Edith Mary Gayton was an agricultural graduate of the University of Reading in the 1930s. Little is known of her later career and life but, in his will, her husband made a bequest to Reading in her memory, stipulating that the funds should be used in the field of agriculture and management.
One result was the initiation of the annual Edith Mary Gayton Memorial Lecture, given this year by Simon Pearson, Professor of Agri-Food Technology at the University of Lincoln. Simon completed his PhD at Reading then worked for Marks and Spencer and as chief executive of a large UK farming company before taking up his post at Lincoln. Under the title ‘The role of agri-technology in future farming systems’, he spoke of depression and despair at the current situation of climate change, a degraded environment and deteriorating human health. But, not surprisingly, he expressed the opinion that agri-technology can be part of the answer and bring hope.
The challenges we face this year are extreme, the UK leaving the EU and setting its own farming policy, our response to climate change at the COP26 summit to be held in Glasgow in November and measures to halt the decline in wildlife species. How we tackle these issues and harness digital technologies and what he described as disruptive innovation will set the tone for decades to come.
Working in Lincolnshire, his prime focus is on arable crops, particularly fruit and vegetables. Robotics is helping to automate much of the work but there is still a reliance on unskilled labour, mostly immigrant. One of the unintended consequences of the Government’s immigration policy is to create a great labour shortage which may have a devastating impact. The country’s largest organic producer has warned that he cannot continue if he cannot recruit people to harvest his crops and that this year will be the crunch point. If the worst happens, he will turn his entire farm over to carbon farming and the UK will have to import broccoli from countries like Holland picked by the very same migrant workforce.
Carbon farming is an interesting concept and one that is increasing in prominence. As Government financial support for farming is phased out, farmers will look more to the private sector and grow crops that sequester carbon, receiving money from large companies, particularly in the oil and chemical sector, as part of their ‘carbon offsetting’. This may come under the commitment to plant huge numbers of trees but, more interestingly, may involve regenerative crops such as legumes that will enhance soil health and fertility. Something similar is already happening for water quality with water companies paying farmers for better management of water resources. Farmers in the US can receive $20 an acre for carbon farming.
Resilience to climate change is another challenge. There have been four major floods in Lincolnshire in the past year, each described as a once in a hundred years event! The Environmental Land Management Scheme to be rolled out in 2024 will include measures to improve the management of water resources but details are unknown at this stage.
The collection and sharing of data has become much easier with huge improvements in technology. This provides an opportunity, particularly to streamline the food supply chain, but also a risk as any system can be hacked. Benchmarking is an important tool for farmers, to learn how others achieve better productivity, and this should develop rapidly.
It is clear that many farmers distrust Government policy as it is usually too slow and cumbersome to achieve its goals and frequently has unintended consequences. As we leave the straightjacket of the CAP, many are turning to innovation and diversification to improve profitability. Policy is often driven by public perception, Government reacting to the pressure of campaigns. This is extremely frustrating, especially when based on prejudice and emotion rather than scientific evidence.
A good example is public antipathy to gene editing. I shall never forget the inspirational talk given by Mark Lynas at the Oxford Farming Conferences years ago. A campaigner for action on climate change he despaired of those who express a strong opinion without understanding the scientific evidence. He then realised that was his position on genetic modification, he was strongly opposed without studying the science. When he looked at the evidence, he turned from an opponent to a proponent.
Something similar is happening now with the whole animal or vegetable protein debate. Farm animals are blamed for many of our problems, especially global warming and yet there is strong evidence that livestock systems are beneficial for soil health and a balanced ecosystem. A good diet containing animal protein is also beneficial for human health.
There is no doubt that we are at a tipping point for many of these issues, made the more critical by our secession from the EU and the need to create our own policies. Farming systems, climate change, wildlife in the environment and human health are all interlinked and the decisions we take today will have a massive impact upon our future.