Farming feature: NFU vice chair Guy Smith gives his predictions on future of farming
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) vice president Guy Smith on past attempts to predict the future and his own view of what the farming industry might look like in a decade or so’s time
I suspect it’s a sign of maturity when you can remember futurology from the past.
I vividly recollect as a school-boy the science lessons where we were told that by the year 2000 that there would be so much automation in the world that people would only need to work two to three days a week. Back in the 1970s we were promised lifestyles dominated by leisure rather than work. So that prediction proved about as illusory as England winning the football World Cup.
But on reflection, today when you get into a modern tractor and start programming the auto-steer you feel the age of the automaton tractor isn’t that far away even if the prospect of a two day week still feels like sci-fi. Similarly I visited a fruit farm in Herefordshire in the autumn where a grading line was sorting and packing cherries. Camera technology x-rayed every cherry going through the system. The only human element were the forklift drivers feeding the line and taking away the packaged, bar-coded, end result. But interestingly outside in the orchards the picking of the cherries was still very dependent on hand labour. While there are fruit picking robots at the prototype experimental stage they aren’t near commercialisation yet.
So, if I had to second-guess what life on the farm might feel like in 10 years’ time I suspect automation and digital-data management will be the key driver of change. It will mean the need for more investment in skills and technology with less need for labour on farm. And in 10 years’ time here’s hoping we’ve got decent broadband width and reliable mobile signal to back this technology up.
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In terms of forecasting what agricultural policy will look like in 10 years’ time I suspect the art of futurology is even more flawed. How many of us predicted 10 years ago we would be leaving the EU? I certainly don’t remember any talk amongst farmers of such a prospect in 2008. But the chat then was about forthcoming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) so it’s not as if we haven’t faced the prospect of policy change before. What we do know now is the pace of policy change over the next 10 years will be faster and more substantive than in the past. It seems almost inevitable that we will see a shift from support based on the area of land to one measured around environmental delivery. What is not clear is what form this will take and my view is this is still very much up for grabs.
At this moment in time as the farming industry wonders what the future holds it is really important we do not, as farmers, get fatalistic. Such a pessimistic attitude could prove self fulfilling. Now is not the time for self doubt. We must see the opportunities that a new relationship with the EU will bring rather than just concentrating on the threats. We must be positive. And I say this as someone who voted Remain.
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We need to take our case to government that a secure supply of home grown food produced to high standards is a public good worth protecting. Furthermore, environmental goals are best delivered through the management of active working farmers. We need trade deals that respect our standards and we need support at a level that our competitors receive.
So let’s get out there demanding a political framework where British agriculture can thrive. With that in place it will be up to us as farmers to take the opportunity to build a more resilient agriculture going forward. At the end of the day futurology should be about identifying a favourable destination and working out how you get there. It shouldn’t be about second guessing where you might randomly end up. There are plenty of forks in the road in front of us, let’s endeavour to ensure our political masters in Westminster take the right ones.