Just in time
Twenty years ago, anyone who suggested that Britain should preserve its agricultural land as a matter of national policy, in case we needed to feed ourselves, faced derision from the political establishment. Dig for Victory seemed far distant; farmers were encouraged to diversify into golf courses and tourism.
Unless poor countries could sell their produce into rich markets such as the UK, claimed Gordon Brown, they would never develop. Food security? It belonged to the past. Occasional bad global harvests were successfully overlooked—the food riots that ensued were in Haiti and other struggling societies.
Brexit, however, has brought the issue home. we import 40% of what we eat; even a temporary disruption of the carefully calibrated system by which food is distributed to shops could have severe consequences for a largely urban population.
For decades, food production has been short-changed by the metropolitan media (Town & Country, page 20). Specialist agriculture correspondents have disappeared. weekend supplements are full of recipes, but food writers and celebrity chefs aren’t generally concerned with mainstream farming. Brexit has required rapid homework.
Defra, previously regarded as one of the least exciting government departments, is now at the heart of the debate, responsible for a dynamic area of policy; business as usual is not an option. As Defra Secretary Michael Gove made clear to the Oxford Farming Conference last week, this comes at a time when the industry itself is on the threshold of dramatic change.
Productivity will be transformed by the use of artificial intelligence, drones and robotic tractors, which he suggests will reduce the need for manual labour. Inputs will be applied more precisely; less carbon, nitrogen and water will be required to maximise growth. Vertical farming will reduce land use. the eu has been hesitant, if not Luddite, about genetic technologies, but gene-editing has the ‘ability to give Mother nature a helping hand by driving the process of evolution at higher speed’ and British science is at the cutting edge.
the result, says Mr Gove, will be a fourth Agricultural Revolution. A necessary concomitant, however, will be a refocusing on basic elements such as the soil, the depletion of which began after the Second world war (the last Agricultural Revolution). Carbon reduction is one of many public goods that should be paid for and officials are scratching their heads as to how that should be calculated.
Bold thinking is needed to facilitate the new age. Food imports may, as they did 20 years ago, look cheap, but when beef and soya are being produced on swathes of land that have been cleared from rainforest, the true price has become unacceptable.
The result, says Mr Gove, will be a fourth Agricultural Revolution