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An optimist by nature, Caroline Drummond, chief executive of LEAF, believes there is an economically sustainable future for UK farming, but only with the active support of the UK consumer.

Retail trends, dominated by supermarkets and powered by cheap pricing and convenience food, do not help UK agriculture because they do not reward what our farming industry delivers, she says.

The goods supplied by UK agriculture include benefits that are not immediately obvious to most shoppers, such as high animal welfare standards, food safety and assurance, biodiversity, pollution control, and the maintenance of rural infrastructure and landscape, for example.

Home-grown food also reduces food miles and can deliver solutions for waste control, sustainable energy, national food security, and a healthier diet, reducing obesity and costs to the NHS.

Our countryside is also a means of urban stress relief.

It does not make sense to let all these opportunities fall by the wayside simply because of the pressure for cheap food in the short-term, says Ms Drummond.

But without adequate reward, an exodus from farming would be inevitable by 2020, she predicts.

“At the moment, economic viability is under threat.

The industry can’t cope in the short term, never mind mid to long term.”

Certain foods can be produced elsewhere more cheaply, because land and labour may be less expensive, because transport costs may be temporarily low or subsidised, and because in those countries there may be fewer regulations and inadequate environmental legislation.

Is this what we want as the future for food production?

Ms Drummond believes that informed consumers would reject this scenario.

The solution, she says, is for the public to be made aware of what home-produced food can supply.

“We must explain what farming truly delivers; we need to put an economic value on the benefits and show what might happen if we were to lose agriculture.”

This value needs to go beyond just HLS and ELS rewards, she says.

Ms Drummond wants to see consumers make purchases in a more informed way, and understand the true cost of food.

This approach is behind LEAF’s pioneering mission to communicate how farming fits alongside environmental sustainability through the LEAF Demonstration Farms and the Speak Out initiative.

More recently the LEAF marque, now on food on supermarket shelves, is seen to denote food produced to specific environmental standards.

There is also the Red Tractor logo and assurance scheme, taken forward by Assured Food Standards, demonstrating the food safety element.

But the problem facing UK agriculture is so serious that more communication effort is needed.

One example of how consumer-buying choices can be influenced is the Fair Trade initiative, which has gained publicity and support in recent years.

Many consumers are prepared to pay a higher price for goods with a Fair Trade label in the knowledge that their money supports Third World development.

Could similar persuasion work for a Fair Trade for UK agriculture?

“I think the message is getting across,” says Ms Drummond.

“Fundamentally, society is on our side; it is just that the public doesn’t know the whole story.

We need to build in an understanding of the environment into everything we do.”

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