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Redefining productivity and efficiency of UK farming systems

Posted: 15 October 2019 | | No comments yet

While the current approach to UK agricultural economics focuses on a growth in outputs and optimising inputs, the report states that a change in assessing the economics of food production is key.

Report looks at redefining productivity and efficiency of UK farming systems

A report launched by OF&G (Organic Farmers & Growers) has proposed a new approach to the way productivity and efficiency of UK farm businesses is assessed, with the view of building a more resilient and sustainable system of food production.

The report was written by Independent Consultant, Christopher Stopes, and it states that a change in assessing the economics of food production must happen if we are to address the major environmental and social challenges facing us.

With the Agriculture Bill back in parliament and the proposed New Food Strategy setting out aspirations that will require a systemic shift, the launch of the report comes at a crucial time.

“Business as usual is not an option,” said Roger Kerr, Chief Executive of OF&G. “We cannot carry on eroding natural assets to the point of no return. Despite a well-intended approach, driven by a profit and loss method of accounting, it has unintentionally led to serious negative consequences to the environment, while not actually improving farm incomes.

“Although yields did initially increase between the 1960s and 1980s through the use of ‘modern’ farming chemistry, they have since largely plateaued, while nutritional value has decreased. In fact, it was recently reported that we now need to eat twice as many calories to receive the same nutritional content, which, among other things, is driving the obesity crisis.”

Kerr outlines that farmers’ quests to become efficient and productive, in its current definition, is not working and objectives must change. “In principle, if you can produce two things from the land where you once produced one thing, you are doing a good job. But the question is, at what cost, and for what gain?

“Current conventional models of production mean we are failing to produce food within environmental boundaries, resulting in climate change, biodiversity loss and soil degradation. Continuing to mine resources in this way will ultimately provide results for no-one.”

The report sets out an alternative way of defining how to measure farm productivity and efficiency. “Like in other business models, UK agriculture needs to change its financial principles and consider the entire balance sheet, including wider assets and liabilities. Rather than a traditional profit and loss approach there needs to be a focus on overall equity value or net worth,” said Stopes. 

“Factoring in non-cash outcomes in the context of the environment, such as soil carbon content, biodiversity and agricultural landscapes, resilience to flooding and rural vitality, is essential to prompt the system shift required to address the challenges we face.”

Stopes believes that going organic is well-placed to address these challenges. He described it as a systems approach to food production that can contribute to reversing negative impacts on the environment by providing healthier soils and a more diverse mix of flora and fauna, while reducing pollution and nutrient overloads.

“It is clear, however, to address the broader challenges our food system faces, organic and agroecological approaches to food production must be accompanied by a reduction in food waste and more on-farm nutrient cycling – important for all crops especially when rearing livestock,” Stopes added.

“There is a misconception that we need to produce more food to feed the growing world population, which is anticipated to be 9.7 billion by 2050. This call to increase food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritise the growing population of livestock and automobiles (via biofuel) over hungry people.

“Around a third of the food we produce is currently lost or wasted, so if policies were directed to avoid waste and encourage balanced dietary choices with meat and non-meat foods, we could feed everyone now. The real challenge is how we continue to do this in a way that protects and enhances our increasingly frail and dysfunctional environment.”

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