24 November 1995

Policy changes needed to meet food challenge

This week saw weed control come under the scrutiny of the British Crop Protection Councils annual Brighton conference. Here

Charles Abel profiles the latest herbicide discoveries and reports the views on world trade of keynote speaker David Nelson-Smith of Cargill Europe

KEEPING the worlds growing population decently fed over the next 30 years is an enormous challenge for world governments.

But if they make the right political decisions to solve those issues there will be a hefty impact on UK producers.

Securing food supply is a vital first step towards solving poverty, population growth and environmental damage, contends David Nelson-Smith, vice-president public affairs at Cargill Europe and keynote Bawden lecturer at this weeks Brighton conference.

To succeed governments must allow trade to replace interventionist policies, he argues.

The process will be hampered by burgeoning population growth, improving diets in developing countries, limited availability of extra land for farming and a shortage of water, he says. Better husbandry and science will help – but only if government policy allows market signals to encourage farmers to adopt those technologies.

US and EU policies have distorted markets by subsidising exports and withholding land from production. More liberal trade policies are needed to smooth price fluctuations, increase food security and give clear market signals to growers, he says.

Governments need to set "clear, fair rules and administer them in a transparent fashion," he says. The developed world is accepting that farm incomes, not farm prices, should be supported and that agricultural policy should be separated from social and environmental policies.

But where does that leave UK farmers? He maintains that reform can be managed satisfactorily. The 10-year reform of the Australian dairy industry phased subsidies down, but supported research and development, matching industry spend dollar for dollar. A third of farmers went out of business, but productivity rose 33%, exports doubled and land values did not decline in real terms.

Best techniques available

That is preferable to "totally misguided" extensification, he says. Best techniques are vital to achieve food security from a relatively static land area. Without todays science-backed farming another 10m square miles of farm land would be needed. Ploughing out the equivalent of the entire USA would be "disastrous" in conservation terms, he notes.

He urges governments to:

&#8226 Ensure price brings supply and demand into balance.

&#8226 Encourage the adoption of science-based methods.

&#8226 Support rural infra-structure.

&#8226 Set economic incentives and controls for environmental protection.

&#8226 Support this with as undistorted a world trading system as possible.

Since that is a development of current world opinion, he is "optimistic" it will happen. That leaves UK farmers the challenge of becoming yet more efficient to secure their own survival in an increasingly competitive world market. &#42

&#8226 World food demand set to continue rising.

&#8226 Failure to meet challenge will mean more poverty and environmental damage.

&#8226 Land and water limiting, so technology needed.

&#8226 Free trade vital to stimulate such development.

&#8226 Farmers will need technology to remain competitive.

Bawden lecturer at the Brighton crop protection conference, David Nelson-Smith of Cargill Europe.