And now here is my final guest blog of the week from JohannTasker, chief reporter for Farmers Weekly magazine.  He follows contributions from Matthew Naylor, Allan Buckwell and Caroline Drummond.  They have all offered their thoughts on how to balance production with conservation in response to a presentation that I gave to the Oxford Farming Conference this week.   You can read a copy of my paper here.

Johann's headline is "Farmers an all too easy target".

"It’s all too easy to blame farmers when food leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. And the same is true when it comes to the countryside – or at least the state of the rural environment and the wildlife it supports.

After all, agriculture is our most visible rural industry. The number of farmers may be declining but agriculture remains the UK's biggest land user, with crops and livestock dominating most of the country’s surface area.

Yet the average consumer has little idea of what happens on the average farm. The closest most people get to seeing food produced these days is on TV or through the car or train window as they hurtle from one town to the next.

It’s hardly surprising. We’re a post-industrial urban-based society. So while an army of celebrity chefs feeds our seemingly insatiable appetite for TV shows about food, few of us actually get our hands dirty producing it.

Despite the resurgent popularity of programmes like BBC Countryfile. our understanding as a nation of the complexities facing farmers striving to make a living from the land remains limited.

Many of the major factors influencing agricultural productivity and profitability are out of farmers’ hands. The most obvious is the weather. But food producers are also at the mercy of political and economic forces they can do little about.

Farmers have done a great job over the past 70 years responding to politicians’ demands for cheap, plentiful food. So successfully, in fact, we now spend under 15% of our income on food – less than half the proportion 50 years ago.

Having succeeded on this score, now farmers are being asked to produce food more sustainably. But for this is to work more widely, consumers must keep their side of the bargain too – valuing food more highly and wasting less of it.

That’s because the marketplace doesn’t reward farmers for looking after the countryside. Which explains the growing shift in farm subsidies away from food production and towards environmental measures.

A new generation of farmers is signing up to environment schemes like never before. And their initially skeptical fathers, reared on a diet of post-war subsidies to boost production at seemingly any cost, are gradually being won over.

If anyone is moving too slowly when it comes to rebalancing food production and conservation, it is the policy-makers not the food producers.

In the 20 years I’ve been involved in agriculture, I’ve seen a step change in the way land is managed. Farmers are more than willing to embrace their environmental responsibilities – and more will do so, with wider support."

Do you agree with Johann?

It would be great to hear your views.

  • What a relief Martin,there is a good chance of improving things if certain people on both sides who probably have a agenda to upset the alliance of conservationists and farmers will stop trying to get us at each others throats.Think you probably had a outstanding week at conference.

  • Sooty - I agree.  A silly comment and one best ignored.

  • Hi Martin --cannot disguise my dislike of Some journalist Nicholas Milton commenting that the quote from Peter Kendall that said something like we need to keep production at the forefront which he later softened marked the end of uneasy alliance between conservationists and farmers.This is obviously untrue at the time those farmers at Thorney have put about 10,000 acres in a block with the RSPBs help to improve things.

    People coming out with ridiculous comments like this do actually drive a wedge between the two party's as people are sure to believe a supposedly educated person and all in the week that yourself seemed to be thinking exactly the opposite if I have understood your blogs correctly.

  • Gloosy Ibis - sorry about that.  I have now fixed it on this post.

    Redkite - I think that leadership comes from a number of different places - from politicians, from NGOs and from the farming community themselves.  It was great to hear farmers such as Robert Law and Robert Kynaston (both regional winners in our Nature of Farmers Awards) at a reception we gave in Oxford calling upon other farmers to follow their lead.  There are many progressive farmers who absolutely are do the right things for wildlife and I am keen that we support them in their efforts to encourage more to adopt this approach.

    Sooty - you are of course right about scheme design.  This is why we have been seeking changes to the entry level scheme to ensure that farmers are able to choose bundles of prescritpions which actually deliver outcomes for wildlife.

    Red Squirrel - how good to hear from.  Thank you for your thoughtful contribution.  While this is not the RSPB's expertise, we do of course very closely with RSPCA and others on agriculture policy and welfare considerations are of course part of this debate.  And this did figure quite prominently at the Oxford Farming Conference and am sure that it remains firmly centre stage in the policy debate.

  • Hi. It has been very interesting to follow this week’s debate and I would like to briefly consider another perspective.

    I am passionate about environmental protection and halting biodiversity loss. I have been a member of the RSPB for 14 years and keenly follow developments such as the UK National Ecosystem Assessment and the outcomes from Nagoya.

    I also have a strong interest in the humane treatment of animals and hold a Masters degree in animal welfare science. I am a veterinary surgeon by training.

    Future global farming practices must, of course, support biodiversity and have minimal impact on the climate, and it is the RSPB’s remit to promote this. In addition to the comments made by the various contributors, I would add that global agriculture should promote the health and mental wellbeing of sentient animals.

    Over the last 50 years a new field of animal welfare science has been investigating the experiences, needs and wants of animals. An area of ethical concern that may once have been dismissed by some as sentimental or anthropomorphic is now informed by scientific research.

    In a farming context, many millions of broiler chickens are affected by lameness, overcrowding and contact dermatitis; food deprivation and chronic hunger affects broiler breeder birds; high levels of lameness and mastitis are linked to artificial selection for ever-increasing milk yields in dairy cows; large numbers of finishing pigs are reared in barren indoor systems which fail to provide for their behavioural needs and lead to social stress, tail biting and the attendant requirement to have their tails routinely docked without anaesthesia or analgesia. Animal welfare science provides evidence that, as one would predict, these problems are very likely to be associated with unpleasant subjective states such as pain and suffering.

    Environmental protection is clearly incorporated within the classic three pillar model of sustainable development. The requirement for high standards of animal welfare is less explicit, but would logically be a hallmark of social development. If sustainable development is to be ethically progressive, then protection of the environment and our duties towards sentient animals should both be incorporated.

    I think Caroline Drummond acknowledges this when she mentions “welfare issues” as an aspect of integrated farm management. She also mentions sustainable intensification and this is a concept that should perhaps be viewed with a healthy suspicion when considering the welfare of farmed animals. Benefits to the environment need to be balanced against harms to thinking and feeling animals, which may be severe and/or of long duration.

    Conservation (concerned with populations) and animal welfare (concerned with individuals) have traditionally been viewed as two distinct and separate fields. The Compassionate Conservation conference held at Oxford University in 2010 was probably the first International Symposium to recognise and discuss the importance of both. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) is currently working to ensure animal welfare is given full consideration at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) in June.

    I fully support the RSPB’s work to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, and I hope the charity will support colleagues who are working to promote the equally important interests of the sentient animals that provide us with many benefits.