There is a lot going on at the moment. And I am here to help.
If you are concerned about High Speed 2, why not read my colleague Andre Farrar's blog here.
If you are concerned about the implications of us leaving Europe you could always listen to my interview on Farming Today last week. You can find it here about 8 minutes in. I waffle a bit - but you should be able to get the gist.
If you are concerned about the future of the United Kingdom... well that's one area where I really am not going to comment.
But, if you just want to be distracted by all of this, why not simply take a moment to look at the image below.
This picture was taken by a licensed doormouse surveyor called Liz Cutting at our Wolves Wood Nature Reserve in Suffolk. It is our first record of the species in the reserve's 40 year history. As Liz says, the discovery of dormice at Wolves Wood is testament that if you have a solid block of well-managed woodland with plenty of suitable habitat, dormice will respond. And they have, which is great.
Surely one to warm even the coldest of hearts.
...I would have seen the Prime Minister interviewed by John Craven on Countryfile. It is worth a watch. I am not for a moment suggesting that it is a substitute for what I called for in yesterday's blog - a key note speech setting out Mr Cameron's vision for the environment - but it is still pleasing to hear support for the environment from the top of the Government.
As context for the interview, John uses footage of Mr Cameron's 14 May 2010 speech to staff at the Department of Energy and Climate Change where he uttered those immortal words "I want this to be the greenest government ever". He then asks whether, following the Chancellor's autumn economic statement, the intent remains.
Mr Cameron said that he does not see a distinction between environmental protection and economic growth, he suggested that he would no more put the countryside at risk than his own family and that he remains supportive of renewable energy. It is a refreshing to hear him speak publicly of the agenda which figured so prominently when he was Leader of the Opposition.
Of course, I disagreed with his analysis about the planning proposals and think that he is wrong when he suggests that protection afforded to SSSIs is not threatened by the reform (read my blog entry here). But I hope that when he engages in the detail of the policy debate he will be supportive of changes proposed by the RSPB, the National Trust and others.
The second part of the interview will be shown next week and a preview suggests that he will outline his support for reform of the CAP so that more farmers are rewarded for protecting the environment. If Mr Cameron begins to find his environmental voice and fights for policies to match his rhetoric, then 2012 may just be a good year for wildlife.
I must remember to tune in next week.
Did you see Mr Cameron's interview? What did you think?
It would be great to hear your views.
Many thanks to all of you that contributed to last week's debate about balancing agricultural production with conservation. Whether you posted a comment, dropped me an email or simply read it - thank you! Particular thanks to our guest contributors - Matthew Naylor, Allan Buckwell, Caroline Drummond and Johann Tasker.
I think that we reached a good deal of consensus about ambition and intent. As Caroline concluded "the future is not doing more of the same, it is about increasing sustainability at all levels". But perhaps we did not do enought to identify solutions. Allan was right when he said "until and unless there is public acceptance of the scale and seriousness of the market failures in land management which mean that farmers are properly remunerated for producing the non-food ecosystem services which only they can provide, then we will continue to wring our hands about the deterioration of environmental capital." Yet, this is not to blame farmers. It is for the policy makers to provide the right signals to which the farming community will respond.
I shall reflect further on the debate with the RSPB team. This is a crucial year with CAP reform on the horizon and Defra itself is looking at this issue. Defra has established a Green Food Project and is obliged to report its findings in June 2012. The group is chaired by the Farming Minister, Jim Paice, and I am one of the participants alongside representatives from organisations such as NFU, CLA and WWF. Through sector, product and site case studies it will explore options for reconciling the twin objectives of increasing production and enhancing the natural environment. I shall return to this subject in due course.
But my attention this week will return to the other great dilemma facing the Government - how to kick-start the economy without trashing the environment. There were two fascinating articles last week which reminded me of the tension at the heart of government. The first by Pilita Clark and Sylvia Pfeifer in the Financial Times illustrated how the Conservative rhetoric on the environment has changed dramatically since the election. The second was by Zac Goldsmith MP in the Guardian. His argument is that the environmental sector should be doing more to work with progressives within the coalition to give them space to fight battles within government.
I agree, in principle, that we should remain constructive critics to help provide political space for pro-envionment politicians to act. But we should also be prepared to act to cause political pain if the policies are not forthcoming. This is what being an NGO is all about.
I think that a statement from the Prime Minister about his environmental intentions is overdue. And, with the Rio conference celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Earth Summit due in June this year, what better time for the Prime Minister to put his head above the environmental parapet.
Do you think it is time for the Prime Minister to make a speech on the environment? If so, what would you have him say?
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?
This week my blog is exploring the challenge of balancing production with agriculture. This was the focus for the talk I gave to the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday. You can read a copy of my paper here. Matthew Naylor and Allan Buckwell have offered their views and now, Caroline Drummond, the Chief Executive of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) has kindly outline her perspective below. At the end of the week I shall reflect on the debate that this has triggered.
Striking the balance
"Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness." - Letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington (1787)
The farming industry holds the cards for delivering sustainable food production.
No-one denies that land, water, biodiversity and natural habitats are under pressure from competing demands. Sustainable intensification is not about increasing the use of inputs, it is about wisely using knowledge and technologies, to grow production efficiency; to intensify natures’ interactions and benefits; and reconstruct the values and culture of our food system.
Farmers need to be recognised for how they have adapted to the radically changed demands placed on our food system and land requirements over the last 20 years. New management approaches, environmental stewardship, market demands, social and environmental responsibility, improved engagement with retailers and closer relationships with consumers are all starting to help re-design our food systems.
But we need to do more – more to increase our farm efficiency, food’s nutritional value and more to enhance the environment. However, it is alarming how little we know about the interactions between our use of land for food production, the environment and for society as a whole.
Increasing global trade threatens to diminish the range of species and cultivars that are traditionally used in most agri-ecosystems. Of some 270,000 known species of higher plants about 20,000 are edible, but only about 7,000 are used in agriculture. 14 animal species currently account for 90% of all livestock production, and only 20 crops dominate global cultivation, providing an estimated 90% of the dietary energy consumed by the world's population (UNEP, 2007). Today 80% of the world’s population lives principally on four main crop species: maize; wheat; potatoes and rice. Perhaps there is more scope to use a wider variety of species in our food and crop and animal health strategies?
We rely on biodiversity in our daily lives, often without realising it. The bacteria and microbes that transform waste into useful products, insects that pollinate crops and flowers, and the biologically rich landscapes that provide enjoyment, are but a few examples.
Often we are tempted to solve problems by singling out issues such as pollution, water security, carbon footprint, local production, or inputs. Individual approaches, however, do not do justice to the interactions between them. An integrated approach has the potential to use nature in conjunction with technology to help address these areas.
Integrated Farm Management (IFM) provides the flexibility to deliver a highly productive agriculture with reduced environmental impact. Advocated by LEAF, IFM has been developed to combine economic, environmental, social and welfare issues with management practices and decisions across the whole farm in a balanced and considered way.
For some 20 years LEAF has been instrumental in developing and promoting IFM and to encourage a better public understanding of and engagement in farming and the countryside. Open Farm Sunday has welcomed some ¾ million people out on to farms over the last six years, over 20% of UK’s fresh produce are grown to LEAF Marque standards, with a growing range of grain and livestock products meeting the standard too.
The future is not doing more of the same, it is about increasing sustainability at all levels. The real element of change is about growing production, whilst enhancing environmental health, and societal well-being in a fully integrated approach.
Do you agree with Caroline?