Oxford Farming Conference – whichever path, technology is an enabler

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From floating farms to rewilding, the rise of social media influencers and the promise of technology, not to mention pending political events, the mood at the 2019 Oxford Farming Conference clearly reflected the need to face and embrace change.

When asked via live poll how confident they feel about the future of British agriculture, OFC delegates responses ranged from “buoyant” (19%), and “confident” (37%), to “apprehensive” (38%) and “Help!” (5%).

Brexit looms 

Oxford Farming Conference Michael Gove
Michael Gove warns a no- deal Brexit means we face overall tariff rates of around 11% on agricultural products

As Secretary of State Michael Gove wryly noted in his speech that followed, a politician generally experiences this spectrum of emotions in a single day, however they did broadly reflect the spread of views throughout the conference.

The opportunities are clearly there to be explored, while the potential costs and risks of a no-deal Brexit led some to be at the “Help!” end of the spectrum.

A clear call was also issued by the NFU President for “warm words” around maintaining food production standards to be enshrined in law to mitigate the threat of cheaper, lower quality imports.

Having accepted change is coming, the next question is how soon, at what cost, and at what scale. The first two questions are potentially dependent on the political events of the coming months, but the question of scale remains an even bigger challenge.

Elsewhere, Defra’s Chief Scientist, Prof Ian Boyd contends that dramatic, disruptive solutions are needed (for example, large scale vertical farming, insect production, cellular agriculture for animal-free meat and milk products) – incremental improvements are just not going to deliver the increasing demands for food production, environmental benefits and business competitiveness.

Others see a continuum where current good practice is rewarded and incentivised further to effect gradual change and incremental technological improvements are the way to progress. So big sweeping disruption, or gradual change?

The crossroads at which British agriculture currently stands has many other “either / or” decisions on its metaphorical signpost, all of which will have a major impact on the future of the industry and OFC2019 highlighted many of them.

Leave or Remain (if that is still an option)? Deal or No Deal? Natural capital management or food productivity? Profit or public good?

Happily most delegates when asked by a show of hands felt that productive agriculture and environmental stewardship were not mutually exclusive and can be co-delivered. But how well placed are we as an industry to accommodate both in order to deliver the transformational changes being called for by Ian Boyd? It is critical that future policies, farmer incentives and sensible impact metrics will allow this to happen.

Rise of social media influencers

Julie Borlaug, OFC19
Julie Borlaug says agriculture needs to overhaul the way it communicates with the public

Elsewhere in the conference other transitions from “old” to “new” were being discussed. Julie Borlaug (grand-daughter of Norman Borlaug – the so-called “father of the Green Revolution”) reflected on the ongoing challenge of communication around new agricultural technologies.

The democratisation of knowledge via the channel of social media has enabled the rise of influencers who tout the benefits of so-called “gluten-free” vegetables, salt and even mattresses!

Julie Borlaug also commented on the need to shift from profit to purpose, hierarchies to networks, privacy to transparency, and controlling to empowerment.

Get these right, she argued, and you are on your way to real change.

And what of research, innovation and new technologies?

Artificial intelligence on farms, controlled environmental production for micro-veg, speed breeding of cereals, and even harnessing the “circular economy” where cows carry out “biomass upcycling” on floating farms – technology was mentioned almost without exception in every talk.

Technology features more strongly on the second day with presentations from Matt Smith from Microsoft and Cristobal Uauy of JIC  and also Kate Pressland talking about the Innovative Farmers Programme.

Suffolk farmer and AHDB Strategic Farm host Brian Barker issued a call-to-arms to scientists to spend more time on farms, citing collaboration and attention to detail as being the key to unlocking the potential of successful use of science-based decision-making for the industry. In a closing poll following the Science lecture by Sir Mark Walport (CEO of UK Research and innovation)

81 % of delegates felt that publicly funded research and innovation has the ability to make a difference in farming.

And that is without the wealth of innovation underway in the private sector which is already coming onto the market. Innovation is ubiquitous, enabling and empowering. It is one of the key enablers which will help agriculture and horticulture – both in the UK and beyond – achieve its full potential, whichever path we choose.

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