Roger Kerr – Aligning the latest agri-tech and cutting edge ecological innovation: Shaping the future of UK farm policy

Date Published: 19/04/2018

As Defra consults on the future of UK food and farming outside the European Union, OF&G — together with other leading organic organisations — is urging government to recognise the opportunities organic offers to deliver a green Brexit.

As part of building our own response to the consultation, OF&G is asking leaders in food and farming about what the next steps should be to ensure the country’s environment and economy are properly protected, and that our farmers have the support they need to produce safe, quality and nutritious food.

In this blog post, Roger Kerr, chief executive of OF&G explains how organic farming delivers the public goods Government are looking for, and how there’s a need for a fundamental change in farming policy.

Roger Kerr, chief executive, OF&G

Michael Gove suggests public money should support the delivery of public goods. What do you see as public goods?

There are a number of public goods specific to farming in the UK. These range from things like agricultural landscapes, air quality, rural vitality, food security and climate stability to farmland biodiversity and the protection of pollinators, water quality and availability, soil functionality, resilience to flooding and farm animal welfare and health

These public goods are interrelated and all equally important. Prioritising one over another (or leaving one or more out of the equation) is counter-productive.

Saying that we should support food security without addressing other key elements such as soil functionality, or water availability and quality, or climate stability is clearly misunderstanding the challenge and over simplifying the possible solutions.

Public goods are defined by economists by whether you and I can both enjoy them (non-excludability) and that if you use it, it doesn’t mean there is less for me (non-rivalrous). High biological diversity is a public good. I can enjoy it and that doesn’t limit your enjoyment.

However, where the system fails, for example with the decline in biodiversity, the problems this causes are unavoidable. I can’t avoid suffering from low biodiversity, so it is essentially ‘includable’. It is also ‘rivalrous’, in that if someone farms in such a way that biodiversity is reduced, there will be less biodiversity for everyone.

So we need to support farming practices that deliver multiple public goods in a way that provides them simultaneously and whilst establishing policy that deters aspects that negatively impact on them. Organic production does this effectively.

If you were Michael Gove, what would your priorities be delivering a fairer, more environmentally sustainable food and farming system?

If I were Michael Gove I would want a fundamental change in food and farming such that it supports the protection of natural resources, has a positive impact on the environment for future generations, reduces waste, limits climate change, provides food of high nutritional quality, and protects the health and welfare of animals.

One option to help achieve this would be to enable the growth in organic production. Organic starts with protecting the soil. All life depends on it after all.

As Franklin D Roosevelt said over 70 years ago, when promoting the first measures in the world to protect soil, “The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” He understood the value of soil and the importance of protecting it both for our economy and for society as a whole.

There are new food production approaches but land-based food production systems must begin with best soil health and management at their very core.

It is the focus on soil health that is in part why organic farmers prohibit artificial agrochemicals and fertilisers. Where farms don’t use artificial fertilisers and agrochemicals, however, they may have lower yields (though not always significantly lower), effectively internalising the delivery of public goods so they have a significantly smaller impact on the land they occupy and its surroundings.

These farming practices are knowledge intensive, and often it is the lack of research and the widespread uptake of the knowledge that is responsible for a farm’s reduced yields. It is important to recognise however that yields are only part of an overall measure of productivity.

It is critical therefore that research into ecological farming systems is better supported as increasing knowledge will be key to providing resilient food production leading to high levels of productivity and efficiency.

For example, organic farms generally develop a healthier soil that among other things can retain more water thus requiring less irrigation and so being more drought tolerant and better for reducing the risk of flooding. This could be vital as the earth continues to warm and water available for irrigation becomes more scarce and storm events more frequent.

Aside from environmental considerations it is also critical that farmed animals are reared in a way that promotes naturally healthy animals. Access to the outside should be a required standard to provide the opportunity for animals to readily exhibit their natural behaviours.

Taken together, these have profound implications that directly influence the delivery of the food system and environmental public goods.

What’s your vision for food and farming in the next 20 years?

In twenty years there will be complimentary alignment between the latest agri-tech and cutting edge ecological innovation. This will lead to the virtual elimination of artificial fertilisers (with their significant climate impacts) and artificial pesticides, herbicides and insecticides with the resultant improvement in soil health and water quality.

The quality of food and our diets will be assessed on nutrient density and the balance of health-giving qualities, such that it is able to supply optimal nutrition and thus ensure a healthy population, reversing the trend of increasing diet-related ill health. Food waste would be eliminated. Consumption of intensively reared animal products will have declined significantly.

There will be clear provenance on all products back to the producer giving consumers direct contact with the primary producer and visa versa, wherever in the world the food is produced.

I believe there will be a coming together of ecological farming systems with agri-tech approaches with organic farming at the forefront of the ecological farming revolution.

The reason for my optimism is because of the simultaneous multi-functional benefits that ecological techniques deliver and that we so urgently need to make our food system truly sustainable and fit for the future.

Food and farming policy must be recalibrated so that takes into account the planetary boundaries of our ecosystem whilst recognising the needs for an equitable, healthy and resilient food system for everyone.

 

– OF&G is publishing a series of interviews with leading figures in food and farming to find out how we can protect our environment and produce good food post-Brexit. To read more in the series, follow the OF&G blog here.