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Without doubt, agriculture is a very successful and efficient sector.

We have a highly skilled workforce and a skilling strategy based on a combination of academic learning and a long-established tradition of passing knowledge and skills down through the generations. 
In terms of production efficiency, whilst we are self-sufficient in oats and barley and we produce around 90% of our wheat requirement, sadly only 50% of vegetables served on British plates are homegrown and the figure is even lower for fruit (less than 20%).
In addition, despite producing the equivalent volumes of meat, milk and eggs required by the nation, the UK is still a net importer of dairy and beef – reflecting the fact that we prefer to consume higher-value products and, export our lower-value produce. 
As any farmer will tell you, since 2010 our sector has faced some profound challenges – including climate change, multiple wars across the globe, COVID-19, escalating fuel and energy costs, high interest rates, a diminishing pool of seasonal workers and leaving the EU.
At the same time, the sector has had to be a ‘Janus’* as we are expected to:
  • Increase (food) productivity to meet consumers’/grocers’ demands for more and cheaper food
  • Help the Government meet its food security goals
  • Adhere to stringent price frameworks dictated by food retailers
We are also expected to take land out of production to:
  • Create environments which encourage greater biodiversity
  • Sell land for the development of new homes for our growing population
  • Accommodate renewable energy sites to support the national energy security strategy
 As a part-time farmer with a small holding, who is also a practising rural surveyor, I understand the huge dichotomy farmers face, as well as the opportunities which arise from non-food revenue generation.
Should we plant a crop in a field and therefore support the national food security strategy or opt instead to reallocate land to support the national biodiversity strategy – bearing in mind that once the land is no longer being (agriculturally) productive, it will probably be lost to other uses forever.
If farmers only cared about ‘revenue streams’ then the opportunities are huge - from green offset revenue opportunities to siting green energy technology on farmland.
In addition, the government has pledged to:
  • Fund up to 280 different actions which will protect the environment (such as conserving hedgerows and maintaining peatland) to the tune of £2.4bn – the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS).
  • Restore over 300,000 hectares of wildlife habitats across England by 2042 - roughly the size of Lancashire.
  • Spend between £700m - £800m a year on land recovery projects, by 2028.
 As a countryman, I applaud this aspiration, but will this administration be in power to hit its 2028 and 2042 targets?
As a farmer, I have two concerns; farmers are being incentivised to implement environmental improvement projects, rather than improving their food productivity and incentivised large-scale natural habitat creation schemes will be great for the poorer quality land, which is not economically viable.
However, we must strike a happy balance between food production and our national environmental ambitions - any reduction will inevitably threaten our national food security ambitions.
I have already mentioned the pressure on farmers to meet the demands for cheap food, however, is it not ironic that environmentally sensitive shoppers are happy to consume increasing quantities of foods such as:
  • Quinoa - even though it contributes to environmental degradation in countries like Bolivia, a major global provider of the grain
  • Avocados - sourced from Peru, Kenya, and several overseas countries where the trees require large amounts of valuable water to produce fruit
  • Cheaper meat imported from countries whose animal welfare standards fall well below those we have in this country.
Dare I mention the comparative green miles of importing food, or the contribution to species extinction caused by farmers operating in markets which are less regulated than the UK?
So, what can we farmers do if we choose to keep farming, rather than opt for diversifying into renewable energy, selling land for development, or adopting other non-food revenue generation strategies?
Perhaps we should consider:

Greater direct consumer engagement to help them understand that they are the power brokers who can help the environment and help our national food security ambitions. Programmes such as Clarkson’s Farm have proved very successful in terms of bringing our world and the issues we wrestle with, into consumers’ living rooms.

Looking for alternatives to the traditional food supply chain. For example:

  • Selling competitively priced quality food directly to consumers at the farmgate and via farm shops
  • Extending our direct consumer interaction by selling our produce at local markets, or Christmas and summer fairs
  • Influencing consumers’ decision-making by promoting seasonal foods and tapping into the general concern for ‘green miles’ and its impact on climate change
  • Raising awareness and demand for high-value beef versus homogenous supermarket products, by opting for the more traditional beef breeds ie Aberdeen Angus or Herefords which convert forage into meat, efficiently and without the need for processed concentrates
Vertical farming makes a powerful case for improving productivity as growing in a controlled environment is a perfect way to optimise plant growth.
Controlling the growing medium - for example opting for hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics, enhances quality control and return on investment. No mention of innovation in agriculture can ignore one of our most successful national champions - Yeo Valley Organic:
  • This £250m+ business is a brilliant example of a food producer who successfully branded a ‘commodity’, the agricultural equivalent of Intel, the semiconductor chip manufacturer, and used the power of its brand to strengthen its negotiating position with national and independent grocers, as well as create a very successful consumer brand.
  • Today, many online influencers recommend Yeo Valley’s Kefir - a fermented milk product, similar to yoghurt
  • The Yeo Valley story is one of a visionary Mary Mead, the head of the family-run business who is still part of the business. Her hard work and shrewd business acumen inspired all around her and resulted in a successful and sustainable business model.
But let us not forget what we are good at: producing high-value food, efficiently and responsibly.
As a result of generations of farmers working diligently and, usually away from the public eye, we now have a national landscape which everyone can enjoy and benefit from.
Farmers like the Staffordshire-based Mercer family are transparent about the fact that their farm business is all about “…people, profit, planet…”. Their website reveals that a “Triple Bottom Line’ philosophy, focusing not just on profitability but also on social and environmental factors."
To me, their clearly defined ‘mission’ is replicated multiple times across the nation. I feel compelled to repeat it here because I believe the clarity of their statement will help others define what they do and promote it to their ultimate customers. To quote their “values”:
  • Protecting our land
  • Respecting our animals
  • Increasing biodiversity
  • Supporting our communities
  • Improving our Climate
Despite the cost-of-living crisis, consumers care about the quality of their food and the efficacy of its sustainability credentials.
There will always be demand for our produce, but the issue is how can we control our destiny, rather than respond to the behest of others in the food chain - including consumers?
Find out more information about natural capital here.
*The Roman god who faced both ways at the same time.