Farming: Key messages from the Suffolk Food and Agriculture Conference

From left, farmer John Taylor, county councillor Judy Terry, MEP Vicky Ford and farmer David Barker

From left, farmer John Taylor, county councillor Judy Terry, MEP Vicky Ford and farmer David Barker at the Suffolk Food & Agriculture Conference at Trinity Park, Ipswich - Credit: Archant

FOLLOWING on from the EADT’s initial coverage of the Suffolk Food and Agriculture Conference, jointly staged earlier this year by Suffolk County Council and the Suffolk Agriculture Association, DUNCAN BRODIE highlights some of the key messages now contained in the official conference report

THE Suffolk Food and Agriculture Conference set out to identify ways in which the public sector can help to ensure that the agri-food sector in Suffolk develops as necessary to meet future demands.

With those demands including the need to help feed a growing regional, national and global population while maintaining, or even improving, the countryside environment, there were never going to be any simple answers.

However, the official report on the conference, summarising the contributions from the main speakers and the workshop sessions which followed, identifies six key themes:

: : Flexibility and Adaptability – the need for the sector to be able to change to respond effectively to opportunities and challenges;

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: : Promotion and Education – the need for a joined-up approach to promoting a positive well-informed opinion of the industry;

: :Research and Development – the importance of continued research, development and appliance of science to the future of the industry;

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: : Collaboration – the need to work across the food supply chain, identifying and addressing barriers to collaboration;

: : Long term planning – planning to use resources more intelligently for the long-term; and

: : Legislation and the Planning Process – the role of planning and legislation in enabling and protecting the development of the sector.

In an overview of the agri-food sector, its significance within Suffolk and the challenges it faces, Suffolk farmer David Barker – who is chairman of the Creating the Greenest County initiative – said that Suffolk was, more than anything else, identified by its countryside, with farming and food contributing enormously both to the county’s economy and its environment.

The continued development of the agri-food sector was essential to feed a growing world population, with the additional challenges of using less in terms of resources and reducing environmental impacts in the process.

The industry could also play a part in addressing issues such as obesity, malnutrition and diet related ill-health, he added.

However, for the sector to meet these challenges and achieve its potential it would need to be flexible, said Mr Barker, and it was important that planners appreciated the importance of the local food sector and that the application of science was allowed to progress.

Eastern region MEP Vicky Ford provided an update on discussions taking place within the European Parliament relating to the agri-food sector.

She said the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy did not provide a level playing field and did not seem any closer to providing one under the reforms currently being discussed.

A balance was needed between farming, biodiversity and the environment, she said. The agri-environmental schemes she had seen locally were excellent and should be exported to other EU countries.

Ms Ford said that, if farmers were to meet the increasing global demand for food, an agricultural revolution would be required, based on crop research, disease prevention, biotechnology and precision farming ? with East Anglia being critical to delivering such a change.

However, it was no good investing in research if every new product was banned. Not all Genetically Modified crops were good, and not all were bad; each should be considered on its merits rather than been clumped together under the single heading of “GM”.

Speaking on the theme of “100 Years of Farming”, Suffolk farmer John Taylor gave a presentation on how his farm has evolved and how the industry is starting to develop techniques to meet current challenges.

In particular, Mr Taylor discussed the importance of agronomy which, he said, had significantly changed the way he farmed..

Rotation – having a different crop in each field each year – was hugely important in breaking down the cycle of diseases, pests and weeds. However, the most important thing was the soil, with its structure and drainage requiring careful management.

Precision farming techniques meant machines running in very precise straight lines, representing a risk of soil compaction. Working land in the dry was vital, which required timeliness and speed.

Crop protection was a huge part of agronomy, added Mr Taylor, with the industry facing the challenge of reducing the amount of pesticides used.

This meant knowing how different pesticides worked, for example whether they were targeting the soil or the plant, and using technology so that pesticides were only applied in the areas where they were needed.

Mark Pendlington of Anglian Water, who is also a board member of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, spoke on the subject of Water and Resources.

He said that, despite having just experienced the wettest winter in 100 years and the most changeable weather in 25 years, the East of England remained, statistically, the driest part of the UK.

Alongside the increasing global demand for food, water and energy, the population of the eastern region was expected to grow by around one million over the next 30 years.

And, with a long and vulnerable coastline and large areas of land below sea level, the region was at the front line of climate change, with communities, agricultural land and other assets potentially in jeopardy from rising sea levels.

New Anglia LEP had been selected to run a Green Economy Pathfinder project which was looking at how to make the transition to a green economy, he added.

?Martin Collison from the Centre for Contemporary Agriculture addressed market and supply chain issues.

He warned that Britain could not import its way out of food shortages because other parts of the world from which an increasing volume of crops consumed in the UK had been imported over recent decades were now running out of water.

Key questions for the region, he said, were whether more could be produced on our farms, whether we could replace some of our food imports with home-grown produce and whether, with world class ports easily at hand we could export more food.

David Lawrence, principal of Easton & Otley College, addressed issues of skills and employment, emphasising that, without the right practical and intellectual skills, and the right entrepreneurial attitude, the agri-food sector would not achieve its potential or meet the challenges it faced

A big issue for the region was that a significant proportion of the workforce in the agri-food sector was aged over 45, making the attraction of young entrants and succession planning vital.

However,?attracting young people into the industry would involve changing perceptions among students and their parents, he said.

Finally, Tim Isaac, deputy regional director for the Country Land and Business Association, addressed planning and infrastructure issues.

?Farming was expected to be both internationally competitive and environmentally benign, which was no easy task, he said.

Key questions relating to planning and infrastructure were how to balance the demands on rural land, how to ensure farms had access to affordable energy and water, how to provide the industry with cutting edge R&D and training and how to use waste beneficially, he added.

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