Just in time

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pine­hurst II, Pine­hurst Road, Farn­bor­ough Busi­ness Park, Farn­bor­ough, Hamp­shire GU14 7BF Tele­phone 01252 555072 www.coun­trylife.co.uk

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

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