Future prospects for the North’s arable farmers are improving
against a background of an increasing demand for biofuels, a growing
world population and global warming, The Arable Group’s biennial
Outlook conference at Scotch Corner was told by a line-up of keynote
Back left to right, Andrew Wells, Colin MacEwan, Guy Smith, Ian Crute, front left Clare Wenner
and Carmen Suarez with conference chairman Julian Cook, right.
More than 180 people, the majority of them arable farmers, attended
the conference on Thursday (Feb 8) which was addressed by Ian Crute,
director of Rothamstead Research, Clare Wenner, head of transport
biofuels Renewable Energy Association, Carmen Suarez, the NFU’s
chief economist, Andrew Wells, principal consultant for TAG Consulting,
Guy Smith an arable farmer and writer, and Colin MacEwan, TAG chief
The challenges created by a changing environment were also an
opportunity for producers in crop-based agriculture.
However, if the UK was to grasp this opportunity it was vitally
important to hold onto a research and development base, scientist,
director of Rothamstead Research and Newcastle University graduate
Ian Crute told the conference. Too low a priority was being placed
on skills and research.
And he also warned that emphasis was possibly being placed on
the wrong problems – such as the number of skylarks per hectare
rather than carbon emissions – and not doing enough to keep
the next generation on the land.
“Globalisation, international development, population growth,
energy security, regulatory regimes, the ‘green agenda’ and
even national security issues are just some of the major issues
that influence the business of crop-based agriculture,” said
“At the start of the 21st century, crop-based agriculture
faces a great challenge which is also a great opportunity. Human
civilisation ‘runs’ on photosynthesis that occurred
more than 100 million years ago – sooner or later we will
have to start running on other energy and that includes ‘real-time’ photosynthesis,” he
Of the earth’s 13 billion hectares, 8.7 billion would support
plant life. To support six billion people, currently 1.5 billion
hectares was cropped.
Professor Crute said if it was not for advanced crop protection
practices, the cropped land area to feed today’s population
would be four billion hectares and doubling by 2025.
“However, we know that we will need to produce fuel and
energy and food from the available land. This will only be done
by major elevation in efficiency and per hectare productivity,” he
“The projected increased global demand by 2050 could theoretically
be produced from plant biomass occupying about five pc of the global
land area – the same area as that currently used for cereals.”
A balance between land use for food crops and energy would need
to be struck. Food crops for energy use will be important but energy
from perennial crops such as short coppice rotation would dominate,
Clare Wenner, head of transport biofuels with the Renewable Energy
Association said plants were going to be the future for energy
“Five years ago when I started down this route there wasn’t
a great deal of interest – it was another fad. Certainly
that’s not the case now and it is very clear in the policy-makers’ minds
that biofuels have an important part to play,” she said.
Fuel security was the main factor driving the United States to
develop its biofuels industry.
“Our government, after a lot of consultation, decided it
would introduce the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation which comes
into effect in 2008. I worry whether the UK government is taking
it seriously enough,” she said.
Biofuels offered a solution to climate change and fuel security – but
it was no silver bullet, she added.
Farming in the future will be far more complicated than simply
concentrating solely on producing what the market wants as efficiently
That was the message to the conference from Guy
Smith who farms
combinable crops in Essex and who is also a journalist.
“Firstly we must convince policy makers and tax payers that
agriculture delivers ‘environmental goods’,” he
“Farmers must involve themselves in the argument as to what
these environmental goods are and what they are worth in terms
of bio-diversity, green sensibilities and reducing the carbon footprint.”
He said farmers needed to monitor the ecology of their units and
promote the positives.
Tomorrow’s successful farmer was not only one who produced
efficiently but who also communicated effectively, reminding people
that the British countryside was a working and productive landscape
and lobbying for the agricultural cause to secure market advantages
for home produced biofuels.
Without the Single Farm Payment the average farmer, based on tenanted
costings, would have lost money, according to the NFU’s chief
economist Carmen Suarez.
Survey data showed that while cereal farms received 55 pc of revenue
from crop output, 21 pc came from the SFP with 5 pc from agri-environment
schemes and 19 pc from, other sources such as livestock and diversification.
“The bottom line is that the SFP is still crucial to arable
enterprises so it is important to try to assess the nature of those
payments – how much and when the payments are to be made
and for how long,” she said.
In 2007 25 pc of agri-support would go into rural development,
increasing to 80 pc in 2012.
Crop revenues would be influenced by the reduced stocks to use
ratio with consumption outstripping production for the last few
Demographics including improved incomes in South East Asia leading
to a demand for more meat and therefore animal feed, the effects
of climate change which had already reduced Australia’s grain
harvest by 60 pc and the demand for biofuels would all influence
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