Large farms which make use of economies of scale are more efficient than small family units, most farmers and industry representatives agreed at the Oxford Farming Conference.
Delegates voted 220 to 115 against a motion that economies of scale were overrated and that size was not important to British agriculture during the annual conference debate on Thursday evening (3 January).
Scottish farmer John Cameron, former president of NFU Scotland, opposed the motion, saying that British farmers needed to maximise economies of scale if they were to be as productive as they could be.
He claimed supermarkets and large retailers were increasingly interested in doing business with fewer, larger suppliers as more consumers demanded cheaper food.
“In addition, animal health requirements are more likely to be met in larger units, while farmers can adopt meaningful environmental requirements on larger areas,” he said.
Scottish Agricultural College student Scott Somerville, who seconded the opposition, said the traditional model of family farms no longer existed and that the industry had evolved to make use of better technologies and different ways to do business.
“The tradition of children automatically taking over their parents’ farm is not what it was,” he told delegates.
“Different business models like co-operatives can add value, particularly through things like marketing and efficiencies in buying inputs.
“They allow farmers to own more of the supply chains, creating value and allowing more profitability, and being larger gives the ability of faster adoption of new technologies and moving into new operations.”
But Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, who proposed the motion, said that adopting large-scale production methods would be disastrous for the nation, animal welfare, the environment and the public.
“Mega-farms have taken farming to a frightening level of efficiency,” he said.
These methods entailed keeping animals in smaller spaces while increasing risks to human health through the excessive sewage produced and large-scale use of antibiotics.
“Larger farms follow the money rather than what’s good for consumers,” Mr Emmanuel-Jones said. “Farmers need to get consumers onside, but mega-farms will just increase the gulf between farmers and the public.
“Rather than trying to be as cheap as possible we should be the country with the highest standards and quality. If we follow that route the rest of the world will be forced to catch up.”
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