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The Environment Agency’s offices are on the 25th floor of Millbank Tower, just along the river from Parliament and a few doors from DEFRA.

It must be handy for quick chats with ministers but not, perhaps, the kind of space you would expect the nation’s environmental watchdog to inhabit.

The Agency clearly tries to practice what it preaches.

The energy-saving lights switch on and off automatically when people enter or leave an area.

But I suspect the electricity saved is more than swallowed up by the high speed lifts that ferry people up and down.

Tricia Henton, number three in the Agency’s pecking order, is a pleasant lady who perpetuates the image it cultivates of an iron fist in a velvet glove.

There is no doubting her commitment to her job but she does it with gentle friendliness that belies the power over which she presides.

So, what was her vision for farming in 2020?

In the main it was a continuation and consolidation of what is already emerging.

Aid from the EU or the UK government will probably be just a memory.

This would lead to greater concentration of large scale arable in the east and big livestock units in the west.

No one will produce anything if they can’t market it profitably and specialist added value crops and products will have become commonplace.

Where such opportunities are not exploited commodity production will include raw materials for biofuels — both diesel and ethanol — and biomass.

Ms Henton anticipated more high tech farming on the bigger units which would lead to reductions and greater accuracy in applications of fertilisers (organic as well as inorganic) and pesticides.

This was a good thing because it would help address the problems of pollution, especially of slurry, from intensive livestock farms.

Dealing with farm wastes would also create business opportunities.

She expected significant on-farm developments in composting of manures and other wastes, in anaerobic digestion units to produce gas and in the recycling of plastics.

Although by 2020 she thought plastic use will have been drastically reduced.

All these changes, which she conceded are already beginning, will be forced on the farming industry by a combination of market, financial and political pressures.

Further depopulation of the most rural areas was inevitable.

But wasn’t this an essentially urban agenda?

Wouldn’t another half a million urban houses in the south east inhibit specialist niche developments on fruit and vegetable farms because there would be insufficient water for irrigation?

Shouldn’t such intensive development be curtailed and more reservoirs built?

She wasn’t sure more reservoirs would be appropriate but was obviously uncomfortable about John Prescott’s planned housing.

It is an open secret that the Environment Agency’s concerns were ignored when the policy was approved.

And yes, some fruit and veg growers could lose their irrigation licences as water supplies are diverted.

What future does Ms Henton forsee on regulations?

Was the burden of rules and regulations likely to get worse?

“A lot of the rules farmers complain about aren’t ours,” she said.

“The ones that are, are user-tested by groups of farmers to make sure they are practical and understandable.

But I agree. Regulations should be as simple and written as briefly and clearly as possible.

And I do understand the pressures farmers are under.

That is why our Catchment Officers are selected from farming backgrounds and instructed to be as helpful as possible to farmers who are doing their best to comply.”

I couldn’t leave without asking Ms Henton’s views on food security.

Suppose WTO policies turn out to be wrong, and by 2020 we need more food from farms, not less.

Could EA plans be reversed if necessary?

Food security is not in our brief, she replied, and we would take a different view on that than some other agencies.

But even if food production became a priority again global warming implications dictate there would still need to be environmental restraints.

In any case, by 2020 a new generation of farmers will be in charge and complying with regulations will be second nature to them.

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