmland. 

Those landowners currently in environmental schemes will try to opt out as they see those outside the schemes enjoying increased income from their crops and an increase in the value of their farmland 

We will also see a fundamental change in attitude towards farm management. In the past decade farmers, struggling to survive, have concentrated on trying to ensure a positive gross margin.  However, as prices increase, farmers will become driven by yield rather that gross margin. 

Doesn’t sound significant but in practice the impact on the countryside and the environment will be huge. 

When farmers concentrate on gross margin sometimes the doing nothing option has produced the best gross margin. But when farmers concentrate on yield they will be willing and able to use expensive technology and agrochemicals to drive up yields confident that any yield increase will cover the cost.

As land prices increase on the back of increased profits then every piece of land will be pushed into production. Its no coincidence that the last time we saw this yield driven attitude to farm management gain prevalence it was coincided with the height of the hedge row removal, drainage of wetlands and the loss of habitats. 

This led to the public losing confidence in farmers as guardians of the countryside. Its taken 20 odd years to get that confidence back but I now believe that the drivers are in place to create another Hughie Batchelor – for those of you who do not remember Mr Batchelor, he farmed in Kent and came notorious for removing tress and hedges. He was jailed for his activities and came to epitomise in the public conscience the arrogance of farmers in the 70s and 80s. 

Looking further into the future I see the growing affluence of arable farmers demonstrating itself in arrogance with a corresponding loss of the publics confidence on farmers ability as custodians of the countryside and a loss of public sympathy. 

We farmers endanger public sympathy at our cost. If we’ve learnt anything from the past decade of low prices, it’s that our only defence against supermarket dominance and incompetent government is public sympathy. 

Looking even further into the future we will have to deal with Synthetic Biology. Anyone listening to Prof Craig Venter giving the Dimbleby lecture must have been wondering about the future of biofuels as we understand them – and even of food production – and begin to question what are the implications of this technology.

Craig Venter has announced to the world that he as created a new single cell life form – which will raise public awareness and concern of the issue. This new technology, a synthesis of biotech and nanotech, has the potential for enormous benefits – and enormous harm. If GM created a fracas this technology has the potential to create a real storm.

We can’t begin to steer a path through these obstacles and opportunities without the right policies in place. 

And on past record I don’t think farmers have much confidence in policy makers. Government policy has too often resulted in a series of contradictory, inconsistent and irreconcilable demands being placed on farming and food production. 

For instance:

  • Farmers must become more efficient and internationally competitive — yet also more environmentally friendly.
  • Governments don’t want a polarized industrialised countryside — yet promotes greater efficiency, which, as experts readily admit means, “bigger is better.”
  • Acknowledges that small farms and farm employment are essential to maintaining the character of the countryside — yet accept that the number of farmers and farm jobs should decline.
  • Support increased trade liberalization — yet want to sustain national food security and a “vital home production base.”
  • Promote increased production of local/regional/organic foods — yet farmers must produce food more cheaply.
  • Support organic food production – yet champion the interests of multi national GM providers
  • Farming is a sunset industry and farmers are an anachronism – yet farming will be critically important in keep the lights on and the wheels turning.

This is the central contradiction in government policy – the drive for efficient food and fuel production whilst trying to encourage environmental and social benefits in the countryside.

Its not surprising that farmers are sceptical of policy and its sources.

Policy is reactive when it should be proactive. We are all so busy fire fighting that no-one has the time or opportunity to look into the future and try to pre-empt future events.

It seems to me that what is needed is a new approach to developing policy that takes into account the wider implications of a given policy on farmers and the environment – locally, nationally, and globally. 

Too many of those charged with developing domestic agricultural policies are representing their own speciality and their own financial interests. Or are industry placemen who have insufficient knowledge of the wider practical issues.

Too often it seems we have the cart in front of the horse with specialist making policies to promote their own particular interest rather than first recognising the issue and then developing a policy that meets the interests of the countryside as a whole. 

We have put our trust in specialists for too long. I would make a plea to those charged with developing policy to seek out the generalist – what could be called the  ‘specialist generalist’. 

People whose common sense and wide experience of farming, environment, politics and life allows them to see the whole picture and set a wise course.

Only then will we be able to develop the policies that will lead to a truly sustainable future.

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