UK: Farming for the next generation

Secretary of State Michael Gove set out his vision on the future of the British farming industry in a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference 2018.

"For anyone wondering what the focus of this year’s Oxford Farming Conference might be, it was The Archers provided an answer just before Christmas.

Brian Aldridge asked his step-son, Adam, whether he might be attending the conference. Adam replied wearily. ‘I think I’ll give it a miss this year. It’s probably going to be all about Brexit. I get enough of that at home.’

I know how he feels.

I suspect everyone in this room knows how he feels.

And, of course, I’ll say something in a moment about the specific opportunities and challenges for agriculture on leaving the European Union.

But if we’re going to make the most of those opportunities and overcome those challenges it’s critical that we recognise that there is much, much, more that is changing in our world than our relationship with the EU.

As we saw in the presentation at the beginning of this session, the world’s population is growing at an unprecedented rate, with a worldwide migration from rural areas to cities and a growth in the global middle class which is driving demand for more, and better quality, food.

Technological change is at an inflection point. Developments in big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning mean that processes which would have required the intellect and effort of thousands of humans over many hours in the past can be accomplished automatically by digital means in seconds.

These technological breakthroughs raise political and moral questions as we consider how we deal with the transformation of a huge range of existing jobs. And alongside these changes in the world of information technology there are bio-tech changes coming which also challenge us to think about the future, and how best to shape it. Gene editing technology could help us to remove vulnerabilities to illness, develop higher yielding crops or more valuable livestock, indeed potentially even allow mankind to conquer the diseases to which we are vulnerable.

Food in abundance, improved health, greater longevity: these are all goals to which our species has aspired since the first farmers waited for the first harvest. But in attempting to shape evolution more profoundly than any plant or animal breeder ever has done before are we biting off much more than we can chew? And these are not the only changes coming. Our global environment is affected as never before by the population growth I’ve referred to, and the consequent growth in demand for nutritious food, safe drinking water, comfortable housing, reliable energy and new consumer goods.

The growth in trade which will meet those needs will depend on more packaging, more journeys by air, land and sea, more logistics hubs and more work by designers, marketers and, yes, regulators.

The pressures placed on our global environment by this growth I’ve sketched briefly out will be formidable – whether it’s greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere contributing to global warming, desertification and soil erosion reducing the space for cultivation, deforestation leading to the disappearance of valuable carbon sinks and precious habitats, air pollution from traditional industry and intensive agriculture adding to health costs, waste poisoning our oceans or iconic landscapes under threat from the need for further development.

Without action we face the progressive loss of the natural capital on which all growth - natural, human and economic - ultimately depends.

So the imperative to husband, indeed wherever possible, enhance our natural capital - safeguarding our oceans, cleaning our rivers, keeping our soils fertile, protecting biodiversity - has to be at the heart of any plan for our country and our world.

Because we cannot expect to live prosperous and civilised lives in the future unless we recognise that we have to care for that which gives us all life - our planet.

And that knowledge is itself a catalyst for further change. The need to protect our planet better is already accelerating innovation- with entrepreneurs exploring how to develop autonomous electric vehicles, how to change the energy mix we all rely on, how to reduce our reliance on plastics, how to derive more protein from plants rather than animals, how to grow produce, whether hydroponically or by other means, which leaves a lighter imprint on the earth, how to use distributed ledger technology to protect habitats and so much more.

So the reality of our times is not just change as the only constant but accelerating change as the new normal. Which is why the title of this conference - Embracing Change - is so appropriate.

Because the changes which are shaping all our futures are so historically significant, technologically revolutionary and economically transformative that we have no choice but to embrace them and try to shape them in a progressive and judicious way."

Read the full speech here.

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