David Richardson: Take a LEAF out of my book

I should declare an interest because what follows are highlights from the 17th AGM and conference of LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming).

I spent 10 years trying to persuade fellow farmers, the government and all who would listen, that integrated farm management, that is “integrating care for the environment with the production of healthy food at affordable prices” was the way forward. Last week’s meeting convinced me even more that those who initiated LEAF to promote IFM were right – if a little ahead of time.

Pat Tomlinson, head of agriculture for HSBC Bank, who hosted the meeting at the bank’s HQ at Canary Wharf, reflected on the world financial crisis. But the devaluation of sterling, which makes food imports more expensive, and IFM, which cuts costs, might help farming escape the worst.

Current volatility made life difficult, he conceded, and we could expect more of it. But the fundamentals of increasing demand for food world wide had not changed. So, if we could survive the next few years our industry would come good. At least that’s what I think he meant.

Tim Smith, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, said science and evidence were his watchwords. There was too much scaremongering in the media. Indeed the one thing that would do most to revitalise the food and farming industries would be to ban the Daily Mail.

He thought many costly inspections of farms and food preparation facilities were unnecessary and should be discontinued. But the risks associated with some imported food were greater now than ever.

Martin Haworth, director of policy at the NFU, said government didn’t understand food security. It did not mean stopping all imports, but it did mean ensuring domestic production stopped declining. DEFRA advocated imports if the UK ran short. But was it moral, he asked, to rely on supplies from countries where many are starving? Should we not instead be asking what Britain can do to alleviate world hunger?

Stephen Tapper of the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust wanted to retain some set-aside in the interests of the environment but not 5%. One per cent would do. And high yielding crops can be grown alongside biodiversity, given the LEAF approach.

Keith Goulding of Rothamsted Research deplored cuts in government research funding from £129m to £19m in a generation. The result was fewer scientists and a decline in projects under examination when they were needed more than ever before. He also complained that scientists were being directed to look into one issue at a time, the result of which often led to other problems elsewhere. What was needed was an integrated approach to research – as LEAF advocates with farming and the countryside.

Justin Creasey of Barfoot’s of Botley said the LEAF Marque is the green trailer behind the Red Tractor. The tractor doesn’t move much but the trailer is the key to profitable marketing. The LEAF Marque now appears on Virgin Trains as well as in Waitrose stores and covers 18% of UK fresh produce.

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