The NFU exists for our members, but it is not our job to tell them how to farm. We provide the information they need and we will influence policy to help them run their
business well and competitively. To help farmers farm, they need to keep in touch with the latest innovations in farm practices and technology. Hence NFU also works on science and technology, with a particular focus on trying to ensure that there is real farmer involvement. This is why the NFU supports initiatives such as SIP, but we will also challenge SIP to make itself relevant to farming and ensure farmers are involved in the process. We would encourage everyone involved with the SIP to get out talk to farmers and find out what they see as the barriers to intensifying their business sustainably.
Currently, UK farmers are part of a competitive and complex global system for food, feed and fibre, and face major challenges including pressures on resources, rising costs, extreme weather, supply chain expectations, price volatility, recession and regulation. Productivity is currently stagnant in the UK and there is a significant yield gap between theoretical production and what is routinely achieved commercially. Sustainable intensification must be the goal. Competitiveness, resilience and profitability are critical, both for a viable industry and for management of the land and wider environment.
Therefore no one who works in the food and farming industry can avoid the need to intensify sustainably. It is easy to get drawn into a discussion on defining the terms, but the NFU is clear that sustainability is a balance of economic development, social progress and environmental responsibility. For a farmer to intensify their business sustainably, they will be looking at profitability, as well as managing social and environmental impacts. We are used to measuring our economy in financial terms, but the original definition of economy was ‘careful management of available resources’ so perhaps we are just talking about ‘farming economically’?
The UK agri-food sector is an important part of our economy; in fact it contributes more than car manufacturing and aerospace combined. But it is also unlike any other industry covering a range of sectors, a variety of business sizes, a social investment from the farmer who lives and works in a business that has often been in the family for generations, and a direct environmental responsibility. The challenge for the food and farming industry is that we have a responsibility to feed 9 billion by 2050 as part of the global food supply chain, but also to do this in a way which doesn’t degrade the environment. That is why initiatives like the SIP should be major pieces in the toolkit to help us tackle the challenges ahead.
Farmers have a desire and an ability to adapt to future sustainability challenges, but they need access to the tools and knowledge to help them take the next step. Engaging with farmers gives a real sense of perspective for researchers on the issues that have to be dealt with on a day-to-day basis. As an example, the development of new digital technology for agriculture may not get traction at farm level, if the business has poor mobile coverage or broadband speed. A recent NFU survey of members showed only 15% had a reliable signal across the farm and 63% said their broadband speed was insufficient for business transactions.
This is why applied research and knowledge exchange activities are important so that the science can have genuine impact on the ground. More sustainable, efficient, productive and competitive farming systems need access to the best knowledge and tools. It is not just innovative technology that is needed but also farm practices. Farmers need the right skills to access all these and the long-term security to apply them to their businesses. This is where the NFU hopes that the SIP can play a unique role in providing real practical tools that can be taken up by farmers and implemented within their farm businesses.
Sam is NFU Chief Land Management Adviser, leading on sustainable intensification, knowledge exchange and government funded advice. He also manages teams working on the Basic Payment Scheme, land agency issues and the agricultural industry environment initiatives.
This article also appeared in SIPSCENE, the newsletter of the Sustainable Intensification Research Platform, Autumn 2015.