The response has been a lot of comment and debate, but little in the way of behavioural change. For many farmers, they have a system of intensive modern farming which works, and they see no reason to change; but for the farmers moving to regenerative farming systems, there is an argument that they are doing the right thing.
Generally, modern agriculture developed over the last three generations to be very successful in providing plentiful and affordable food to the consumer, and good profits to the farmer. Now the questions are, for how much longer, and at what environmental cost?
Recent lack of rain and high temperatures will impact on yields in some places, but the picture is patchy. Those arable farmers who achieve a reasonable, if not record, harvest and who bought fertiliser before the recent price hikes will do well; so no need to change yet. But what if, as much evidence suggests, temperatures continue to rise and rainfall becomes less reliable? And fertiliser costs stay high? And wheat prices fall? The system of farming developed over the last 60 years may not work so well, especially in a changing subsidy world.
The farmers who are likely to thrive are those who look after their soils, reducing the need for artificial fertilisers and making the crops more resilient to drought, flood, pests and disease. Some sectors will achieve a price premium for their product; others will sell into markets no longer available to less accountable systems. That is the message from Groundswell and other regenerative farming systems which espouse certain principles designed to achieve good soil health.
Behavioural change will come with government intervention; when, rightly or wrongly, farmers are banned from some of the tools of their trade (e.g. glyphosate, neonicotinoids); fined for following some practices (e.g. spray drift into hedgerows); and encouraged to adapt through the grant system (e.g. the Sustainable Farming Incentive). Farmers may also be denied access to certain markets (e.g. supermarkets requiring new assurance standards).
In the meantime, if the market delivers low cereal prices and high input costs, farmers will be working out how they can adapt their businesses to be less dependent on the market and more versatile in the face of increasing government intervention.
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