Plant scientist© Rex Features

Better technology and a progressive approach to farming are vital if UK agriculture is to remain competitive and stay in business, NFU vice-president Guy Smith has warned.

Volatile markets, unpredictable weather patterns and an overzealous approach by policy-makers to agriculture meant many farmers were understandably reluctant to invest in their businesses. But the climate of uncertainty must be overcome if producers were to meet rising demand for food.

See also: Government unveils £160m Agritech

Mr Smith said: “Farmers can weather-proof their farms. They can invest in irrigation and drainage. The problem is that volatility doesn’t exactly inspire confidence to invest in your farm – just at the time when we should be investing in our farms.”

In a challenging speech to mark the start of Agri-Tech Week, Mr Smith said UK crop production had flatlined for the past 30 years. Growers and livestock producers elsewhere in the world were making bigger gains, he told delegates at Trinity Park, Ipswich, on Tuesday (11 November).

“As UK farmers, we seem to think we are the most progressive in the world. We have some of the best weather and some of the best soils and high-yielding crops. But we are no longer the pre-eminent agricultural area.”

Over the past three decades, UK output of major crops such as cereals, oilseed rape, potatoes and sugar beet had remained static at about 35-40m tonnes annually. Over the same period, global crop output had climbed by almost 50% from 22.5m tonnes to 32.5m tonnes.

“Compared to my father’s generation, we are a sad disappointment,” said Mr Smith. Farmers after the war had emphatically answered the call to make the UK less dependent on food imports. “They doubled and trebled yields. Unfortunately, my generation cannot report such progress.”

UK farmers must make better use of technology to get back in the game, said Mr Smith. Doing so would help meet the twin challenges of climate change and rising demand for food from a global population forecast to reach 9bn people by 2050, he suggested.

Mr Smith said: “While we accept that we will have to use inputs more precisely and accurately in the future – whether it is water or fertiliser – at the same time it is not acceptable either economically or ethically for us to be losing our ability to produce food.”

The consequence of flat-lining production was that the UK was increasingly reliant on food imports, said Mr Smith. In real terms, the trade gap between food imports and exports had widened dramatically over the past 10 years from £10bn to £20bn.

What is Agri-Tech Week?

Agri-Tech Week (8-16 November) aims to help address the challenge of applying new technologies and processes to agriculture – improving farm productivity while minimising environmental effects.

Four organisations have joined during Agri-Tech Week to help bridge the gap between technology and agriculture. They are Agri-Tech East, the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, the Suffolk Agricultural Association and the Home Grown Cereals Authority.

Together, the four organisations hope to help scientists better understand the issues facing farmers and growers, showcase some of the most interesting emerging technologies and encourage innovation at farm level.

For details, visit Agri-Tech