Is there a productivity crisis in Farming?

Following remarks made last week by Peter Kendall, President of the NFU, on Tuesday I looked at whether there was a biodiversity crisis in England, and what farming had to do with the crisis. The other side of Peter’s assertion was that, far from having a biodiversity crisis, we face a productivity crisis in farming.  This is what he said “If productivity is no better 40 years from now, we will be in deep trouble” and  “if the aim is to feed 9 billion by 2050 there is a sense of urgency to start dealing with this issue now”.

Now from the outset I admit I am no agricultural economist, and I may well miss nuances – please do correct me if there are errors in my thinking.

Firstly Agricultural productivity has increased in the UK immensely since the Second World War, when the nation had to increase its self-sufficiency in food as a result of the u-boat blockade. Campaigns such as Dig for Victory, Backyard Pig and of course “The Great Harvests” of 1942-1944, resulted in the nation avoiding famine – indeed the nation was far healthier under these conditions of rationing and domestic food production.

The Green Revolution of the 1950s – 1970s, was driven by by publicly funded agricultural research programmes, and developed new high-yielding strains of cereals and grass, new pesticides, cheaper fertiliser and techniques like deep-ploughing. Government funded capital investment into land improvement, such as drainage, also led to large-scale removal of landscape features and wildlife habitats. Cereal yields increased four-fold from 1945-2005, from 2 tonnes/ha to 8 tonnes/ha. Grassland productivity also soared, as semi-natural grasslands were replaced by high yielding monocrop leys. In fact as a result of public subsidy to intensify farming, initially domestic, then from 1973 through the Common Agricultural Policy, farmers became so successful at producing food that they produced far more than was needed – and public funds were used to buy the surplus and store it (to shore up the market price) – this was the era of grain mountains, butter hills and milk lakes.

There was certainly a productivity crisis at this time – the crisis was over-production. The price was paid by biodiversity, landscape, archaeology and people who saw their environment being despoiled for no reason. A public backlash ensued, resulting in sticking plaster policies like set-aside where the excess production was scaled back by paying farmers to take land out of production (nothing new here – Major Major‘s father made his fortune in the 1930s by not growing alfalfa in Catch 22). On a more positive note Agri-environment schemes were created at this time, as a way of supporting farmers who wanted to either continue to farm unintensively, or to reduce the intensity of their agriculture, to provide public benefits such as wildlife, landscape quality, water quality and other ecosystem services, as they are now known.

Now the pendulum is swinging back in the opposite direction – if you believe the NFU. They selectively quote from the Foresight Report as a justification to increase productivity and repeatedly argue that more productivity is needed to feed the burgeoning world population. How does the UK fare in terms of productivity, compared with our EU partners?

Based on the most recent data, the UK produces 11% of the EU’s wheat and 10% of the EU’s barley, 22% of the EU’s drinking milk (the EU’s largest producer out of 27 member states) and 12% of the EU’s beef. Sounds like quite a lot doesnt it – until you look at the relative area of agricultural land in the UK compared with other EU countries.

The UK has 16.1 million ha of agricultural land (around 9 million in England). Quite a big chunk of this total is upland grazing in Wales and Scotland – the total area of “permanent pasture” in the UK is 10 million ha – 3.6 million in England. The total EU agricultural area is 184.7 million ha. So England’s agricultural land is under 5% of Europe’s total and the UK’s is 8.7%. All these figures are from the Eurostat 2010 yearbook.

Data from Defra show that England produced 14 Million tonnes of wheat in 2011, 92% of the UK total, from 1.8 million ha of land (that’s a quarter of England’s agricultural land). So England produced 10% of the EU’s wheat from just over 1% of its agricultural area – a phenomenally productive rate. These same data show that cereal yields were up 3% this year from last. Barley was up 7%.

The figures are harder to come by for the area of land used to produce that 22% of the EU’s drinking milk, partly because dairy cows are fed from a variety of sources; maize, protein derived from soya, and intensive grassland. Suffice to say that producing nearly a quarter of the EU’s drinking milk from some small fraction of 5% of Europe’s agricultural land does indicate very high productivity relative to the rest of the EU.

There are other issues too – firstly waste. 30% of the food produced in Britain never gets eaten – it is wasted. It must be a higher priority to reduce this waste first rather than increase productivity.

Secondly, non-food crops are being grown on land that could be used to produce food – oil-seed rape and wheat are being grown in England to provide feedstock for the biofuels industry, even though the evidence is now firmly stacking up against any net climate benefit from this approach to fuel production, partly through Indirect Land use Change as well as driving biodiversity loss. Maize is also now being grown to feed into Anaerobic Digesters – to produce “clean” energy – the irony being that maize is one of the most intensive crops imaginable. Public subsidies are supporting the production of these energy crops.

Thirdly, protein is fed to ruminants – that protein is produced either here or more often abroad. Ruminants have happily lived on grass and other forage for millennia – it is another example of waste in the system, that they are fed on high protein diets. The Sustainable Livestock Bill sought to highlight the problems with this approach to livestock farming.

So – do we have a productivity crisis? England is relatively speaking more productive than anywhere else in Europe – because of that massive intensification exercise that started in the 1950s and continues to this day. Much is talked about increasing productivity while minimising impacts on the environment. In this country the impacts of the massive increase in productivity decades ago are still being felt – on our wildlife, landscapes and the benefits people derive from the farmed environment – we need to address these problems first.


About grasslandstrust

The Grasslands Trust is the only national UK charity that focuses entirely on saving grasslands that are valuable because they are rich in wildlife, history, or for other reasons.
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