My father started farming at Riverford in 1951 with a clarity of purpose I envy today.
Food rationing was still in place and, with memories still fresh of U-boats coming close to starving Britain into submission, farming was an obvious choice for those emerging from the war wanting to contribute positively and “be useful” in a post-colonial era.
As food rationing ended in 1954, the emphasis on home production continued, driven first by the need to conserve foreign exchange (the war left us broke) and later by the politically driven policies of the European Economic Community (EEC). Food self-sufficiency peaked at 78 per cent in 1984; the highest since British agriculture’s golden age in the mid-19th century, and, given our increased population and consumption of meat, an incredible achievement.
With a rise of neoliberal market fundamentalism and protestations from US and World Trade Organization over the dumping of EU surpluses on world markets, subsidies and interventions have been progressively removed through my farming career as farmers were left to go the way of miners, ship builders and steel workers.
UK food self sufficiency now stands at 64 per cent, (a paltry 18 per cent for fruit and 55 per cent for veg) but the price farmers receive has never been cheaper in real terms. With farming now contributing so little to wealth (0.7 per cent of GDP) but so much to environmental degradation (by most measures, about a third), I, like many farmers, feel confused by my role; sometimes guilty, sometimes angry and misunderstood, but mostly just confused and frustrated. As we flounder in the dark of a policy vacuum, I envy the clarity and optimism of my father’s farming era.
We must learn to farm for carbon, biodiversity and food in the same space, with differing local emphasis according to land quality and ecological sensitivity. Our farming must embrace complexity and locally specific mixed farming practices, rewilding of small areas connected in corridors, more perennial crops (mostly trees) and less soil disturbance. Robots, technology and, on rare occasion, vertical farming may play a part, as will greater ecological understanding and more plant-based, seasonal diets.
Market forces or even carbon trading are too clumsy to guide such multifaceted outcomes. We need brave policies delegated to local bodies to enforce. It won’t be easy but it is doable, urgently needed and could be beautiful.