Pinstone blog from InnovateZero

Agriculture at the fore at InnovateZero

Reflecting on my recent trip to the InnovateZero Conference, the sheer level of responsibility that is sitting on the shoulders of the agriculture sector really hit home.

As we confront a myriad of environmental and social challenges – ranging from climate change and environmental damage, feeding a growing population, protecting food supply chains against volatility, and supporting public health – it seems everyone is turning to agriculture for the solutions.

Recruiting talent into agriculture

The scale, breadth and importance of this challenge is huge, and it means agriculture is starting to receive greater attention at the highest levels. There was certainly a strong sense of urgency about attracting fresh, high calibre, talent into the sector.

As an example, Dr Chavanda Jacobs-Young from US Department of Agriculture (USDA) highlighted the 24 million dollar investment the US government has made to recruit young people into farming.

The vital role of the agricultural sector is only set to expand as it strives to meet the dual goals of producing healthy, nutritious food for all, while simultaneously protecting and restoring the environment.

Perhaps in the near future, a career in agriculture will be held in as high esteem as a career in medicine.

Agricultural policy new era

George Eustace, former Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), opened the conference by explaining his vision for a reformed agricultural policy.

He discussed the reset in UK agricultural policy, emphasising the shift towards rewarding the delivery of ecosystem services rather than compensating farmers for income forgone.

In theory, this approach should herald a new era, where food production is intertwined with environmental goals, including the development of natural capital markets and a resurgence of interest in regenerative agriculture.

Yet the resilience of our food systems remained a concern. Mr Eustace argued that because a large proportion of food comes from a comparatively small amount of land, we can afford some land use changes – such as tree planting and rewilding – without jeopardising food resilience.

To bolster food security, he suggested we increased production in controlled environments such as glass houses and vertical farms as it is fresh produce that we are least secure in. He cited an example of a new glasshouse capable of supplying all the tomatoes a major UK retailer needs.

Transforming the food system

While his vision is somewhat compelling, I think we would be naïve to think that transforming food production in the UK will be that simple.

For example, proper payment for the delivery of ecosystem services will be absolutely key. This in itself is not straightforward as highlighted in another session which focused on growing natural capital markets.

Kate McGavin, chief policy and strategy officer at UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB), raised the issue of investor confidence. She said investors are very interested in natural capital but are nervous about the quality of the natural asset they are buying.  She emphasised the crucial importance of reliable valuations, so investors can manage risks effectively.

Philip Dunne, MP and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), echoed Kate’s comments around confidence and the urgent need for reliable accounting of natural capital so we don’t undermine the market. He provided some reassurance that frameworks for natural capital valuation were being developed, with the UK aspiring to set a gold standard for natural capital markets that could serve as a global benchmark.

Overall, my main take home was that it is a hugely exciting time to be involved in agriculture, whether you are at the coalface of farming or working within agricultural communications (or in my case, both!).

Effective communication is certainly going to be critical in achieving a successful transformation of the food system and rising to the challenges being presented to the agricultural sector.

Pinstone blog from InnovateZero

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