Food security is top concern at latest FW Question Time

Politicians and lobbyists joined researchers and farmers at the latest Question Time event at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire.

Food security was a major issue discussed in the Q&A, along with challenges facing growers, and labour shortages and flooding, affecting all sectors.

Read the Q&A highlights from the event.

See also: Full report from previous Question Time in Harrogate 

Meet the panel

Rt Hon Lord Benyon Minister of state, Defra

Lord Benyon is also minister for the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. He attended the Royal Agricultural College and formerly ran a farming and forestry business.

Victoria Vyvyan President, Country Land and Business Assocation

Victoria is involved in the CLA at branch, regional and national level. She lives in Cornwall and runs a diversified rural family business with a strong ecological focus.

Jon Storkey Principal research scientist, Rothamsted Research

Jon’s research aims to balance sustainable food production with public goods and services from farmland, such as achieving net zero and biodiversity.

Charlie Ireland Managing partner, at Ceres Rural

Agronomist Charlie has been providing farm management and consultancy advice to clients for 20 years. He is also a registered agricultural valuer.

Stuart Roberts Lib Dem adviser on food and farming

Former NFU deputy president Stuart is a third-generation farmer. He has worked for Defra, the Food Standards Agency and within the meat supply chain.

Listen to our special podcast episode below, recorded live at the event.


Food security

Are we sleepwalking our way to food insecurity as growers no longer have the right incentives to produce food?

Defra minister Lord Benyon denied this was happening, pointing to the 2020 Agriculture Act which states “It is the job of a secretary of state to make sure all the incentives for farmers are focused on the need for food production”.

The fact that government has now agreed to an annual food security report, rather than a three-yearly assessment, showed the importance it was now attaching to the matter, he said.  “We want farmers to produce food.”

Despite this, Lord Benyon insisted that food production and caring for the environment were not mutually exclusive. “We can feed a hungry world and we can restore our natural systems,” he said.

“That’s what we’re trying to do with Environmental Land Management and with a variety of other grant schemes to encourage innovation.”

Hertfordshire farmer and Liberal Democrat agriculture adviser Stuart Roberts agreed that it was not a binary choice between food or environment – although a farmer’s first job was “to produce food for an urban population that can’t feed itself”.

But he was concerned by the apparent imbalance within the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). “We’re incentivised to take out some very good, productive areas of our land, yet there is no incentive to support me in producing food,” he said.

Ceres Rural consultant Charlie Ireland had his doubts too, suggesting that if the country was not sleepwalking towards food insecurity, it may be “drifting” that way.

Rising input costs and this winter’s appalling weather had left many growers with “average looking crops, and quite healthy margins from the SFI options”.

“A lot of growers will be choosing non-productive options, so we need to focus on improvements in productivity,” he said.

Country Land and Business Association president Victoria Vyvyan insisted that farmers were up for the challenge of growing food and restoring nature, though they would need to harness technologies, such as gene editing and genetic modification, to get there.


Will the farming industry be better off with a change of government?

According to Mr Ireland, what was really needed was stability – with or without a change of government.

“For farming to thrive, it needs an environment to invest,” he said. “The threat of a new government is that we will have new policies. We also need a level playing field – I was pleased when the government fell out with Canada over beef.”

Mrs Vyvyan said it was prudent to remind political leaders “that we only lend them our votes”. “The first party that guarantees £4.2bn in the agriculture budget for each year of the next parliament has my vote,” she said.

Mr Roberts was quick to point out that, when all the political parties were put on the spot at the recent NFU conference in Birmingham, only one was prepared to commit to any long-term financial support for agriculture.

“That figure was £4.2bn and that will be in our (Liberal Democrat) manifesto.” He thanked Mrs Vyvyan for her support…

Mr Roberts acknowledged that the Lib Dems were unlikely to form the next government, but urged farmers to “go on the offensive” in claiming proper funding from the Treasury.

“We are now competing with schools, hospitals and every other part of the public sector,” he said.

“As farmers, we always ask ‘how do we protect our bit of the budget?’. We actually need to be offensive about this.

“For that £4.2bn, you buy the foundations for a domestic food supply, you buy some of the highest standards in the world, you buy the UK’s iconic landscape.”

But Lord Benyon, who spent 15 years in the House of Commons before moving to the House of Lords as a Tory peer, said it was not just about money.

“What people want is someone who really understands what a rural business faces at the moment,” he said. 

Audience comment

Roger Weston suggested that, traditionally, agriculture had always done better under a Labour government.

“The current government has got to do a huge amount to persuade the population to vote for it,” he said. “Whether they’ll get there by the next election, I rather doubt it.”


What should seed breeders be focusing on to meet the needs of farmers and consumers?

Given the increasing challenge from pests, diseases and the weather, Jon Storkey of Rothamsted Research said there was a growing emphasis on what he called “sustainability traits” in new varieties.

“We’re working to improve the efficiency of inputs, especially nitrogen, so that more of the mineral fertiliser we put in the ground actually ends up in the grain,” he said.

“We also need traits to make varieties more resistant to cabbage stem flea beetle, aphid damage, and more weed suppression – especially blackgrass.”

Greater early vigour was a “win-win”, he said, that does not compromise yield potential, but does make it more suppressive against the weeds early in the season.

“Yes, we’re interested in yield, but the emphasis is on varieties that enable us to get more out of what we are putting in.”

Mr Ireland also pointed to the challenge of a declining armoury of active ingredients. “Taking older traits, and developing multivariety mixes, and working with the mills so that they’re happy to take multivariety mixes, is something we should be looking at,” he said.

Mr Roberts agreed that resource-use efficiency was important, but so too was the nutritional profile of future products for consumers.

“We often talk about food in simplistic terms around calories, but the nutrient density and nutrient profile is going to become really important.”

Lord Benyon considered drought tolerance to be crucial – especially given that his farm is reputedly in the second driest parish in England.

But the benefits went further than that – for example, in relation to human migration, as developing drought-tolerant varieties might allow people to survive in the most climate-stressed parts of the world rather than face agricultural collapse.

Audience comment

Phil Jarvis, from Leicestershire, stressed the importance of farmers and researchers working together, something that organisations such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and UK Innovate had tried.

“If you ask farmers [what they want], you’ll have more research on blackgrass than slugs, while the academics would be more interested in traits, Latin names and funding. There is more work to do. But UK Innovate has been in that space.”


Should farmers be offered grants for water storage and flood defences?

According to Mr Roberts, water management presents a massive opportunity for farmers.

“We should recognise that there are not many bigger public goods than allowing your farmland to be used to store water to save businesses, to save lives, and save houses,” he said. “That public good has a value, and we should be paid for that.

“But we also need to be sure that we have the infrastructure and investment in place to get the water off the land in a timely manner. It’s not the first flooding event that is the problem.

“It is the fact it can be sat there for long periods of time.”

Mr Roberts also called for an integrated water strategy. “We have got to get better at investing, storing and moving water because it is a huge opportunity for us. We also need to be agile.

“If we have a flash weather event, even if it’s in the summer and all you have is an abstraction licence for the winter, let’s be agile and grab that water and put it in a reservoir.”

Lord Benyon agreed that farmers should be paid to create water storage on their farms, pointing out that there are already grants and capital allowances to encourage this.

“You have to remember with water that it flows,” he added. “If you can hold it up on farmland, the business that’s being affected needs to be rewarded for protecting people downstream.”

Mr Ireland explained that the new SFI 2024, which will open for applications this summer, will have an option for water storage on land.

“We’ve yet to see the detail, though so far the payment (at £366/ha) looks quite promising for less productive land.”

When it came to grants for reservoirs, however, Mr Ireland described the process as “painful”. “The grant funding window and getting planning permission do not align and are managed by different departments,” he said.


How can we have a workforce that is fit for the future?

The general consensus was that the farming industry has to sell itself to an increasingly discerning younger generation, highlighting the positives and explaining the technological advances.

“Despite all the doom and gloom, uncertainty and challenges at the moment, I think being in the food sector, in the land use sector, in the ecosystems services sector, is a pretty exciting place to be,” said Mr Roberts. “If we promote that, then we will attract the brightest and the best.

“We must remember that young people today have a plethora of choices about what career they go into. We cannot expect them to go farming just because we want them to.

“We do need to look at our wages, our hours, the conditions we put them in. Other industries are competing for the brightest and the best. We’ve got to get better at attracting them to our industry.”

Lord Benyon stressed the importance of providing young people with a career pathway.

“They love the technology they see in the tractor cab on Clarkson’s Farm. But they don’t want to start as a tractor driver and finish as a tractor driver 50 years later.

“They want a qualification that is portable, that can take them into some other part of land management, food production or even some other industry.”

Organisations such as Lantra and The Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture had a key role to play, he said.

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