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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December, 2004, 12:22 GMT
Farming 'must embrace the new'
Wheat, PA
Farming needs a strategy to survive the next few decades
UK farming must embrace new ideas and scientific developments if it is to survive over the next few decades.

That is the claim of the British Crop Production Council (BCPC) which has published a report examining ways of making farming more "eco-efficient".

Agriculture must cut the environmental damage caused by intensive farming and move to sustainable land use, it says.

Farmers need a strategy to cope with the end of current Common Agricultural Policy arrangements in 2012, BCPC adds.

We all need to sing from the same hymn sheet
John Fisher, BCPC
Farming needs to be sustainable while remaining competitive, the industry and policy group argues. In addition, the government must prioritise its own strategy for farming beyond 2012.

The report, Enhancing The Eco-Efficiency Of Agriculture, argues that science needs to play a crucial role in this transition.

"What we haven't got at the moment is a vision which says: 'this is where we want agriculture to go'," John Fisher, general secretary of the BCPC, told the BBC News website.

"So we thought this would be an ideal opportunity to try to reach a consensus as to what farming should supply in the future.

"That could be very novel crops or it could be ecological services, such as planting more trees on floodplains to prevent flooding, or boosting the amount of carbon in the soil to help with the carbon cycle."

The report, published on Thursday, defines eco-efficiency as the efficient and sustainable use of resources such as plant nutrients, pesticides and energy, in farm production.

Eco-friendly shift

It favours a shift to more eco-friendly approaches to agriculture such as mixed farming and precision farming. This last approach involves using modern technology to ensure that pesticides and fertilisers are only used when absolutely necessary.

Christopher Doyle, an emeritus professor at the Scottish Agricultural College, and author of the report, said some of the novel crops which could be grown by farmers included so-called energy plants, which are grown specifically for generating energy.

Cow walks in front of coffee bar (PA)
The report was issued on the day the Royal Smithfield Show began in London
Professor Doyle cited Brazil as an example; the country has an extensive programme for the production of alcohol fuel from sugar.

But Mr Fisher added: "The problem with some of these things is some of the science may be available and some of it may not. The other problem is that the markets for some of these things haven't been developed yet."

Controversially, the report also advocates reaping the potential benefits of biotechnology.

The reluctance of companies to share commercially sensitive information did present a potential difficulty to some of the proposals, the BCPC adds.

"In order for research to supply the answers that farmers need to turn scientific knowledge into products for them, we all need to sing from the same hymn sheet," said Mr Fisher.

Future development

A different proposal being looked at by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is an environmental support scheme, which could provide subsidies to farmers based on a points system for protecting the farm's ecology.

"The report from the BCPC provides a strategic direction for future development which, in general, we endorse," said the National Farmers' Union (NFU), in a statement.

Tractor ploughs a field (PA)
Conservationists say the debate is moving their way
Emily Diamand, of campaign group Friends of the Earth, said that while she welcomed some aspects of the report, such as a greater emphasis on mixed farming, other aspects such as the use of biotechnology were worrying.

"The BCPC as far as I know is dominated by commercial interests and research organisations that work on that sort of thing. I don't think any of the organisations who work regularly on sustainable farming or conservation are represented," she said.

But she added that it was good to see that it had aligned with conservationists on some of its conclusions.

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