Can industry deliver sustainable food production and improve the environment?

by Peter Crowe

Jack Ward, Chief Executive of the British Growers Association writes:


The Queen’s speech, delivered to the Houses of Parliament on 21 June 2017, wasted no time in setting out the Govt priorities for the new parliament. Headlining the to do list was a bill to repeal the European Communities Act and establishing new national policies on agriculture and fisheries.

In his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, the Secretary of State made clear that enhancing our natural capital would be at the heart of any future agricultural policy. Any surprises here? Not really. The CAP has long been criticised for its inability to prioritise the needs of the environment. Freed from the inhibitions of a Europe wide agricultural policy, the UK Govt has set to work on outlining its environmental ambitions for the next 25 years.

The current CAP spend in the UK is slightly north of €3bn of which 80% is consumed by the Basic Payment Scheme. The question everyone is wrestling with now is how might this sum be redistributed in a way which delivers the Government’s environmental goals. While it would be easy to assume that anything environmental would automatically take precedence, optimising sustainable food production emerges as an important theme. The challenge is how to balance what for some are regarded as conflicting objectives.

As we prepare for withdrawal from the EU and we reboot the national psyche and embrace our new-found sovereignty and self-determination, our thinking about how sustainable food production and enhancing natural capital co-exist will need to change too. Will this be such a massive task? Perhaps not. There are countless examples where leading growers have balanced the needs of the environment with voracious consumer demands for great value, high quality produce at competitive prices.

One of the biggest challenges we face as an industry is getting acceptance that delivering the list of measures which result in environmental enhancement comes at a cost. And those costs need to be properly funded and spread across the beneficiaries.  Another aspect where we need to be mindful is in the completion of new trade agreements particularly with countries with large exportable surpluses of food. There is a need to look holistically at our food economy to ensure that while UK production meets the test of sustainability, it is not undermined by the import of product grown under significant less demanding conditions.

Inevitably the words ‘devil and detail’ spring to mind but assuming there is consensus from producer to consumer around the needs of the environment, achieving the all-important balance between sustainable production and increased natural capital must be achievable.