Today’s farming generation ‘sad disappointment’ compared to post-war era, claims farmers’ leader Guy Smith

Guy Smith addresses the delegates at the Innovation for Agriculture East Conference at Trinity Park.

Guy Smith addresses the delegates at the Innovation for Agriculture East Conference at Trinity Park. Photograph Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

Modern-day UK farmers are “a sad disappointment” compared to their post-Second World War forebears when it comes to crop production and yield, an industry leader told an agricultural technology conference on Tuesday.

Guy Smith addresses the delegates at the Innovation for Agriculture East Conference at Trinity Park.

Guy Smith addresses the delegates at the Innovation for Agriculture East Conference at Trinity Park. Photograph Simon Parker - Credit: Archant

In a hard-hitting speech, National Farmers’ Union (NFU) vice president Guy Smith told a gathering of Suffolk farmers and farming professionals at Trinity Park in Ipswich that despite technological advances, the current crop of farmers are some way behind the progress made by the previous generation when it came to the big breakthroughs which characterised the energetic post-war period.

Mr Smith, speaking at the start of Agri-Tech Week, a series of technology events run by Agri-Tech East, said while those farming pioneers had taken the country out of dependency on imports, British farmers today tended “to have a complacency” about their performance when the truth was that other parts of the world were forging ahead.

“We are a sad disappointment. We have not made the gains that the post-war, innovating generation made,” he said. “That generation responded to that challenge emphatically and doubled or even tripled yields.”

Mr Smith, who was there to open an afternoon of workshops at Innovation for Agriculture East, illustrated his point with graphs which revealed a flatlining in overall performance when it came to yields in staples including cereals, oilseed rape, soya, potatoes and sugar beet over recent years.

“We tend to think we are some of the best farmers in the world,” he said. But he added: “Let’s not forget, we are no longer the pre-eminent agricultural area in the world.”

Farmers needed to ask themselves why yields were not improving, he said. The trade gap, meanwhile, had widened dramatically, rising from £10billion to £20bn. During crises of the past, politicians had regretted “all those times they hadn’t looked hard at the ability of our nation to look after itself”. He referred to a period in 1917 when, under Prime Minister Lloyd George, we were four weeks away from starvation before historical events fell in our favour.

Most Read

“I think today food security is firmly back on the agenda,” he said. But he added: “No one is suggesting that we become a ‘Fortress Britain’, that we only eat our own produce.”

But politicians now recognised that taking imports for granted was a foolish position, he said.

And today’s farmers now had to deal with other challenges, including the realities of climate change.

“I think farmers have struggled to buy into the climate change debate,” he admitted. “We don’t trust 10 day forecasts, let alone 10 year forecasts.”

But while some of scientists’ predictions about what climate change would mean had been inaccurate, it was clear that weather patterns were increasingly volatile with new records set. Combined with the volatility of world commodity prices, this meant that farming was becoming an “increasingly volatile” activity, he said. Use of technology was one of the ways that farmers could take some of the risk out.

Against this backdrop, the NFU was lobbying to ensure that farming retained “its fair share” of water resources to ensure that it would continue to grow fresh produce and keep a level of self-sufficiency.

“Obviously without water we can’t produce as much” he said.

The need for drainage and irrigation infrastructure was an important element of the debate, as was farming’s carbon footprint. The sector needed to be mindful of carbon footprint and technology would help with that, but “at the same time it’s not acceptable economically or ethically for us to be losing our ability to produce food,” he said.

There was a debate about whether farmland should be used to grow food or produce renewable energy, but it was estimated that over the next decade, no more than 2 or 3% would be given over to renewables. Set against farmland lost to the sea or to drainage, that loss needed to be kept in perspective, he said. He referred Environment Secretary Liz Truss’s recent statements on solar farms.

“Quite why the Secretary of State thinks her heart sinks every time she goes past a solar farm, I don’t know,” he said.

He warned that farmers growing crops could be losing “key tools in their toolbox” through rules being brought in to curb the use of chemicals in agriculture. There were no replacement products in the pipeline able to battle disease and agrochemical giants were no longer investing in Europe, he said.

“We need to be clean and careful in the way we go about the use of chemicals,” he added. “The fact that the green and pleasant land of Britain is part of our factory floor means we’ll always have regulatory restraints upon us.”