Opinion: Technology is key to better environment and welfare

The government’s trifecta of objectives for British agriculture – namely to deliver an industry that is internationally competitive, while achieving world-class levels of both animal welfare and environmental net gain – is indeed a worthy, if rather challenging one.

Throw into this mix the need to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2040 and the ambition begins to look, by any objective yardstick, perhaps more aspirational than achievable… unless every possible wheel and cog in an increasingly complex machine is fully greased.

High-profile policies, such as the introduction of an Environmental Land Management scheme, are a necessary component of this and can, if structured in a rational and evidence-based way, drive behaviours that will yield dividends on all three fronts.

However, it will by no means be enough and risks falling hostage to the green fringe, tilting the balance of the industry’s focus too far away from productivity, with potentially damaging long-term consequences for the entire rural economy and, ironically, the wider environment.

See also: Can Agri-Tech deliver new ‘golden age’ for farmers?

Technological innovation and the intensification of agriculture, while widely pilloried and derided in the media, has been an immense force for good for both society and the planet.

It is the most democratic and equitable of processes, that raises the standard of living for all, making food more affordable and accessible, by reducing the total resource use, thus easing rather than increasing pressure on the environment.

For too long, the livestock sector in the UK has been held back by an expensive, byzantine and fundamentally unfair planning system

It should come as no surprise, therefore, when viewed holistically, that those countries whose agriculture is most technologically advanced tend to have not only the most affordable food, but also the best track record of environmental improvement and conservation.

Admittedly, there have been a few hiccups along the way. Any innovation process requires one to learn from the mistakes of the past; and agriculture is no exception.

Modern farming benefits

Modern farming is so far removed from that of even 20 years ago, delivering food with much lower resource use and thus environmental footprint than could have been imagined by previous generations.

The same can be said for animal welfare, which again, counter to popular mythology, benefits hugely from technological progress, not least in building design.

After all, a healthy environment invariably leads to healthier, happier, more productive livestock that in turn yield more affordable food with better welfare outcomes, and a lower environmental and carbon footprint.

This is why a fit-for-purpose planning process is a vital component of any credible strategy for agriculture.

For too long, the livestock sector in the UK has been held back by an expensive, byzantine and fundamentally unfair planning system that appears designed to thwart the industry’s best endeavours to move forward and take advantage of technological progress. 

Obsolete building stock, perpetuated by the futility of the planning process rather than the fundamental economics of livestock production, is a root cause of productivity, welfare and environmental underperformance.

It can also be a significant handicap to attracting and retaining the quality of staff necessary to make any modern system run efficiently.

While perhaps less appealing to politicians than simply rolling out payment schemes for wildflowers or planting trees on marginal farmland, an overhaul of planning regulations, with the potential to contribute so much to the nation’s environmental, animal welfare and food security ambition, is worthy of rather more ministerial attention than it currently receives.

Upcoming webinar

What does the future of farming look like post Covid-19 and Brexit?

Register now
See more