In January 2002 the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food published its findings. This report had been preceded by similar considerations of future agriculture and land use by the devolved assemblies of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All of these documents deliver consistent messages, and together mark a watershed for both agriculture and agricultural research within the UK. Effectively they recognised the lack of relevance of the 'production at all costs' strategy that drove UK farming in the decades after the end of World War II. Whilst the Curry Report acknowledges the structural issues associated with the Common Agricultural Policy that have led to the continued existence of direct production subsidies, it looks beyond this to a pattern of land use that is both multi-functional and more responsive to the needs of the consumer and the market-place. What none of the reports do, however, is to underestimate the challenges involved in implementing reform. The current state of the farming industry is one where capital for reinvestment is lacking, where the age structure is badly skewed towards those close to retirement and where returns have continued to fall against a background of high land prices. Restructuring under such conditions is extremely difficult and there are real dangers that short-term pressures may work against the longer-term needs of the industry and those who live, work and pursue recreational activities in the countryside. Nevertheless, these reports have begun to generate a new blueprint for UK agriculture. This can be summarised in three words: multi-functionality, quality and sustainability. Personally, I find the emphasis on sustainability very heartening since it recognises the need to obtain an economic return from land if people are to remain actively engaged in its management. This must imply a partnership between agricultural production and the delivery of other goods and services for which income will be forthcoming. Such income can be of many kinds. There will be payment by government for the delivery of environmental goods such as payments under the Tir Gofal scheme or payments to offset production losses associated with land managements that deliver better flood control. Equally important, however, will be payment by consumers for goods and services that lie outside food production, such as tourism, recreational activities and catering. The range of opportunities in these areas is wide but the market for individual elements in any given area will often be quite small and this will tend to encourage multi-functionality. In previous introductions to IGER Innovations, I have argued that the search for high-value food products, with more of the value being retained closer to the source of production, will also lead to an increase in agricultural diversity. What then are the research challenges that need to be met if this blueprint is to become reality? The first challenge is to maintain scientific creativity and radical thought in an environment in which research is increasingly expected to deliver a product to a price. This requires the maintenance of funding for curiosity-driven research to be linked to a greater awareness of the problems facing the users of such research. In addition, this type of research must be linked to the availability of strategic expertise in ways that support the development of comprehensive solutions to key problems. This means that large research teams, engaged in the full range of basic, strategic and applied science and linked to effective knowledge transfer, will become increasingly important in the delivery of research. This has been recognised in other European countries rather more clearly than it has been in the UK. This issue of IGER Innovations demonstrates clearly our preparedness to help meet the new needs of 21st Century agriculture. We have articles describing basic research into genetics and biochemistry linked to descriptions of successful plant breeding both in the UK and abroad. We also describe work that supports novel land uses and the delivery of environmental goods including enhanced biodiversity and reduced losses from farm wastes. We also detail how all these studies can be linked to our expanding efforts in extension and knowledge transfer. These efforts are increasingly extending beyond our bases in Wales and south-west England and are emphasising the multi-functional management of grassland. Critics of UK agriculture frequently call for a return to the old principles of husbandry, without considering the changed nature of the interactions between farmers, food, consumers and the countryside. I believe that we need to look forward to a distinctive 21st Century approach to these issues, not look back to the 19th Century. Under these circumstances, science must be part of the solution and we must not let it be written off by its critics as part of the problem. The articles within this issue do, I believe, lend strong support to my positive view of the future.
|Publisher||Prifysgol Aberystwyth | Aberystwyth University|
|Publication status||Published - 2002|