House of Lords Lunch

Farming needs radical innovation Lord Matt Ridley told a Farmers Club reception at the House of Lords 

 Matt Ridley

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FARMING has great reason for optimism globally, but great cause for pessimism locally, guest speaker and columnist for The Times Viscount Matt Ridley, told Farmers Club members at a special luncheon in the House of Lords on Tuesday 24th November. 

Global optimism springs from the industry’s undoubted ability to keep pace with the surging demand for food, despite rising world populations and prosperity, said Lord Ridley, a Conservative peer whose family estate is Blagdon Hall, near Cramlington in Northumberland. 

But that same productivity is cause for pessimism on UK farms, with prices likely to be held down for the foreseeable future, particularly since Africa had yet to embrace green technologies to boost its farm outputs. 

To prosper British agriculture needs radical innovation to produce high value foods, such as the omega-3 rich flax being developed at Rothamsted, and to do so in increasingly clever ways, he said. 

With that in mind he slammed European regulations, with their ‘precautionary principle’, which was severely restricting farm chemical options and preventing the adoption of genetic modification technologies that could replace them. 

The precautionary principle seemed to weigh risks, without considering benefits, and compared likely outcomes with an impossible perfection, he said. A staunch opponent of regulations he favoured a more ambitious pursuit of technical advances.

“It is quite extraordinary that despite the population doubling the calories provided per person has gone up 30% in the past few decades,” he said. “Harvests have more than kept pace, with average food prices falling over the past two centuries.”

With the average yield of wheat, rice and maize up 20% in the past decade the world was on target to deliver the 70% rise in demand for food that has been forecast for 2050, he said.

“I was sitting on the combine on my own farm this autumn and saw the yield monitor display 5t/acre, something I was delighted to relay to Lord Plumb in the House. He responded ‘5.4 tonnes lad....!’ 

“The maths is amazing. For each seed sown we harvested 60-70, a far cry from the two or three, and at best four, recorded in the Middle Ages, with one of those needed as seed for the following year.” 

That surge in yields was an achievement worth recognising, he insisted. “Famine has been banished from the world.... apart from in countries with particularly stupid leaders.” 

Less land and lower rates of inputs were now needed per unit of production, which was benefitting the environment. “We are probably about to start releasing land from production, because we are on target to meet global food demands, with an area the size of India set to come out of production by 2050,” he suggested. 

The downside, for UK farmers, was that with productivity matching demand there was little likelihood of better prices. “I see no prospect of a sustained rise in prices, particularly when Africa has not yet even started its own green revolution, in a continent that is as big as China, India, the US and most of Europe put together. Clearly less marginal land is going to be needed for farming.” 

So innovation was required. “The UK is doing quite well with precision farming, but there are two big threats – fewer [farm] chemicals and the absence of GM technology as an alternative.”

“Don’t think climate change is coming to the rescue, because it is actually bringing net benefits, through raised yields due to the crop fertilising effect of higher CO2 levels and increased precipitation,” he added.

The mid-November event in the Cholmondeley Room at the House of Lords was hosted by Club member the Duke of Montrose, and attended by over 100 guests, including Baroness Byford and Lord Plumb. It was sponsored by global chemical manufacturer BASF, celebrating its 150th year in 2015.  

  • The Farmers Club Cup, which is usually presented at the House of Lords luncheon, was due to be presented at the CropTec event in Peterborough on Wednesday 25th November.