Norfolk Farming Conference 2018: Prince Charles says intensive farming has had a “devastating effect on the rural environment”

PUBLISHED: 11:07 01 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:46 01 February 2018

Norfolk Farming Conference 2018. HRH, The Prince of Wales speaking via video at the event.

Norfolk Farming Conference 2018. HRH, The Prince of Wales speaking via video at the event. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

The Prince of Wales urged Norfolk farmers to work “in harmony with nature” to overcome the effect of “perverse incentives” for intensive food production which has had “a devastating effect on the rural environment”.

The Prince of Wales, pictured at the Sandringham Flower Show. Picture: Ian BurtThe Prince of Wales, pictured at the Sandringham Flower Show. Picture: Ian Burt

Prince Charles recorded a video message to launch the 2018 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

He celebrated the Royal family’s long history of farming in Norfolk on the Sandringham Estate, which he said “has always had a very special place in my heart”.

But he lamented the ecological damage caused by the intensification of agriculture since his childhood, adding that farmers were not to blame as they “have merely been responding to the incentives provided to them”.

Now, he said incentives should be redirected to encourage a return to mixed farming, involving a crop rotation which boosts soil fertility, and grazing animals working in a balance with arable crops.

“One of the things I remember vividly from my formative years in the 1950s and 60s, was the way mixed farming systems, which were still then the norm in this part of the world, managed to combine conservation and food production in an integrated form,” he said. “Since then it has been somewhat soul-destroying to witness the way in which perverse incentives have encouraged farmers to adopt practices that have had such a devastating effect on the rural environment.

“I am, of course, speaking here of the indirect consequences of modern intensive farming systems which have caused the destruction of so much of our natural capital and biodiversity indicators, and led to a precipitous decline of soil fertility, the loss of wetlands, wildflower meadows, pollinating insects and so many other indicators of a healthy environment.

“At the same time, the water companies are happy to spend over £100m per annum to remove the insecticides, pesticides and nitrates out of our water supplies. This seems to be a tragic case of treating the symptoms, not the cause.

“So, why not get to the source of the problems and pursue an agricultural system that avoids using all these chemical inputs in the first place, and instead delivers long-term environmental and social benefits?

“I have a feeling that, in their heart of hearts, the vast majority of farmers would much prefer to switch to food production systems which work with the grain of nature – integrating healthy food production with the building of fertile soil while co-existing with the vast community of soil organisms, insects, small mammals and birds which used to form part of the rich tapestry of nature, which I remember from my childhood, not just round the edge of farms but even in the middle of fields.

“Inevitably, critics have dismissed this impression of food production in harmony with nature as unrealistic in the face of feeding a peak population of 10 billion. And yet they are not even taking note of the fact that in both the developing and the developed world some 40% of all food is wasted. In the UK alone we send a horrific total of some 10 million tonnes of food to landfill each year.

“My experience, and I suspect of many other farmers, is that if you get the balance right it is possible to produce very acceptable yields while at the same time keeping the balance of natural and social capital which has been so tragically diminished in the post-war period.

“One cannot blame the farmers for their part in this process, since they have merely been responding to the incentives provided to them, but at long last it now appears that agricultural policy makers are waking up to the impending ecological crisis, as illustrated by the recent research which shows that we have lost 75% of our insect population since 1979 and, more alarmingly, have only enough soil fertility left for another 30 to 50 harvests.

“Not before time, new incentives are being considered which could enable farmers to return to what used to be referred to as mixed farming, involving a crop rotation with a fertility-building phase and grazing ruminants working in a balance with arable crops.

“I suspect that more and more farmers would support a transition of this nature, which I daresay would constitute the greatest farming evolution for more than a century, but with the brilliant capacities of marketing and innovation which have always been the hallmark of the farming community, I feel sure that we could rise to the challenge.”

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