The countryside is changing and an essential question is rising up the rural agenda – how can we produce more food for a growing population but use less land for agriculture?
As well as the nation’s domestic food supply, we need more renewable energy, more homes and more forestry. Climate change must be tackled, habitats created for wildlife and flood risk managed. All of these ambitions require the use of land, yet we are a small island with a finite land resource.
Meeting these needs without sacrificing food production is a hard test for the countryside but we must succeed. Food and farming is the core of our rural communities and rural economy, creating jobs for retailers, scientists, engineers, transport businesses and vets as well as the 400,000-people working on farms. Eating food produced in the UK cuts our carbon footprint, there are health benefits of eating local food in season, and our farmers hold some of the highest standards in the world on animal welfare, farm safety and environmental sustainability.
And crucially, if you take away British farming, you take away those caring for the land, protecting the environment and maintaining our nation’s iconic landscapes. So how can we ensure a profitable and sustainable future for food and farming alongside all the other important demands on the countryside?
Technology and scientific advances allow us to farm in new ways, to examine closely field-by-field where our land is and is not productive, to use chemicals more efficiently and manage breeding and welfare better than ever before. We can invest more in skills and training, crucial as we move to a more high-tech and market-focussed industry. Some of us have opportunities to make better use of the land we farm and resources by working more closely with our neighbours and customers. We can focus on formal business planning and bring in the next generation for new ideas and a fresh approach.
This is a logical time for farmers and landowners to take a step back and look at how and why we farm, whether we need to farm differently, or whether we should use parts of our land for other purposes. We are up for the challenge but we need Government to play its part too.
Exiting the Common Agricultural Policy is an opportunity for Government to direct more investment into making farming more productive and profitable. It is also a chance to transform the business opportunities for farmers and landowners to derive a fair income for vital work that benefits the public, from addressing climate change and encouraging biodiversity to managing the landscape. The crux of this should be the creation of new Land Management Contracts for a genuine cost-effective partnership between farmers and society that puts high quality food on our tables and protects our environment.
There is no doubt that farming – and the countryside with it – is entering an era of defining change. Not only must we prepare for the challenges but also ensure we are ready to grasp the opportunities for a more productive, responsible and sustainable future.