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Challenges for farmers

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IT IS interesting to compare a speech on the challenges facing agriculture given by the Secretary of State at defra, Mr Hilary Benn, at the Oxford Farming Conference last week with a speech he gave on the future of farming at a conference in London last November (see VR, November 24, 2007, vol 161, p 705). The two speeches were in many respects similar, and pursued themes that will be familiar to those who have followed ministerial pronouncements on this topic in recent years, namely, that the world is changing rapidly and farmers need to adapt. However, Mr Benn's comments last week differed from those made in November in that, as well as highlighting farming's impact on the environment, he also emphasised its role in the production of food. Given the thrust of most recent statements from ministers, this is something of a departure for the Government, and one which is welcome.

The Government's position on food production and how it relates to ensuring national food supplies was set out in an analysis paper by defra economists in December 2006. This sought to separate the issue of food security from that of self-sufficiency in food production, and argued that concern being expressed that Britain was not self-sufficient was misplaced. Rather, it argued, in an advanced world economy, food security was a multifaceted and complex issue, and it was better to maintain a flexible approach, with food being obtained from several sources (see VR, January 6, 2007, vol 160, p 1).

Mr Benn did not go so far in his speech last week as to say that Britain should aim to become self-sufficient in food production. However, he did draw attention to the problems that could arise if supply chains were disrupted and to the difficulties caused by last summer's floods. He also drew attention to the challenges — and opportunities — for agriculture as the worldt's population increases and demand for food grows. Noting that the global population is predicted to increase from 6 billion to 9·5 billion over the next four decades, he posed the question: ‘How will we feed the 9·5 billion human beings with whom we are likely to be sharing this planet in 2050?’. He also noted that, with rising meat and dairy consumption in China, India and other fast-developing countries, global demand for meat and milk is projected to more than double over the next 40 years. In a global economy, food production must be geared to the demands of the market, and Mr Benn clearly saw British farmers producing high-value products for niche markets. However, after a decade or more in which farmers have repeatedly been told they are producing too much food, his comments came as a breath of fresh air.

Predictably, Mr Benn drew attention to the role of farmers in safeguarding the environment and helping to reduce the impact of climate change, calling on farmers to help reduce carbon emissions and ‘climate proof’ their businesses. Agriculture needed to be at the heart of efforts to adapt to a changing climate — by supporting flood and sustainable water management, for example, or providing habitats to help wildlife to adapt — and these ‘ecosystem services’ needed to be better recognised and rewarded. There was also a need for better recognition of the role of farmers in managing and protecting stores of carbon in soils and woodland, and farming's potential to help reduce society's carbon footprint, for example, by providing crops for energy or biogas from manure. However, while farming was an important part of the solution to climate change, it was also part of the problem. Agriculture, he said, was responsible for 7 per cent of the uk's greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second biggest contributor after the energy sector. Globally, agriculture accounted for about 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock accounting for about 18 per cent of greenhouse gases if emissions across the whole chain were included, and there was a need to tackle this problem on a global basis.

Meeting world food demands while simultaneously dealing with the effects of climate change and other pressures on the environment clearly presents challenges for agriculture. The contribution that the veterinary profession can make in helping to meet some of these challenges will be considered at this year's bva Congress, to be held in London from September 26 to 27, where the theme for the political sessions will be ‘Vets in a changing environment’.

Mr Benn made welcome reference in his speech to animal health and welfare, arguing that the quality of food was important and that higher animal health and welfare standards added value to produce. He also listed work on new and emerging diseases as one of defra's research priorities, along with research on climate change and on the availability and protection of natural resources. His comments on animal health were qualified by a reaffirmation that the Government was determined to pursue its agenda on cost and responsibility sharing but, with defra having recently published a consultation document on this subject (see VR, December 15, 2007, vol 161, p 798), that much had already been made clear. His overall message for farmers, which may also apply to veterinarians serving the livestock sector, was that the changing environment presents opportunities as well as threats, and that it is in everyone's interests that these are grasped.

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