Mending a broken system and making informed decisions

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Conference highlights how industry can play its part in future food supply.

FOOD in today's society, and the ability to produce nutritious, sustainable and affordable produce, was the focus of The South of England Agricultural Society's annual Farming Conference at the South of England showground recently.

The event, which attracted almost 250 landowners, agriculturalists, and industry representatives from across South East England attending in person, and a further 100+ streaming online, was one of the most popular held in recent years. 

Introduced by Society Chairman Charles Burgoyne and chaired by BBC Farming Today presenter Charlotte Smith, this year’s panel included Judith Batchelar, Ex Brand Director of Sainsbury’s, Tom Gribble, Local Arable/Dairy Farmer and Trustee of the Society, and Henry Dimbleby, Co-Founder of Leon Restaurants and author of the National Food Strategy.

Judith was the first speaker to take the podium. She explained how we are part of a broken global food system and, no matter which lens we look at it through - water, food waste, plastic in our oceans, or that people are hungry - there are things we [government and the industry as a whole] must do to transform it. She highlighted three key challenges: there are no harmonised reporting standards; what the world should be eating, isn’t what we’re producing; and cyclical cost changes and challenges.

Judith stressed that the first thing that needs to change is how we look at business cases - how connected business cases (total impact, full business value, systems’ thinking) can help us make informed decisions on where we can direct our investments for maximum impact. Furthermore, we need to find a way for the agricultural sector to retrofit what it does, using multidisciplinary technology and create enabling environments where policies can thrive. 

Judith concluded that we need to take a more targeted and tailored approach to characterising the attributes of a community. She highlighted that there are whole new datasets that can identify people like never before. Alongside this, she stressed how we must consider the role of ‘nature connectedness’ – the environment in health benefits/physiology of connecting and being around nature.

Next, fourth-generation farmer, Tom took to the stage to answer the question ‘what is the role of farmers, and can they step up to meet the challenges of food production?’. His speech focused on how people (the farmers on the ground and their trusted network of experts, students, and policymakers), the environment (nature, natural capital, biodiversity net gain, net zero, and carbon capture), and food (genomics, regenerative agriculture, integrated pest management, data, energy, robotics, gene editing, infrastructure, abattoirs, grain handling, feed mills, sustainable farming incentive, ELMS, and grants)  are all inextricably linked.

Tom stressed how farmers, if given the tools available, alongside their vast range of skills, intelligence, aptitude, and resilience, can produce foods that can not only protect the environment but also enhance it. He concluded by stating that what’s needed is a framework and a leadership from the government that they can trust - one that is not going to be changed on a whim and will be managed logically and practically. And, while it might not sit comfortably with everyone, it’s the farmers on the ground that are at the forefront of food and nature. They must use all the tools available, alongside their versatility, to meet the challenges of food production. 

Henry Dimbleby then presented his thoughts and stated that while now might be a grim time to be a farmer, we should still celebrate the food system we have today – calling it “a miracle”. However, he stressed that the problems and the disasters we are currently facing are a result of the work that farmers have done around the globe since the turn of the century. Explaining, that over the history of human endeavour, whenever we wanted to grow our population, we dug up the land to grow more food. 

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Henry’s presentation drew attention to the fact that we now produce 1.7 times the number of calories required globally for everyone on this planet (8 billion) on a considerably small patch of land. And, while this may be one of the great success stories in human history, there are unintended consequences. One of those is the sheer scale of human success - at any point in time, the food that we grow, and the livestock that we keep to feed us, weigh twice as much as the population and almost 20 times as much as all of the wild animals in the world! 

He explained that the agricultural system is by far the biggest cause of biodiversity destruction, and the food system is the biggest cause of deforestation and clearing of aquatic life from our oceans. It’s also the biggest cause of the freshwater shortage and freshwater pollution. With energy, it is the second-biggest cause of climate change. Henry stressed that the agricultural system risks being the thing that destroys itself. 

His opinion on the solution was that we need to shift from producing cheap, high-yielding food to creating enough food while sequestering carbon and restoring nature (natural capital and biodiversity). We need to use land that is suitable for biodiversity restoration and carbon sequestration, in areas where it won’t devastate calorie production. We should implement a range of different farming techniques, relook at the land strategy, and get the incentives, models, and guidance right. He said that it is completely unfair that the farmers are criticised for the damage that the food system does - they are stuck, and they can’t farm how they want to. 

Henry concluded that, if farmers succeed in creating the transition, with all the dialogue going on above their heads from the government, they will, for the second time in our lifetime, have saved our species. 

Following the talks, the panel received a series of questions and debated the topic. During the evening Elizabeth Buchanan, 2022’s President of the South of England Agricultural Society, was also awarded the prestigious Royal Smithfield Club Bicentenary Trophy. This was in recognition of how she devotes her time to fight tooth and nail for British agriculture in so many different ways, including in her role as Trustee for the Society’s charity of the year, The Prince's Countryside Fund.

After thanking the audience for their participation, she ended the evening with a message of hope, commenting:

“We are going through a massive shift in how we farm. These are alarming days, not just because government policy isn’t yet certain, but because of many other challenges too – climate change, diseases, rising input costs, trade deals, the monetising of carbon and biodiversity, and much more. For many people, it is bewildering and frightening - this is particularly so for small-scale family farmers. And they matter so much. We must ensure their essential contribution to growing food and enhancing nature is properly recognised. They must have a key part in any fair, inclusive, and just transition to the sustainable future we all want to see. If we lose them, we lose something of incalculable value that we cannot magic back once we realise what we have lost. The impact on culture, land management, and landscape would be irreversible.

“Do we have to change? You bet we do. It wasn’t that long ago that nature was thriving while we farmed. We have made some cataclysmic mistakes, but mainly because it is what we were told to do! Now we know better, and we are learning all the time, not least how to increase yields without destroying the soil on which we all depend. It is why I am so proud of the work of The Prince’s Countryside Fund of which I am a trustee and which the Society has so generously supported this year. Helping farmers through this transition is what we are all about. We are giving farmers the tools and confidence to meet the rapid change to the sort of farming system our planet demands. Importantly, the work of the Fund also gives hope.

“I do believe there are huge opportunities to be had if we can simply get ourselves from here to there. And that isn’t going to be easy. So, each of us must look out for those who are struggling, who need a helping hand, or a friendly ear. Each of us must speak up for what we believe in, for our community, and for our friends. And we need to find common ground wherever we can with all those who have an interest in the future of farming, food, and the environment. Together, I pray we can all thrive by creating a world in which we produce the highest quality food for which we are properly paid, which is accessible to everyone, where the care of animals is paramount and our natural world is abundant and healthy. This must not be a dream, but an ambition. Thank you to our four terrific speakers for leading the way to help us find that future.”

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