Technological advances in agricultural science, improving farm business management and ensuring effective knowledge transfer will make it possible to feed nine billion mouths by 2030 concluded the 2011 NIAB TAG North-East Outlook Conference ‘Enough On Our Plates’.
Ashley Clarkson, Senior Manager at chartered accountants Grant Thornton, had an optimistic view of the future for arable farmers, but believed that emerging market forces would be the catalyst to structural changes within the industry. “There is a growing need to know your production costs, from agronomy to tax payments, so that they can be managed according to market requirements,” he emphasised.
One of these emerging market forces in the north-east was overviewed by Finlay Calder from Glencore Grain UK. “The Ensus bio-ethanol plant in Teeside can utilise 3,000 tonnes of wheat each day, all procured from UK growers. This plant, and those constructed alongside the Humber, offer new opportunities for arable farmers.”
However, this was tempered by his thoughts that price rations demand. “Although the ethanol price has matched wheat this season it’s the market that rules supply and demand. Price volatility is a risk that needs to be managed both now and in the future,” said Mr Calder.
Dr Jason Beedell, Smiths Gore’s Head of Research, was given the unenviable task of crystal ball gazing into forthcoming CAP reforms. Immediately identified as a task similar to ‘keeping smoke in a sack’ due to ever-changing policy decisions, Dr Beedell made it clear that these reforms could be the most fundamental changes to agricultural policy since MacSharry in 1992. “CAP reform will be shaped by food security, environmental protection, climate change and public good and consequently will transform the current single farm payment system,” he said.
A range of measures to protect future payments was outlined and, despite inevitable policy changes between now and 2013, ‘fore-warned is fore-armed’ was Dr Beedell’s definitive take-home message.
Stagnating UK yields in a range of arable crops was the key concern of NIAB TAG’s Director of Crops and Agronomy Stuart Knight, in relation to a growing world population.
“Our challenge is to square the production circle by increasing output in a sustainable and efficient way,” said Mr Knight. “Technical innovation at all stages from research through to practice will be the key to success for UK arable producers. At NIAB TAG we are committed to addressing the issues through long-term research into rotations, soil care and farming systems, by guiding best practice within crop production and through investment into new initiatives like the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming.”
The importance of transferring scientific knowledge into practical advice and training was addressed by David Hugill, farmer and LANTRA Ambassador. He cited training projects organised by NIAB TAG and funded, via LANTRA, as great examples of innovative knowledge transfer. “Projects like Fantasy Farming and a recent study tour to Argentina have made a significant impact on the business development of the farmers involved and will continue to do so in the future,” said Mr Hugill.
NIAB TAG chief executive, Dr Tina Barsby explained that legislation allowing the cultivation of GM crops had been in place for more than a decade but progress was being held up by the EU political system.
“Although GM techniques have been safety-approved, EU politicians have voted against the use in most cases,” said Dr Barsby. “Therefore, no country within the EU will be permitted to grow these crops, unless this situation changes.
“In the UK, and parts of mainland Europe, farming has not been as severely affected by climate change and food shortages as other countries around the world. If you were faced with the prospect of going hungry, and GM crops offered you the chance of feeding your family, then the decision may be more clear cut.
“There are a number of misconceptions about GM,” she added. “But there is no doubt that they have the potential to increase farm profitability. They could also reduce growers’ reliance on conventional pesticides, lower the risk of resistance developing and have associated benefits for the environment.”
She cited US soybeans as an example of how GM varieties could produce an increase in profitability. Compared with conventional varieties, GM soybean had led to an increase in returns on farms where it was grown totalling $8.73 billion, with an average $43/ha rise in income. There had also been a 28.7% decrease in the environmental impact linked to herbicide use.
It was the role of NIAB TAG to evaluate the science behind GM crops, and remain neutral, she stated. “We cannot get involved in the debate, but we have a duty to consider consumer opinion and try to find ways of addressing the public’s concerns. One common worry is that the technology behind GM crops is in the hands of large, multi-national companies and we can go some way to addressing that issue, although there is still a long way to go before the concept gains popular acceptance,” said Dr Barsby.
For further information contact:
Stuart Knight, Director of Crops & Agronomy, NIAB TAG
T: 01223 342290
M: 07974 391722
E: stuart.knight [at] niab.com
Robert Harle, TAG Board Director
T: 0191 378 0417
E: robert_harle [at] hotmail.com
Ros Lloyd, FrontFoot Communications
M: 07711 568164
E: ros.lloyd [at] frontfoot.uk.com