5 May 1995

Better food, fewer farmers in future

By Peter Bullen

FEWER farmers producing higher quality food from less land is the prospect facing British agriculture in 10-20 years.

That is the picture drawn by 25 mainly academic experts who have been focusing on the long-term future for agriculture, natural resources and the environment.

Their report* is the last of 15 drawn up under the governments Technology Foresight programme designed to guide strategies for wealth creation and improved quality of life through sustainable development.

The 182-page document concludes that the UKs farm activity and rural land use will become increasingly diversified. It will sprout "no-food farms" devoted to industrial crops or big recreational and conservation activities.

Farm businesses will be gripped by tighter pollution controls and international moves to liberalise trade will subject the UK to food imports from "ever-widening geographical sources".

GATT liberalisation will force the EU to choose between increasing production controls or scrapping intervention support and export subsidies.

The report says agriculture and horticulture have always been beset by uncertainty because of fluctuations in weather, unpredictable market prices, changing forms of government intervention and pest and disease outbreaks.

New pressures include policy changes, environmental groups, consumer suspicions about food safety, and animal welfare groups concerns over intensive production. Developers are seeking release of land no longer needed for agriculture; ramblers and motorist are pressing claims of recreation; and others begrudge subsidies and financial protection for farmers and landowners.

"Yet the UK agriculture industry and its main customers, the food processing and retail sectors, are among the most concentrated and production efficient in the world," says the report. It had an excellent record for responding quickly to opportunities thrown up by new technology.

*Progress Through Partnership – Agriculture, Natural Resources and the Environment. HMSO, price £15. &#42