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Last Updated: Friday, 15 October, 2004, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
The countryside's uncertain future
By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC environment correspondent

The countryside
Will Britain's rural areas see much change in the years to come?

When I try to envisage the future of the countryside, it occurs to me that I have now been covering the environment and rural affairs issues for a decade.

And in every one of those years, we have said that the next few years could be the most crucial for British agriculture and the countryside since the war. What's more, it's been true every year.

Think for a moment about the seismic shift there has been in those ten years. BSE, e-coli, listeria and other related food scares, the GM debate (some would say fiasco) and, of course, foot and mouth.

These crises not only created fertile ground for movements like organic farming; they were fundamental in changing the public's relationship with government and other previously trusted institutions.

Faith in science?

After BSE, people simply did not believe the government on some food issues.

Remember all those advertising campaigns in the 50s and 60s fronted by a reassuring man in a white coat?

Well, scientists are more likely to pop up on our television screens these days as sinister creators of mass poisons. The GM debate has shown all too clearly how we no longer have unquestioning faith in scientists.

In the articles posted on this site, my colleagues have given some convincing - and perhaps frightening - visions on the future.

For an affluent commuter, living in rural areas is very nice - if you're poor you can end up on the very margins of society.

Miriam O'Reilly pointed out that for the big food manufacturers, UK farming could become a bit of an irrelevance.

One senior manager in a food processing multi-national told me recently that with beef from South America, pork from Denmark, wheat from Eastern Europe and fruit from the Mediterranean, British farming could end up being written out of the picture altogether.

Alex Kirby pointed out that agriculture is no longer at the apex of rural life - that rural dwellers increasingly enjoy the countryside through the windscreens of their cars, rather than on foot.

It's certainly increasingly difficult to make a living in rural areas if you are unskilled. For an affluent commuter, living in rural areas is very nice - if you're poor you can end up on the very margins of society.

And recently, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, suggested there was a "passive apartheid" in rural areas.

Food scares

So, should the last person left in a rural area simply turn the lights out? Well, no.

As Miriam went on to say in her article, food scares have made people all the more aware of where their food is coming from - and given the choice, many want it to come from Britain.

Brecon Beacons national park
Is the countryside likely to become just a "marketable leisure asset"?

The exponential growth of farmers' markets - although they make up a tiny percentage of overall sales - is a testament to that.

So, scanning the horizon, and thinking the blue skies thought, what is the future? The Rural Economy and Land Use programme is a 20m government-funded project which will, over the next few years, look at exactly that.

To start with, they commissioned a group of future prediction consultants to brief the academics involved in the programme.

According to their predictions, the countryside will in the next 50 years be seen as a marketable leisure asset, with landowners renting out their land for mass stress and fat-busting activities like go-karting and paragliding, making the countryside more accessible to all.

Rural changes

They also say people will be increasingly concerned about the provenance of their food, opening up opportunities for British farmers.

But these will be "niche" opportunities - organics, rare breeds, fine foods. It seems inevitable that our self-sufficiency in food - currently just over 70% - will continue to drop.

At the beginning of next year, the way farmers are paid subsidies will change dramatically - this emphasis will shift from producing food to keeping the land in good environmental order.

Farmers have already told me they see little point in "sitting on the tractor for 20 hours a day during harvest for very little profit when I could be sitting at home watching the telly."

Foot and mouth proved that the motor of the rural economy is now tourism - and that is what could be the saviour of the countryside against creeping suburbanisation - the 'rurbs, if you like - and homogenisation.

Research suggests that, whether you live on an inner city estate or in a Georgian farmhouse in the countryside, everyone has a picture in their heads of rural England - the sort of rolling hills, trees and grazing animals that children draw.

That is a very powerful image - but one that has come about through centuries of land management. People will care deeply if this mental picture is no longer replicated in real life - the worry is, that they may not realise it has disappeared until it is too late.

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