Diet preferences, land use, climate change, employment issues, the rise of technology: Agriculture stands at a crossroads, speakers at a conference agreed but how will farmers face up to the challenges in the next decade?
The Future of Farming conference, held at Mid-Kent College by the Country Landowners’ Association (CLA), focused on prospects for the industry in 2030. On the panel were a wide range of speakers with different views on what the priorities were and the best way to address them.
The speakers were: Susan Twining, chief land use policy adviser for the CLA, Professor Mario Caccamo, MD of NIAB (the national institute of agricultural botany) at East Malling, William Gildea, campaigns and policy officer for the Vegan Society, Antonio Fletcher, partner specialising in employment with Brachers solicitors and Tom Brunt, director of the rural energy and projects division of estate managers Savills. In the chair was Gary Walters, chairman of the Kent branch of the CLA.
Susan Twining opened the speeches, saying despite the confusion over Brexit and other immediate issues, it was important to think beyond them and consider what normal farming” would look like in 10 years’ time.
“Global trends show that by 2050 the world’s population will reach nine billion, with the resulting huge demand on food and energy.” Climate change would also have an enormous impact on food production in the UK, but she said she remained optimistic, seeing the country “on the cusp of a technological revolution, with tech and data-driven farming increasingly being adopted.”
The imminent roll-out of the country’s first Agricultural Bill in almost 50 years was also a huge issue for the industry, said Susan. Overall, farmers needed to focus more on profitability and efficiency, taking into consideration the best land use for the environment. She believed a big change over the next 10 years would be in the amount of land devoted to forestry and woodland, even though food production would always be central to the UK’s farming sector.
Other issues to be addressed included diet and health, with less red meat being consumed and a focus on reducing obesity.
In summing up, Susan said two issues stood out as vital over the next decade – who managed the land and how was it farmed? She said farmers had to become more competitive in the world food market and to be aware of the growth of bio-diversity, including the introduction of algae and insect farming as options to help feed the increasing global population.
“There are lots of positives, but the industry needs to be prepared to accept challenges and grasp opportunities which present themselves,” she concluded.
Professor Caccamo’s viewpoint was as a scientist, he told the audience. “As a scientist, I love change, but if farming is going to be a success, it must be prepared to change, too.”
He said statistics on food production were sobering and the UK needed to reconfigure its priorities, to help feed the domestic population as well as exporting products. “Farming is complicated, a change in one place has implications elsewhere,” he said. “At East Malling, we bring solutions for the real world.”
Prof Caccamo quoted examples of how research was being used to address agricultural issues, including the development of the WET (water efficient technology) centre, which looks at reducing water use and increasing the quality of plants. Scientists at East Malling are also developing new strains of more nutritious and tasty fruit and vegetables, including strawberries and apples.
He raised the subject of climate change, which he said had been good for one sector of the food and drink industry – wine-making. Scientists at East Malling are testing the most efficient ways to grow vines and seeing which are best suited to different conditions.
Summing up, Prof Caccamo said: “We have to innovate, we cannot rely on the old methods of farming to see us through the next decade.”
Next on his feet was William Gildea of the Vegan Society, and the atmosphere in the hall changed perceptibly, as farmers in the audience craned forward to hear his arguments for adopting a plant-based diet.
“We are facing a dual crisis in the UK – climate change and the impact on health of poor diet,” William said. “Obesity and malnutrition are huge issues worldwide. People involved in the food system have an opportunity to make a difference and we believe that difference lies in a plant-based diet. Research from Oxford University shows that adopting a vegan diet is the single biggest thing a person can do to help global health. It is best for them as an individual and best for cutting greenhouse gases.”
William Gildea said the production of meat put pressures on the environment. It was poor economic use of land, which would be better used to produce grains for human consumption. “We need to increase biodiversity,” he urged, ending his speech by quoting figures for veganism in the UK and how the farming industry could start addressing the issues of meat and dairy production.
“The number of vegans is growing every two years, with an estimated 600,000 in the UK in 2018,” he said. “With food subsidies changing post-Brexit, UK farmers need to look harder at sustainable agriculture. Plant-based foods such as oats are far more efficiently consumed by humans than animals as part of the food chain. Another plant to consider growing is hemp, which is useful for making into milk and clothing.”
Antonio Fletcher’s take on the Future of Farming issue was to look at how farmers could sustain levels of production over the next 10 years, as the demographic of the rural population aged and decreased. One of the biggest issues was the decline in immigrant labour available to help on the UK’s farms.
“Over the past three to four years, working here has become less attractive to EU nationals,” he said. “This deficiency will become even more challenging post-Brexit. We need to encourage the domestic population to get involved in food production and one of the answers is to increase the use of robotics and tech into food production. However, it carries a cost implication.”
Antonio Fletcher said taking on apprentices to work on farms was another solution. They cost less to employ, provided a next generation of workers and benefited from the “earning and learning” possibilities within the industry. The rise of tech-based solutions within farming was another reason to bring more young people into the sector. “Millennials are used to finding their way around the digital world,” he said.
If farmers decided to go down the apprenticeship route, they needed to ensure they had the legal issues tied up, Antonio stressed. This included setting good working practices and rewards for students who passed training milestones, and drawing up agreements which made it clear there were financial penalties for young people who left before the end of their agreed contract.
The final speaker, Tom Brunt of Savills, underlined the message of the conference that farming needed to diversify, in order to survive. He noted the rise in the number of agri-tech companies springing up across the country and alternatives such as “indoor farming”, where plants are grown within a controlled environment. However, all this technology came with a high price tag.
Tom Brunt quoted figures on diversification within farming, which included the rise of space allocated for holiday lettings, wedding venues, farm shops and outdoor events.
“Owners and entrepreneurs are changing,” he said. “There’s a huge shift towards agri-tourism, with interest from the wider population who are willing and able to visit the countryside, as well as a big shift in land tenure agreements.”
Questions from the audience at the conference included whether the UK should become self-sufficient in food production, where money would be available for apprenticeship schemes, the future of viticulture and what would become of the 40% or so of the country’s land now used for meat and dairy production, if the diet of the nation changed dramatically over the next 10 years.
This last issue was hotly debated by the panel, with all but William Gildea siding with the meat and dairy producers. Susan Twining said the focus should be on delivering the desired environmental result. Moving livestock off the land was not a solution, she said. “In Scotland, they are looking at the carbon footprint of animal production. We need to look both at the minimal impact on the environment and the best animal welfare,” she stressed.
Tom Brunt said livestock could be crucial to the bio-diversity of the countryside, some of which had been managed that way for hundreds of years. “If we suddenly take livestock out of the equation, it is not going to work,” he said. However, he agreed it was important to look at more efficient ways of producing meat.
National chairman of the CLA, Tim Breitmeyer, closed the conference, thanking everyone for taking part and giving his view of the challenges ahead: “There is no doubt the Pandora’s Box of change has been opened,” he said. “The opportunities are massive, but farmers must accept that change will come.”