The case for why the past 50 years have left a good legacy for UK farming

The farming industry is far more stable and efficient than it was 50 years ago and we ought to be celebrating that fact, argues Lord Plumb

“Both my heart and my head tell me that the last 50 years have left UK agriculture with a good rather than a bad legacy. However even the unrestrained optimist like me knows that to summarise the performance of a sector as varied and multifaceted as agriculture over a period as long as 50 years in a limited space, can be both difficult and over-simplistic. I just hope my approach does justice to an issue that I feel so strongly about.

Good” is a relative concept; perhaps a true assessment of the last 50 years should be made against its historical background. On the grounds of my involvement in farming in the last five decades and the knowledge of my father’s experiences in the 50 years prior to that, I think I have a fair idea of the differences.  

While some common traits obviously emerge, such as the resilient nature of farmers, the differences are also striking. Despite recent downturns, stability underpinned by national and later EU policies have characterised the last 50 years to a greater extent than the ‘boom and bust’ of previous decades.

This stability partly created by giving farmers confidence about return on their investments became evident, for example, by their participation in technological development – an issue which is at the core of our industry today.

The result has been a period where the generalised adoption of new technologies from plant protection to GPS systems and increased professionalism has led to unprecedented gains in yield.

Wheat yields improved by less than 50% between 1907 and 1957, but have increased more than three-fold since then. Animal productivity, with more efficient breeding and rearing techniques and rises in milk yields, has allowed the sector to satisfy the increasing demands of society.

In fact, one cannot avoid marveling at the fact that, despite an increase in UK population of over 15%, British agriculture is still providing for a similar degree of self-sufficiency in indigenous produce that it was in the post-war period, and all that while using less land and much less labour. 

In any other industry, such an efficiency improvement would be celebrated; in agriculture, it is frequently obviated and too often derided.

I would further argue that any time is only as good as the legacy it leaves and the legacy of our sector is for all to see. It is the beautiful and well farmed countryside that surrounds us, the millions of satisfied consumers, the increasing demand for British produce and the growing public awareness of the fact that, to paraphrase the NFU campaign, farming matters.

We can ensure that the future is characterised by a better understanding of the importance of cooperation, of connecting with the public and of the role of supermarkets. It ultimately depends on the preparedness of the sector to face the future and that is now more important than ever.

We are facing changing and challenging times with the land potentially becoming not only a source of food, but also of energy which makes it part of the solution in mitigating climate change.

But with agricultural production becoming increasingly important and the lessons learnt from the past, I believe that we are well prepared to face the future. Judging by the growing confidence in the sector demonstrated by the rising prices that agricultural land commands, so do many others.

They seem to agree with me that, despite low returns over the last fifty years on many family farms, young farmers can face a brave new world with greater confidence. They know that the legacy of today is much better than the one I inherited more than 50 years ago.”

* Lord Plumb was president of the NFU from 1970-79 and is a former president of the European Parliament. He is an active member of the House of Lords and is involved in many national and international voluntary organisations.

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