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Sustainable, Large-Scale Farming: Public Perception Must be Addressed

17 October 2012, at 9:17am

UK - Large-scale livestock farming can be sustainable, but the UK now needs to take a proactive approach to establish an evidence base and best practice standards so these systems can form part of a successful and diverse food production landscape for the future.

This is the key conclusion of a new report from the Worshipful Company of Farmers, which asks the question whether ‘Big' can be ‘Beautiful'. In all three areas of sustainability - economic, environmental and social, including animal welfare - it finds that large-scale has the potential to deliver to high standards, but says the evidence of how this can successfully be delivered and guaranteed within the UK environment and economy is still lacking.

The Master of the Worshipful Company of Farmers, John Reynolds, said the debate around large-scale farming was one the Company wanted to reignite, as the arguments had not evolved in recent months.

"The Company exists to promote farming issues within the City of London, and we believe it's time the debate about large-scale production was brought to the fore again. This report is simply a starting point, and we would like to challenge the industry to take on board the recommendations and move this issue forward."

"Farming is a way of life but it is also a business and, most critically, it provides us with food. We need to find a way to evolve food production to sustainably meet the ever growing demand for food around the world, but we also need to provide reassurance that new farming systems won't ransom our future. These are the areas the debate needs to address."

Partners in the launch, the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE), added it was time for the UK to address the perceived issues around large-scale production if it was to successfully create the diversity of farming systems it needs to meet future challenges.

RASE chief executive David Gardner said: "We appear to be stuck at an impasse where some of our most genuinely innovative farmers are having to hide their light under a bushel. These are the ones who should be demonstrating best practice and moving the industry forward. We need to find a solution that will support progress."

Speaking at the launch, Professor David Leaver, chairman of the RASE's Practice with Science Group and a member of the government chief scientific adviser's Food Research Partnership, added that fact needed to be separated from fiction.

"Optimum sustainability is a careful balancing act which involves achieving the best results possible across all three areas, with minimal compromise," he said.

"It's time for a sensible discussion around the development of UK farming and the role of large-scale systems within that as part of the solution of achieving optimum sustainability in the future. I believe this report will re-open the debate and I would like to challenge the industry to collaborate on delivering the evidence base and best practice needed."

The report authors David Alvis, Amy Jackson and John Allen, said that finding evidence of whether large-scale systems could deliver on sustainability was fairly straightforward. The challenge lay in both ensuring those standards were applied in the UK, and proving this to consumers and critics.

Mr Alvis said: "The industry needs to take a hard look at this issue. Well conceived and professionally managed large-scale farming businesses can, as part of a diverse farming industry, deliver a genuine and significant sustainability dividend that would be difficult to achieve within current farming systems. There are some very capable and innovative farmers out there already achieving outstanding results, but they are being forced to keep a low profile because of the lack of understanding and misperceptions around scale."

"This does nothing except throw the baby out with the bathwater and hold the industry back. We need diversity of systems because we have a diversity of farming environments and a diversity of consumers. As the report's authors, Amy, John and I hope that the industry will recognise the problems this is creating and start working towards providing the evidence needed to allow a new generation of large-scale livestock farms to evolve and deliver the potential benefits they offer."

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.