After the calm of the Christmas break, the Oxford Farming Conference, which takes place in early January each year, ensures that the agricultural year always gets off to a lively start. And with a theme of Ambitious Agriculture, this year’s event was no exception.
Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss was the opening speaker at the first full day of the conference on Wednesday. She gave a rousing address in which she gave numerous examples of the UK’s agricultural successes and stated that “we have the land, the technology, the entrepreneurial flair – and above all the fantastic food – to lead the world”.
Tying in with the Minister’s themes of technology and innovation, and providing a good example of the sort of ambitious activity she was referring to, it was also announced that EBLEX has successfully bid for a £1.75 million Defra project focusing on selective beef breeding. The research, which is the largest project EBLEX has ever undertaken in terms of cost, aims to deliver a positive effect on both the economic performance and environmental impact of UK beef production in the UK. The project has a projected increase in farm level profit of 39 per cent and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 22 per cent.
It’s fair to say that not everyone at the Oxford Farming Conference shared the Secretary of State’s optimistic outlook for the farming industry. Yesterday, the conference closed with an Oxford Union debate on a motion, proposed by Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), that intensive agriculture is no longer sustainable. Leaving aside the fact that ‘intensive agriculture’ is a term that is very difficult to define, particularly in the context of UK livestock farming, the majority of delegates favoured the view of the debate’s opposer, Caroline Drummond of Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF). Her argument that intensification didn’t mean more cows in the barn, it rather meant intensifying all aspects of agriculture to produce more to feed a growing world population, led to the motion being defeated by 269 votes to 81.
Another controversial speaker was Guardian columnist George Monbiot. A vocal critic of the industry in the past, his staunch criticism of farming, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) provoked a strong reaction from the floor, with NFU deputy president Minette Batters declaring herself “speechless” following his comments about the organisation. He also repeated his attack on the use of subsidies to support sheep farming in the uplands, describing the “sheep shagged landscapes” he believes result from this practice.
The views of George Monbiot and Philip Lymbery are unlikely to find a great deal of sympathy with an audience consisting primarily of producers and stakeholders who are actively involved in a farming system which the speakers consider to be broken. However, a truly progressive industry should be prepared to engage with critics and take part in a healthy debate which can only serve to drive the sector forward. No industry can rest on its laurels – continual improvement, through research such as the beef feed efficiency project, is essential to address the sustainability challenges which are always directed at the farming sector and provide a response to those critics.