As I was drilling some wheat last week, I listened in to a video conference via the mobile phone on the launch of a new report commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Farmers.

While the auto-steer might have made this easier by controlling the driller’s direction of travel and keeping it on the straight and narrow, I wanted to get some idea of the path which the entire industry might be set to go down which was being discussed in the report, ‘Brexit 2, leavened with a touch of Covid 19’.

The review, carried out by leading academic, Professor Allan Buckwell, formerly of Imperial College and a member of the Institute for European Environmental Policy think tank, marked his second look at the issue. His first having been conducted prior to the Brexit referendum.

Though he owned up to a major flaw in his first version – by predicting back then that the country would vote to remain within the EU – his prognostications on the course which the industry would find itself being carried towards in the event of a vote to leave certainly don’t look to be all that wide of the mark.

But, he admitted that there is a bit if an underlying conundrum facing the sector as it considers its future course – with both farmers and policy makers facing two very different (and contradictory) calls for how things should be directed as a long-term strategy is being drawn up for the industry.

Buckwell said that while there was widespread recognition of the need to intensify food production to feed an ever increasing number of hungry mouths, this was being counterbalanced by calls for a de-intensification to help counter habitat and biodiversity loss and to combat climate change.

One possible path would lead us to a new ‘green revolution’, like that major (but nonetheless controversial) step forward which was taken by many developing nations during the 1960s and ‘70s which involved moving from low output subsistence farming where many farmers often struggled to produce enough for their own families, to the larger-scale, more industrialised forms of agriculture adopted in the developed world.

The move saw a dramatic increase in the levels of food produced in many third world countries by promoting the use not only of more machinery and equipment but also of more productive varieties which had been developed to be able to take greater advantage of synthetic fertilisers and modern farming techniques.

But while this increase in food production was marked, it was also reliant on much higher use of expensive inputs which the majority of small farmers couldn’t afford. This led to huge social upheavals and often to many small-scale farmers being forced to leave their land with little choice but to migrate to cities and shanty towns.

Critics of the approach also point to the fact that there could also be some major breakdowns in the system when new diseases took advantage of the greater reliance on crop monocultures – as well as the environmental impacts of land-use change and pollution incidents which resulted from the sudden change marked the down-side of green revolution.

This conundrum remains with us today and the familiar dilemma is being faced by the policy makers as they look to plan out the direction which our own future policy should take. For we now have two opposing directions in which we, as farmers, could be encouraged to go.

As mentioned one could be a new green revolution – this time involving the use of precision farming techniques – including the use of technologies such as GPS, big data, artificial intelligence and robotics, backed up by new breeding practices for pest resistance, supplemented by vertical food production and the adoption of new food sources such as insect, algal and cultured proteins.

While I would guess that the majority of arable farmers who have been raised to maximise output from every square inch of land would see this as the only real answer to moving forward, there are other very strong voices out there proclaiming loudly in politicians ears that a total system transformation is necessary. The argument is that it requires de-intensification through strong action on pollution, using both regulation and taxes and more stringent action on pesticide approvals to reduce their use (the latter option already being a feature of the latest CAP reform in Europe).

This would mean the authorities adopting and encouraging measures designed to incentivise a shift to organic/agroecology/sustainable farming practices which proponents believe rely more on working with nature rather than against it.

Or, as the professor put it: “Basically this leaves us with two narratives which don’t stack up. One argues that farmers will have to produce more to feed the starving world and to deal with the fact that Britain is dangerously under-providing its own food supplies, so full steam ahead with new technologies. The other maintains that the system is broken and that we must transition our whole food system to agroecology.”

But as we all know, both paths fail to take into account the whole story.

The first pays no attention to over-consumption and waste further down the food chain, whilst giving too little consideration to the efforts we need to make – along with the rest of society – towards restoring climate stability and biodiversity. It might also be fair to say that it might smack more than a little bit of ‘techno over-optimism’.

The second, back to ‘dog and stick’ farming option seems to ignore the need to improve technical and economic efficiency, whilst it also fails to address the widespread social and welfare implications of higher food prices. Also, how we avoid simply importing goods which fall below the standards we set here?

Sadly, though, the learned professor didn’t have a clear cut answer – and it would only be by striking a balance between these two opposing paradigms that some sort of sensible approach could be reached. He admitted that the mixed signals being given out made it extremely difficult for farmers to know how to plan ahead for their businesses.

Rather disappointingly, he rolled out the old chestnut that the top performing farmers would be best placed to weather the storm, regardless of what direction was taken – but he wrapped this up in a new way starting that ‘knowledge intensification’ would be an important factor in helping producers stay in business. The more knowledge per hectare available, the better the chances of survival, he argued.

Buckwell also said that the in the short-term it was critical for producers to stay alert: “Watch for clarifications on consumer’s behaviour, trade regimes, regulatory environment, access to technology and government support.”

His own view was that, despite all the froth, there would be no big new legislative changes in the short term as governments would be focused on coping with Brexit and Covid-19 recovery.

But this view was somewhat contradicted when Defra Secretary, George Eustice, spoke at a video conference during the Tory Party conference only a week later. There, he promised that he would publish a paper in November which would give more clarity and provide a clear steer on the course which policy and support measures would take in the future.

With a lot of the talk ‘down south’ revolving around the ‘Valley of Death’, which many have been predicting they will have to get through when BPS payments are stopped but before any new system is bedded in, he promised to avoid a ‘Big Bang’ changeover, with no cliff-edge cut-off of support.

Promising a seven-year transition, where public good payments would be piloted and gradually introduced to allow farmers to recoup some of the lost BPS payments, he said this would allow farmers time to get used to the new systems and find out what worked for their own businesses.

While it would be nice to get more clarification from the Scottish Government on the course that our own path is likely to take on this side of the Border, it will be interesting to see if Eustice’s paper puts any more actual meat on the bones than we were given in our own somewhat nebulous ‘Stability and simplicity’ roadmap, released at the Royal Highland Show back in 2018.

For, while the Chinese proverb famously said that ‘every journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step, it would be useful to know in which direction it should be taken …