THE TRADITIONAL evening debate at the Oxford Farming Conference this year proposed that ‘British agriculture is good for the environment‘.
Proposing the motion and first to take the floor of the Oxford Union debating theatre was Conservative MP Jim Paice.
Mr Paice defended the modern practice of agriculture – including pesticides – saying the countryside‘s primary function was to provide the bulk of the food required by a nation of 60m people.
“British agriculture produced 77% of the food needed by this country, but it‘s not farming that damages the countryside, but the production of food,” he said.
“The very landscape that we now seek to protect – stone walls, ridge & furrow and hedges – were all created so that man was able to farm,” he said.
He did admit that certain practices carried out in farming damaged the environment but that new technologies such as biodiesel, ethanol and biomass for energy, all of which are less damaging then their conventional equivalents, owed their existence to agriculture.
He argued that in order to produce food for a growing world population with ever increasing tastes, agriculture was by its very nature damaging to the environment.
But there were ways to minimise the impact food production has on the environment, he told the floor.
Food miles were a massive threat to maintaining a healthy environment, he said.
“To fly a lettuce from California to the UK requires 127 calories of energy for every calorie in it,” said Mr Paice.
Challenging the motion was Michael Meacher MP and former minister for the environment.
His challenge was based on the premise that agriculture could be better for the environment than it currently is.
“Actions taken after WW2 to raise the output of food, while providing necessary food, had a catastrophic effect on the environment,” said Mr Meacher.
Much of the blame for the continuing poor state of agriculture, said Mr Meacher, was attributed to big dominant agri-businesses.
These conglomerates had been responsible for ruining local communities in the U.S., robbing them of schools, local businesses and social interaction as well as having negative effect on the biodiversity in the region, he told the hall.
Mr Paice was supported by Labour peer Lord Carter who countered Mr Meacher‘s argument that bird numbers had declined.
He quoted independent research that showed the number of rare birds, such as the Corncrake, had actually increased numbers in recent years.
He also quoted work by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that, he said, recognised the invaluable contribution that agriculture makes in promoting a sustainable habitat for all wild mammals.
Lord Carter encouraged farmers not to become too despondent with the current policy directing agriculture in the UK.
“If you have watched agricultural policy in the UK for as long as I have then you‘ll know – what goes around comes around,” he said.
“It is therefore quite possible that food security and food safety will once again be a serious issue within the next couple of years.”
Supporting the challenge to the motion led by Mr Melchett was Friends of the Earth director, Tony Juniper.
Mr Juniper blamed the overgrazing of pastures as a major reason for the decline in habitat loss of wild birds.
He said that British agriculture was wrecking the environment and at the same time putting those who do it out of business.
The debate enjoyed a lively and light-hearted contribution from the floor, but in the end the audience held strongly with the views of Messers Paice and Carter voting 281 to 67 to support the motion.