Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The big issues - farming solution or problem?

History, policy and circumstance have governed British farming and arguably made us a pawn in other people’s games. Committing to long-term investment, direction and focus in farming is tricky given the short-term nature of policies, markets and contracts. But maybe our time is here and our time is now.

Britain’s perfect storm is brewing driven by budget deficit, extremes in social strata and an overworked national health service. Add to this the dilemmas of overpopulation, carbon footprints, energy, and water and food security and anyone could be forgiven for wanting to batten down the hatches.

These challenges seem a long way from the farm gate, but I reckon, as an industry we have the physical space, the resources and the skill set to deliver many potential solutions at a time when policy makers are desperate for ideas. I pose just some of ‘the signs’:
  1. Society: Brits are living longer, communities are fractured and, for many, access to green space activities is limited. Obesity, substance abuse, lifestyle and age-related conditions are a growing drain on the NHS.
  2. Water: Water shortages already impact beyond Britain’s occasional and familiar ‘hose-pipe bans’ i.e. East Anglian farmers lose £25m/year from dry conditions. The controversial and visionary 5,000 acre Thames Valley Reservoir planned for 2025 will be vital to the water security for the 8.5 million people living in the London/Thames Valley region.
  3. Energy: Nuclear power and renewables have remained the focus for the coalition government. Energy Minister Charles Hendry has stated that there is a need to “decarbonise society while securing our energy supplies” which will require “£200bn of new investment over the next 10-15 years”.  

Already others are seeing farming and farmland through ‘opportunity goggles’, including investors, government, carbon traders, biofuel producers and the food chain. But right now, it is them that are largely calling the shots, and not Britain’s farmers. How about we call them ourselves? If we play it right, collaborate, engage with the right agendas and invest soundly, the many diverse assets held by British Farming plc could deliver desperately needed solutions for society’s future.

Imagine the headlines in 2050:
  1. For sale: Award-winning Tranquil Farm™ Carbon neutral care home set in young woodland overlooking established lake; being sold in 4 lots with micro-farm for seasonal vegetable/fruit production including free-range poultry unit and packing/processing premises. Self-sufficient in energy and water.
  2. For Sale: Exceptionally high rainfall hill farm in North Wales with established water collection and distribution to Birmingham and the West Midlands
  3. Investment opportunity: biomass and composting farm with planning permission for small ‘hub’ community incorporating biomass CHP plant, school, health centre and 30 zero emission 1, 2 and 3-bedroom houses.
Or will we see:
  1. Family visit: EuroDisney Anglia FarmTheme Park – see how farming used to be in the UK
  2. Land wanted: Air freight business importing 60% of the UK’s meat, dairy and fresh foodstuffs seeks 10ha for expansion
It’s a big vision, but could the challenges that society faces provide an invaluable opportunity for British farming? Could we become an indispensible part of the fabric and future of our country? Or will we remain a pawn in someone else’s game?

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