Yes, the last few days have been all in a week’s work for any grower: rubbing shoulders with researchers, food policy makers and big-hitting business managers; meeting HRH the Prince of Wales; trying to influence food policy. It certainly breaks up the monotony of weeding season anyway! Over the last couple of days I’ve been privileged to listen to great talks and been involved in intense discussions on food production sustainabiity challenges and solutions. Prof Tim Benton looked at food security and sustainable intensification – points I really took in include the following: the average environmental cost of conventional agriculture is £331.61 per person per ha (health, biodiversity, GHGs, water cleaning etc); Jevon’s Paradox suggests that simply producing more can increase the problems that extra production was meant to solve; so what is agriculture for anyway? Is it to improve the economy, or public health? There are vast costs associated with getting health wrong: the cost of obesity is an estimated £2,500 per household in this country. Not to mention environmental pressures and costs, when we’re on course for an average temperature increase of 4C by 2100 – which is almost unimaginable.
Prof Tim Lang spoke on diet, food quality and public health – how 12 out of 19 of the causes of premature deaths are food-related; how the wealth-gap impinges on health, so that 25% of children in deprived areas are obese, compared with 12% of wealthy areas (didn’t it use to be the case that only rich people could afford to be fat? This suggests some serious economic and cultural issues, despite Boris Johnson suggesting that “it’s their own fat fault”). It’s also always shocking to hear how poorly paid ‘real’ food producers are (eg when I look at my own bank balance); but of the £169 billion spent on food in the UK last year, £9.2 billion went to farmers and growers, compared to £27.7 billion to retailers, £21.4 billion to manufacturers, £26.7 billion to caterers, and £9.6 billion to wholesalers. The point was made later than in this long food chain, who is it that carries most of the risk of producing the food? – Yes, the farmer and grower.
Further discussion took place over farm walks at Eastbrook Farm, and Duchy Home Farm too (with a reception with HRH sandwiched in between – the Prince was very charming and seemed genuinely interested in our farms and enterprises, and very knowledgable and involved too); and we carried on those discussions today at Elm Farm in Newbury. The session on new technology was especially interesting, looking at how robotics, lasers, and small ultra-lightweight ‘tractors’ can aid precision farming – how to remove the constraints that the machines impose themselves on systems, so the constraints only come from uncontrollable factors such as the weather.
I expected that my talk on small or micro-scale businesses might be glossed over or indulged until the real issues affecting large scale farms came up, but was pleasantly surprised when everyone seemed to agree that we need a range of farm sizes, and should encourage more small farms and comunity enterprises. Woohoo! Quite right to of course, since small plots and market gardens like mine encourage biodiversity; crops are picked fresh to order to have a high nutrient value; harbour a range of skills and varieties; are likely to have labour-intensive systems so provide jobs and have a lower CO2 footprint; are flexible because of their size, so can respone to climatic or economic perturbations quickly; are very productive and efficient per m2; are a good entrance point for new growers and farmers; are an easily understandable model that local commuities and other memembers of the public can understand and engage with. And not a hobby, despite what the DEFRA re-classification for CAP suggests!
So anyway, hurrah for the Farm School, thanks for having me; and back to the thistles next week.