Opinion: Peter Kendall
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) President Peter Kendall comments on the role of research in securing a vibrant and productive future for agriculture in the UK and around the world.
It is very encouraging to see the amount of coverage and the positive and unequivocal statements by leading opinion formers and policy makers about the importance of science and research for agriculture. It seems that every meeting, speech and report about food security makes reference to it, and agricultural scientists are seen as essential contributors to the debate.
There is also recognition that agricultural R&D has suffered in recent decades, and there are worrying skills shortages, and that this compromises our ability to deliver everything that is being demanded of us in the 21st Century.
Farmers are very much aware of their responsibilities, to produce efficiently for the market, to seek new opportunities, to manage their environmental footprint and to ensure British farming has a viable future. This will not be possible if the only goal for public funding of research is seen to be mitigating the environmental impacts of agriculture and horticulture regardless of the impact on productivity. There is a balance to be struck here, and it is clear to me that smart solutions, based on science, are what will achieve this balance.
Why science matters for farming
All this confirms the messages in our campaign, Why Science Matters for Farming, and gives me hope that the situation can be turned round. I firmly believe that it is science and, most importantly, its application on the ground, which is needed to provide the solutions to the huge challenges we face as a nation and globally. Climate change is a reality. It is something we will have to live with and adapt to, as well as play our part in mitigating. But it will affect parts of the world in different ways, and it is irresponsible to ignore the fact that Northern Europe is relatively well placed. And not just in terms of water and temperature.
Historically, the UK has a first class science community, technical knowledge and farmers and growers who can rise to the challenge. In this context, it is not acceptable for the UK to focus on how to ensure it can import everything it needs. We should be working hard now to be part of the solution to ‘feeding the nine billion’. As a practical farmer, I can see the impact of past research and present application of science every day on my farm. The crop varieties, fertilisers and sprays, the GPS on my tractors, the decision-making tools and management practices all enable me to be more efficient in my use of land, to increase yield and quality without increasing my environmental footprint.
New approach to research funding needed
So now that the right words are being said, we need urgent action to back them up. Clearly the current economic circumstances are difficult, but the challenges of producing enough to feed the world population and enable it to develop are so much bigger. Everyone now accepts that the agricultural research pipeline is not functioning, so let’s get on and mend it. Part of this must be a new model for collaboration between public and private sectors in funding research, and a concerted effort to attract the next generation of agricultural scientists to this vital and exciting field.
Peter Kendall farms 620 hectares of combinable crops in East Bedfordshire in partnership with his brother Richard. He holds a degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Nottingham.
Peter was Chairman of NFU Cereals in 2003 before becoming Deputy President in 2004, and President in 2006. He is also a Vice-President of the European farm organisation COPA, and sits on a variety of bodies in the UK and Europe including IGD’s Policy Issues Group.
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Comment by Nigel Winter, CEO The Vegan Society
National Farmers' Union (NFU) President Peter Kendall highlights the need for sustainable agriculture, in the UK and around the world. As he implies, the UN forecast 9 billion humans worldwide by 2050. Mr Kendall emphasises that farmers are 'very much aware' of their responsibilities due to the converging population, climate and skills crises. He also notes that Northern Europe is 'relatively well placed' in terms of water and temperature, and states that 'it is not acceptable for the UK to focus on how to ensure it can import everything it needs'.
The Vegan Society agree with Peter Kendall that we in the UK "should be working hard now to be part of the solution to 'feeding the 9 billion'". If we are to feed more people and reduce the global warming impact of agriculture a critical step is to reduce our consumption of animal products. In the UK, vegan diets require only about one third of the water and land needed to produce meat-based diets.
DEFRA estimates that in terms of calorific requirements, UK agricultural land could produce more than enough food from arable production for the entire population.
This necessary shift towards plant-based diets will have a side effect that less animal manure will be available as a fertiliser. Simply replacing this with synthetic fertilisers would not be an ideal solution. This is due to high energy consumption in manufacture for nitrogen fertilisers and limited supply for some other fertilisers.
Sustainable and secure agriculture will need to find efficient ways of capturing nitrogen and returning other nutrients to the soil. Stock-free rotation methods have great potential to enable this. Some impressive demonstrations of these techniques exist such as Iain Tolhurst's farm on the Hardwick Estate near Pangbourne in Berkshire. He has been demonstrating and exploring the commercial and environmental viability of stock-free farming there for twenty years. However these methods deserve much more attention and development effort if we are to achieve a sustainable and secure food supply for future generations.
The Vegan Society call on the BBSRC, the NFU and policy-makers to urgently research the most resource effective farming techniques that minimise greenhouse gas emissions. A shift to stock-free farming will benefit farmers, UK residents and undernourished people worldwide.
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