It’s all too easy to blame farmers when food leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. And the same is true when it comes to the countryside – or at least the state of the rural environment and the wildlife it supports.
After all, agriculture is our most visible rural industry. The number of farmers may be declining but agriculture remains the UK’s biggest land user, with crops and livestock dominating most of the country’s surface area.
Yet the average consumer has little idea of what happens on the average farm. The closest most people get to seeing food produced these days is on TV or through the car or train window as they hurtle from one town to the next.
It’s hardly surprising. We’re a post-industrial urban-based society. So while an army of celebrity chefs feeds our seemingly insatiable appetite for TV shows about food, few of us actually get our hands dirty producing it.
Despite the resurgent popularity of programmes like BBC Countryfile, our understanding as a nation of the complexities facing farmers striving to make a living from the land remains limited.
Many of the major factors influencing agricultural productivity and profitability are out of farmers’ hands. The most obvious is the weather. But food producers are also at the mercy of political and economic forces they can do little about.
Farmers have done a great job over the past 70 years responding to politicians’ demands for cheap, plentiful food. So successfully, in fact, we now spend under 15% of our income on food – less than half the proportion 50 years ago.
Having succeeded on this score, now farmers are being asked to produce food more sustainably. But for this is to work more widely, consumers must keep their side of the bargain too – valuing food more highly and wasting less of it.
That’s because the marketplace doesn’t reward farmers for looking after the countryside. Which explains the growing shift in farm subsidies away from food production and towards environmental measures.
A new generation of farmers is signing up to environment schemes like never before. And their initially skeptical fathers, reared on a diet of post-war subsidies to boost production at seemingly any cost, are gradually being won over.
If anyone is moving too slowly when it comes to rebalancing food production and conservation, it is the policy-makers not the food producers.
In the 20 years I’ve been involved in agriculture, I’ve seen a step change in the way land is managed. Farmers are more than willing to embrace their environmental responsibilities – and more will do so, with wider support.
This article was written as a guest blogpost responding to a paper by RSPB conservation director Martin Harper. To see it on Martin’s website, click here.