Food production must go up by 40 per cent in 20 years

VERY cold but dry windy weather over the last few days has been sweeping away moisture, and even the clay is beginning to firm underfoot. We are told that this week will also be dry, and will begin to make a real difference, allowing us to dare think about the on-coming field operations, a bit of rolling here and there, a light application of fertilizer; some light applications of dirty water even.

The yards, drive, sheds and generally the whole farm seems so much cleaner and better when dry, especially as we had run around with the yard scraper, taking advantage of the last of the wet weather beforehand. The lawnmower is being serviced, which is my way of making sure Lorayne doesn’t cut the lawn too early, but a sure sign that spring is on its way.

Now that we have empty sheds following the reduction of the dairy herd, we are filling them up with young heifers which are now coming home, having been reared on contract this winter by a neighbouring farmer.

One of the benefits for the future will be to have all our heifers at home, which will minimise the amount of running around, feeding, bedding and carting straw to various places and then of course mucking out.

The plan for the future is to inseminate the heifers to a Holstein bull (easy calving of course), rather than running them with Aberdeen Angus bulls. This will increase the number of heifer calves for the herd, and will speed up genetic progress.

n Farming’s crucial role has been recognised publicly by the Foresight Report on ‘Global Food and Farming Futures’. This is a considered and well researched report by 300 experts from 35 countries, who are warning that food prices could increase by 50 per cent if measures are not taken to boost production. This column has discussed the challenge of feeding an increasing global population from diminishing resources whilst increasing bio-diversity regularly, and I am pleased to see this report stating categorically that food production must increase by 40 per cent in the next 20 years.

A summary of the report reads as follows:

o New technologies (such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology) should not be excluded a priori on ethical or moral grounds, though there is a need to respect the views of people who take a contrary view.

o More food must be produced sustainably through the spread and implementation of existing knowledge, technology and best practice, and by investment in new science and innovation and the social infrastructure that enables food producers to benefit from all of these.

o Demand for the most resource-intensive types of food must be contained.

o Waste in all areas of the food system must be minimised.

o The political and economic governance of the food system must be improved to increase food system productivity and sustainability.

o Key priorities for action for policy makers include ‘Promote sustainable intensification.’

o It follows that if: (i) there is relatively little new land for agriculture; (ii) more food needs to be produced; and (iii) achieving sustainability is critical, then sustainable intensification is a priority. Sustainable intensification means simultaneously raising yields, increasing the efficiency with which inputs are used, and reducing the negative environmental effects of food production.

It requires economic and social changes to recognise the multiple outputs required of land managers, farmers and other food producers, and a redirection of research to address a more complex set of goals than just increasing yield.

The consequences of plentiful, cheap food (following the incredible success of agriculture productivity following the 1947 Agriculture Act), is over regulation, lack of knowledge and common sense, and the recent attitude towards food, insisting on incredibly high standards whilst taking it for granted.

This highly regulated approach, coupled with poor attitude has lead to 30 pe cent of all food from farm to plate being wasted. Waste on farm, waste in the processing sector, massive waste in retail, but the biggest waste of all; in the home. Halving this level of waste would, according to the report, be equivalent to increasing production by 25 per cent.

Sustainability and common sense demand that this obscene spectacle is brought to a swift end, and would give us a starting point for a measured response to the challenge ahead. It is not surprising, that when on average consumers pay less than 10 per cent of their disposal income on food, that it is treated in this way, but the overall decline in food prices over the last 50 years is now reversing, and according to this report, the price ‘spike’ of 2007/08 a ‘moderate’ increase, compared to those predicted in the future.

n With the predicted loss of productive land over the next 40 years, due to salinity, lack of water, and increased frequency of extreme weather events, to produce more food globally does pass on great responsibility to countries which can increase production to do so. This report also puts to bed the argument once and for all, the fallacy that organic production can feed the world. It is an important and valuable niche, which should be carefully looked after, and should be there for those who wish to buy and can afford organic food.

However, most people cannot afford organic premiums, which need to be paid in order to cover the vastly higher production costs, and should the last tree in the world be felled in order to increase production from increased land area, the challenge would not be met by a long way.

Interestingly, the report sees subsidies (such as the Common Agricultural Policy) as a trade barrier to meeting the challenge, due to them being ‘disincentives to efficient global food production.

This has a ring of truth to it, and whilst many countries in the world subsidise their agriculture production in different ways in order to keep control (food production has been far too political since the Old Testament to leave it to the free market) it is true to say that things have changed significantly in recent years.

Long gone are the ‘deficiency payments’ of the 1960’s, which compensated farmers by bridging the gap between production costs and market value; today ‘direct payments’ are there to primarily keep farmers in business in increasingly volatile markets, during times of extremely low prices, but also to ensure that agricultural land and animals in Europe, are farmed and managed to the ambitious standards demanded by the taxpayer; enforced by compulsion, with deductions for default.

The Common Agricultural Policy is always under fire in the press, with politicians kicking it around like a well worn football.

It is though a mechanism that ensures food security, high standards of animal welfare, preservation of the natural landscape, and also exported standards of animal welfare, food hygiene, and environmental management to those non EU countries that wish to sell their food into the European Union. This represents good value to the taxpayer at 23p per person per day?