16 November 2001 - 18 November 2001

Sustainable agriculture: what is farming for?

Chair: The Earl of Selborne KBE FRS

Appropriately perhaps for an estate in the middle of some of the most attractive farmland and countryside in England, we celebrated our return to Ditchley, after a nine month break for the refurbishment of the Mansion, with a conference on Sustainable Agriculture.  We looked at the issue under three broad headings:  Food production;  Environmental care;  and other uses of the countryside such as tourism, recreation and business.  As our discussions developed the interlinked nature of these questions became ever more apparent as did the pervasive effect and influence of agriculture on all our lives.

We sought to establish whether agriculture was in a crisis, a view held by many British participants, and its relative economic weight in our economies.  Some pointed to the dramatic fall in farm incomes in recent years and the steady drift from the land, particularly among the young people.  Others painted a less gloomy picture.  In the medium to longer term, it was argued, there were exciting possibilities such as the use of crops for pharmaceutical purposes and for energy production.  And we were reminded that by 2030 there was likely to be a very significant increase in the world population involving up to a 100% increase in the demand for food.  As to agriculture’s significance, in developed economies, the number of people directly involved and their contribution to national GNP might be below 2%.  But if agriculture was considered as a provider of raw materials to a much wider range of industries, the figure was closer to 20%, a significant number. 

In considering the production of food and its cost we looked at the roles of Governments, Farmers and Consumers.   We thought that Governments had an obligation to ensure the security of food supply for their citizens.  This begged the question of what exactly “security” might mean.  If people had access to adequate food supplies, did that constitute security or was there an irreducible minimum that should be provided nationally.  This question lay at the heart of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy whose present system of subsidies inclined towards self-sufficiency with damaging consequences for other, in particular, developing country producers.  Nor was the USA blameless in the matter of subsidies, admitted our North American participants.  It would be interesting to see how the Doha wording on export subsidies worked out in practice.  We noted, however, that, in domestic terms, the US Government accepted responsibility for the entire food chain from adequate supplies to the nutritional value of school meals.  Governments were also thought to be responsible for the safety of food – the setting up of the UK’s Food Safety Agency was agreed to have been a necessary and a useful initiative.  In addition Governments were considered to be responsible for the delivery of public or social goods like clean air, water and, some argued, healthy ecosystems on which agriculture and society depended in the long term.

This provoked a discussion of the role of the market.  Why, argued one participant, should agriculture be treated differently from other industries.  Those who could not survive without subsidies did not deserve to do so.  Governments should concentrate on retraining those who left the industry and provide separately for public goods.  Others contested this.  In their view it was not possible to divorce farming from environmental and other issues.  A holistic view was the only answer over the long term.

In thinking about the role of farmers, we were reminded that farming was a private enterprise occupation.  Without a profit there would be no-one willing to fulfill all the myriad requirements now expected of farmers.  A North American participant suggested that markets were the best way of allocating resources, delivering efficiencies and driving growth and innovation.  However, markets were also impersonal and cruel. Left to themselves they would not provide the public goods which some thought desirable. There was also a major difference between farming in North America and Europe.  In North America a deep structural reform had taken place.  The number of significant producers was now down to a few thousand while in Europe there were still several million.  When this sort of structural change came to Europe it would be as painful as it had been in America.

The role and nature of consumers was much debated.  Should they be considered solely as consumers, in which case agriculture would simply be a commodity supply business with the consumer as king.  This view appeared to be supported by opinion surveys indicating that when purchasing food, price was the most important factor for the majority of consumers.  Nevertheless the same consumers in different surveys said that they attached importance to animal health and a range of environmental issues.  In this sense they were acting as citizens rather than consumers.  Hardened observers of inconsistencies in public opinion remarked that voters tended to have both attitudes as well as behaviour.

It was suggested that in most developed countries, concern for animal welfare and public goods generally, was expressed by an articulate 20% of the population and it was their views which tended to dominate the debate.  Others thought that this did not do justice to a growing public awareness of issues which went wider than price.  However, a paradoxical effect of single issue campaigns was that they tended to drive relatively well regulated and humane production abroad to countries whose standards were often much lower than those of the host country.  In this context we noted the importance – and difficulty – of informative and comprehensible labelling for home grown and imported food.  Labelling did not, however, affect processed foods and eating out at restaurants where the provenance of the food was unknown.  A number of participants stressed the need for education of consumers/citizens, the provision to them of accurate information and the general need for transparency and openness in this sector.

This point was echoed by those considering environmental issues.  There was general support for the view that open societies, although capable of making seriously wrong choices, nevertheless were more likely to promote sustainability in land use, in particular agriculture, because they permitted criticism and opportunity for redress.  Mao’s China and Kim’s North Korea were examples of closed societies in which enormous damage had been done to land and the environment generally.  Efficient long-term agricultural systems, claimed one participant, were supportive of and not detrimental to the environment.  Agriculture might be part of the environmental solution rather than a problem.  Human use of the land was not intrinsically bad.

Trade was acknowledged to be an enormously powerful motivator which could, however, cause harmful distortions.  Examples abounded in Africa where the drive to produce commodities for foreign currency export had displaced locally suitable crops and caused long-term damage to land and water resources.  The same could be said about subsidies, many of which produced perverse results.  The lack of any tax on aviation fuel, which facilitated long-distance trade in agricultural products, was cited as an example.

It was suggested that the WTO should be balanced by a WEO (World Environment Organisation) which could bring together all the existing disparate environmental organisations.  It was hoped that the two organisations would not be antagonistic with the WEO helping to ensure that long-term environmental considerations and costs could be brought to bear on trade issues.  Some advocated that environmental questions should be dealt with in terms of a hierarchy of responsibilities at the local, regional, national and international levels.  Others thought that,  however desirable in theory, such a hierarchy would be difficult to define and enforce.  In discussion, we realised that we had returned to the three basic principles of the Rio Conference of 1992 on Environment and Development:  The Polluter should pay;  the precautionary principle should apply (as it now does in German law) and that the environmental dimension should be taken into account in all major economic decisions.

Sensitivity to change and flexibility over the use of land were, we thought, of great importance.  Future climate change could profoundly affect the use of land worldwide.  To achieve widespread public understanding of this, greater education was essential and should indeed be an integral part of any future environmental policies.  We noted that the next international occasion at which these important questions would be discussed was the World Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in September 2002 in Johannesburg.  This might be an occasion to correct what some perceived to be the environmental deficiencies in the agreements reached at the recent World Trade negotiations at Doha.

In looking at other uses of the countryside such as recreation, tourism and business we were forced to acknowledge the major differences between geographically large countries like the USA or Canada and smaller European countries like the UK.  In the former, different areas could be used for agriculture and recreation.  In the UK, farming was deeply interwoven into the fabric of rural life and the landscape.  Some of us thought that this mosaic was a national asset which deserved support from public funds.  We should not be shy of putting thus proposition to the population.  We might be surprised by the strength of the affirmative response.

We thought that tourism brought benefits in the form of better infrastructure but were concerned that too little of the cash generated by tourism flowed into the pockets of farmers who played a large part in creating the countryside which the tourists found attractive.  A special tax on tourists was however, not thought to be the answer in the UK – although taxes of this sort had been used in some countries.  Tourists like others paid their taxes and general taxation was thought to be a fairer way of equalising out differences between the earning capabilities of places of outstanding natural beauty like the Lake District and countryside on the urban fringes.  Another example of urban and agricultural interface was the effect of new housing estates which would increase water consumption and could have a profound effect on existing agricultural licences for water extraction and irrigation.

We heard an eloquent plea for special treatment of uplands which could not compete on level terms in agricultural production with more fertile areas.  Would it not make better sense to pay hill-farmers a basic rate to keep their land in good condition against an emergency when they might need to be brought back into production.  This good-husbandry rate might be topped up by payments for a range of other services such as landscaping, wildlife preservation, public access, flood management etc.  The money could be found by redirecting and consolidating the many different current subsidies.

At various times during the conference we looked at the difficult balance between rights and responsibilities.  In all our countries there was a growing emphasis on citizens rights or entitlements to clean air, water, landscapes.  But it was difficult to separate these rights from corresponding responsibilities.  This led us to a discussion of priorities and values.  One participant suggested that instead of asking what farming was for, we should address the prior question of what the countryside was for.  To answer that question we needed to agree on a set of values which would inform our priorities.  Although we often referred to ethics this seemed to mean no more than non-economic factors.  The absence of an agreed set of values appeard to be a hollow centre in our debate which was one of the reasons why we found it so difficult to agree on specific policies.

At the other end of the spectrum there were frequent pleas for our policies and decisions to be based on “good science”.  Governments were urged not to cut back on publicly funded research, partly because it was feared that research funded by multinational companies might be biased towards their commercial interests.  This provoked the comment from one participant that the public funds for science would be put to much more productive use if the same effort was put into thinking through what we really needed to know, as was put into the subsequent research.

Our discussions ended with an attempt to identify a matrix of questions and observations which might help us with the key issues we had been discussing.  We had acknowledged that the issue of sustainable agriculture was characterised by divergence and fragmentation.  There was a dilemma between Government and market intervention.  Markets needed some Government regulation to work properly but Government also needed markets to achieve their policy goals.  There were also disfunctions of time.  Systems which had been put in place after the last war might no longer be appropriate in a world where the industrialised countries might represent only 10% of the world’s future population.  There were no organs of international governance and it was not easy to find accommodation between, for instance, the WTO, the EU and local considerations.  We needed land-use policies which took account of both urban and rural factors.  It did not seem that the continuation of the status quo was an option.  A wider public dialogue was needed and a radical approach was called for.  A drastic change of course was necessary  which might also help to reconcile differing views and values without setting up in conflict or competition with one another.  While we had a good idea of what the market would provide we had yet to agree how to pay for social goods.  Difficult questions of values were raised by issues such as what level of support should be provided and what should be our priorities.  How should we integrate our policies in these differing fields and between different communities where the drivers for these policies were themselves moving at differing speeds.  Perhaps, reflected a final commentator, we should not look at markets as the mechanism which has failed us but at deficiencies in our political systems which had so far failed to give a lead to a confused and irrational electorate.

The conference ended with a number of suggestions for future Ditchley conferences on particular aspects of the problem we had been discussing – usually a sign of a successful conference.  I am glad to be back at Ditchley again and grateful to our chairman and the others who helped to make this such a stimulating and thought provoking conference.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: The Earl of Selborne KBE FRS
Chancellor of the University of Southampton and Director of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation 

Mr John Banks OBE
Vice President & Secretary,  The Canadian Ditchley Foundation
Dr Gordon Dorrell 
Acting Assistant Deputy Minister (Research), Agriculture and Agri-Food, Canada
Dr Anthony M Fuller  
University of Guelph: Professor, School of Rural Planning and Development and Geography Dr John Kennelly 
Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science University of Alberta

Mr Allan Andersen
Chairman: Institute of Food Economics and  Food Policy Forum and Food Policy Think Tank EC
Mr Oliver Drewes  
Cabinet of Mr Franz Fischler, European Commission

Mr Matthew Dempsey
Editor and Chief Executive, Irish Farmers Journal

Professor Malcolm Grant
Pro Vice Chancellor, University of Cambridge;  Chair, Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission (UK).

Mr Wilfrid Legg
Head of Environment Departent, Agriculture Directorate, OECD

Mr Christopher Bourchier
Head, Rural Estates, The Crown Estate.
Ms Jane Brown 
Director, Land Management and Rural Development, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.
Mr Malcolm Bruce MP  
Member of Parliament (Liberal Democrat);  Liberal Democrat spokesman on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dr Anne Buckenham  
Director General, Crop Protection Association UK Ltd.
Mr Richard Butler  
County Chairman Wilts NFU and NFU Council Delegate for Wilts NFU;  Chairman, NFU National Cereals Committee
Mr Alastair Davy  
Swaledale hill farmer; founder member, Hill Farming Initiative;  Chairman, Northern Dales Meat Initiative and Farmers Market.
Ms Caroline Drummond  
LEAF Project Co-ordinator, National Agricultural Centre.
Mr Tom Eddy 
Head of European Union & Agricultural Strategy Division, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mr Henry R Fell CBE 
Honorary Vice President, Royal Agricultural Society of England, Chairman, Commercial Farmers Group
Dr Richard Harding  
Head of Food Chain Strategy Division, UK Food Standards Agency.
Mrs Deirdre Hutton CBE 
Chairman, National Consumer Council.
Mr John Lloyd Jones OBE  
Chairman, The Countryside Council for Wales.
Dr Stephen H Parry  
Leader, Frozen Foods and Sustainable Agriculture Programme, Unilever.
Dr Dick Potts
Director General, Game Conservancy Trust
The Right Reverend Dr Anthony Russell 
Bishop of Ely;  Commissioner, Rural Development Commission; President: Oxfordshire Rural Community Council
Mr Richard Sanders  
Director of Communications, Royal Agricultural Society of England.
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO  
Chancellor, University of Kent at Canterbury;  Convenor, Government Panel on Sustainable Development;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Guy Trehane  
Farmer; Managing Director, Hampreston Manor Farm Ltd.
Mr Nick Way 
Director of Policy and Advisory Services, Country Land and Business Association.
Lord Whitty 
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Professor Michael Winter  
Professor of Rural Economy, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.
Mr Lawrence Woodward  
Director, Elm Farm Research Centre

Professor David R Harvey
Professor of Agricultural Economics, Department of Agricultural Economics and Food Marketing, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Dr Raymond Cross
President, College of Agriculture and Technology at Morrisville, State University of New York

The Honorable Dan Glickman  
Partner, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, LLP;  formerly  Secretary of Agriculture
The Honorable Gene Hugoson  
Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Agriculture;  Vice-President, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture
Dr Edward T Kanemasu 
The University of Georgia Regents Professor and Director of International Agriculture
Ms Teresa A Maurer  
National Center for Appropriate Technology, Arkansas;  Manager, Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Program
Dr Bruce A Scherr  
President and CEO, Sparks Companies Inc, Memphis;  member, National FFA Foundation Sponsors' Board