David Richardson: Lessons from LEAF

We men all wore black ties and dinner jackets. The ladies were far more decorative, but I am not well enough informed on fashion to adequately describe their dresses. Suffice to say they looked good and were in the mood for celebration as we consumed a succession of courses of impeccable provenance.

The guest speakers were Gregg Wallace of BBC TV’s Masterchef and Raymond Blanc, also famous for his TV appearances, but even more for his Michelin-starred hotel and restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, in Oxfordshire. Also there performing charity auctioneering duties was past president of the RICS, Simon Pott who was entertaining as well as effective.

The birthday party, for that is what it was, marked the coming of age of LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) and those present had either, like me, been involved in its inception or become enthusiastic supporters since. The scale and extravagance of the event was in marked contrast to its modest beginnings. But even LEAF can be excused for pushing the boat out once in 18 years.

I won’t go on about the party except to say it was enjoyed by all present and mention that both speakers complemented LEAF on its achievements in promoting sustainably produced, British, local, quality food and urged it to continue. Raymond Blanc, who wore a bow tie featuring a Union Jack, was passionate on the matter. Bearing in mind his French antecedents, this was remarkable.

The following day the membership got down to business at LEAF’s annual conference, where speakers led discussion on the role LEAF could and should play in addressing the problems facing farmers and consumers. There was, of course, talk of imminent changes in food security around the world and the need to produce more in as environmentally friendly ways as possible.

Will Day, chairman of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, reminded us that in the lifetime of some of those present we had moved from scarcity to plenty, but that we were about to move back from plenty to scarcity. He also warned that the world was addicted to oil and that we must find ways to respond that did not add to carbon emissions and exacerbate climate change.

Alistair Leake of The Game and Wildlife Trust thought we should look after our soil structure better. “The quality of life below ground determines the productiveness above,” he said. Mike Barry, head of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer said when it comes to sustainability the world is at the foot of the mountain facing a long climb. We must all get better at it, but too many people, including farmers, ask “What’s the point?” Somehow, that apathy must be reversed.

Jon Hammond, a LEAF Marque Grower believed more consumers, encouraged by an increasingly friendly media, were heading in the right direction. This is a marvellous time to be farming, he said. But Ian Piggott, a LEAF demonstration farmer and the originator of the Open Farm Sunday concept – and fellow FW columnist – said there was still a lot more to do to improve the image of agriculture. Many consumers find farmers incomprehensible, he suggested, and we should be more pro-active in reaching out to them.

My contribution was to suggest that LEAF should aim to become the main vehicle on which to base the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. All the requirements of that campaign already exist within LEAF. If most UK farmers modified their practices to fit LEAF principles the government would have no reason to introduce regulations to replace set-aside.