Andrew Watts is the new chairman of the NFU Combinable Crops Board. He outlines the key challenges for arable growers and the board’s priorities for the coming year
Q: What do you see as the key challenges that growers face in the next year or so?
I see the diminishing range of effective crop protection tools being a key challenge, as well as the increasing demands on water quality, availability, as well as CAP reform. There is also the volatility in grain markets created by variable weather leading to supply shifts.
On a more local level, electronic information and farm haulage are two key areas that the Crops board is driving. We are not telling people how to farm, but making the environment right for them to conduct their business.
Research and GM
Q: This year has seen the first GM wheat field trial in the UK. Do you see a future role for GM wheat in the UK and should we be funding GM research given the current EU deadlock on reforming the approvals process?
What is most interesting is that this is publicly-funded research for sustainable benefits and not commercial. GM wheat trials are, but one step in making progress in sustainable intensification, making better use of inputs and delivering better outcomes for production and our environment.
For too long, criticism has been levelled against GM research saying that it is commercially run and dominated by multinationals who are the only originations large enough to fund approvals through the complex and expensive regulatory process demanded by society.
The opening of minds into the benefits of research work like that at Rothamsted which will lead to a better understanding of how to reduce crop protection inputs is in the interests of both producers and consumers.
Q: Continuing with research, have you any concerns over the declining research funding in recent years?
The NFU Board has recognised the decline in production against potential. The challenge is to define what is necessary to change this to improve yields and ensure that farmers engage with the process.
NFU supported the recent increase in the HGCA levy and is encouraging farmers to engage in determining the direction of research.
We are leading the wheat group within the Green Food Project report for DEFRA, which is a joint initiative addressing the challenge of how we can increase food production and enhance the environment in England. It is now at its concluding stages and will be published this July.
The UK’s basic science is world-class, but the OECD suggests relying on this kind of work alone takes 35-50 years to turn it into technology. Among the main recommendations for wheat, is the need to rebalance existing public spend on science to focus more on the development part of research and development, so that the discoveries our scientists have made actually make an impact on the ground.
New technologies must be accompanied by training and skills development, so there must also be much more development and co-ordination of extension services. This applies equally to environmental or production outcomes.
Q: Do you welcome the six-month extension of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment?
Naturally, yes we welcome the continuation of this work. It has not always been easy to engage with DEFRA and its agencies on the detail of agri-environment schemes. It is a continuing frustration that the requirements are being constantly ratcheted-up. The time is rapidly approaching when a fundamental reform of agri-environment schemes in England is required.
The current CAP reform presents a clear opportunity for DEFRA, farming and the environment to devise a better approach. Growers have engaged wholeheartedly with ELS and CFE with clear benefits to the arable environment, and they expect DEFRA to reciprocate.
Q: Drought and climate change is another key environmental issue. What would you like to see the government doing to help the industry adapt to this?
Research is needed to help us become more resilient in the face of weather extremes and a changing climate. North-west Europe, and England in particular, will have to play its part in producing food, fibre and fuel in the coming decades as conditions in other parts of the world become even more challenging and less reliable.
Q: What are your thoughts on the current CAP reform proposals and what changes are you lobbying for?
Greening is the most difficult area for arable farming, not because we don’t take an active interest in the environment, but the current proposals cut across and work against much of what we have achieved. We are most concerned over the approach taken by our own government to implement CAP reform here, regardless of whether it will disadvantage our own farmers more than our neighbours in other parts of Europe.
With the proposed Ecological Focus Areas, it seems madness to take land out of production with no clear benefit identified for biodiversity or resource protection just as food and energy security is rising up the agenda globally.
The structure of arable farm businesses in England are generally much more advanced than most other parts of Europe, such as the wider use of contract farming arrangements. The reforms are either unwilling or unable to accommodate these modern business models. In this context, crop diversification is an area of the reforms which will potentially have an adverse impact on production, profitability and resource efficiency for no clear benefit to the environment.
Perhaps the most worrying long-term aspect to the reform process is that little if any account is being taken of the additional pressure the EU will put on global supplies as it continues to produce less to meet its own demand for agricultural commodities.
Q: What other EU legislation on the horizon is giving you concern?
There is a long list, including Markets in Financial Investment Derivatives (MiFID), Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC), EU pesticide registration and definitions for cut-off criteria, grain contaminants legislation on mycotoxins and heavy metals. All of these bring challenges to Europe’s producers that are not faced to the same extent by our competitors in the rest of the world.
Each on their own has been presented as manageable, but the cumulative effect of all this legislation is to stifle innovation just at the time when agriculture needs it most. What this requires is a change in mindset from regulators who appear to be firmly stuck in the 1990s and unable to help address the challenges of 2050.
Andrew Watts’ farming business
Andrew manages a farming business in north-east Hertfordshire, comprising 1,400ha of owned land and a further 1,000ha of contract farming.
Cropping is all combinables, wheat, barley, oats, oilseed rape, peas and beans together with a suckler herd on permanent pasture. The farms have a wide range of soil types and crops are grown firmly with local markets in mind.
All the farms are in ELS and the “home farms” are also in CSS (until scheme expiry) Andrew is a former NFU county chairman and until recently, chair of the Hertfordshire CFE Group.