‘Farming could help solve society’s bigger problems’

Farmers could play a crucial role in addressing some of society’s biggest challenges, including mass water storage, flood defence and social inclusion, a new study reveals.

The report, commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), shows that UK agriculture makes a much wider contribution to society than food production and growth in gross domestic product (GDP).

It concludes that farming touches people’s lives perhaps in more ways than any other industry, with farmers making significant contributions to national biodiversity, accessible green space, health and communities.

Structured day visits to farms, and most notably care farming, could also address social inclusion and care of disengaged and vulnerable people.

Children’s education and life experience is also greatly enhanced by interaction with land, food production and the farming community, the study shows.

Mike Gooding, 2013 OFC chairman, said farmers had the skills and geographical reach to unlocking some of society’s most fundamental challenges, such as health, well-being and self-sustaining communities.

But turning these opportunities into reality was a “two-way process” that would require a better connection between wider society and farmers.

Mr Gooding said he hoped the study would help policymakers, the agricultural industry and the public and farmers themselves “think about how we can use what we have better to address society’s growing needs”.

Commenting on the report, DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson said: “Farming contributes much more to our society than the crucial role of putting safe, nutritious food on our tables.

“The industry’s worth £95bn a year to the economy thanks to growing demand abroad for our produce and our expertise. The market rewards that, but it doesn’t reward farming’s role as one of the principal custodians of our rural landscape and wildlife.

“Farmers play a crucial role, which is why I’m looking at new ways to reward them for the great public good they deliver.”

Highlights of the study showed:

  • 100% eat food from UK farms and 63% of all food is sourced from UK farms

  • UK farmland biodiversity is “valued” at £938.1m

  • 0.69% is employed in agriculture

  • Up to 19.5% of adults made an amenity visit to farmland in the past seven days

  • At least 7% regularly watch or listen to a farming-themed TV/radio programme

  • People are prepared to pay an extra £2,000 a year to live in a house close to farmland and nature

The findings are based on a review of published literature. The work was undertaken by Dr Peter Carruthers of Vision 37 Ltd and Michael Winter, professor and director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter. It was supported by Burges Salmon, the RSPB and Volac.

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Oxford Farming Conference 2013

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