Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Bloody Technology Explained

Last night's post was of course a gentle poke in the ribs of Stringer, in a homage to his occasional rant style postings, particularly as we have different views on technology in birding and the obvious amazement in his post at what you get for £250k when it comes to technology in modern farm machinery. Hopefully no one actually believed I was out in the fields in 1973 cutting crops with a scythe at the age of eight (it was 1978 and I was picking potatoes).

The slightly more serious point behind the attempted humour of the post was to focus a little attention on Farmland Birds and specifically those amongst us that seem to advocate a return to the farming of yesteryear when farmers were peasants, birds were plentiful and half the land was uncultivated and a wildlife paradise. Farmers of course should be looking after wildlife and the environment out of the goodness of their hearts and because it is the right thing to do shouldn't they?

Many of our familiar Farmland species are in trouble, at their lowest ebb for over 50 years and in some instances possibly the lowest in 500 years. It's all the fault of modern agriculture, squeezing the life out of the land, whether it be through cultivating every last inch, planting at the wrong time or throwing cloud after cloud of pesticide onto crops to increase productivity. That is what many of us seem to believe isn't it?

So what are the alternatives, if some of our food was produced in a wildlife- friendly way, free from pesticides, on farms where Grey Partridges and Skylarks were in abundance we would buy it wouldn't we?
It was called 'organic' food and no we didn't and don't buy it, or at least 98 out of 100 of us didn't buy it as organic food still only represents 2% of food and drink spend in the UK. We didn't buy it because of the price, because there were other alternatives on which we preferred spending our money, Sky TV/Flatscreen TV/Mobile Phone/Satnav/weekend motorbike/foreign holiday/designer clothes (delete as appropriate) or even just saving it for a rainy day.

So when we criticise Farmers for making choices and trying to maximise their income we're being ever so slightly hypocritical. They're simply doing what most of us would do in the same position. However the whole ethical/organic/fairtrade food movement over the last ten years hasn't been a complete waste of time. We now know we want ethical food, we know why it's right and the consequences of not doing it. We now have the choice, as ethically produced food is very much in the mainstream supermarkets, it's just that we don't expect to pay any more for it than we do any other food.

Given that this position is unlikely to change in the near future if we want to halt the decline in biodiversity in the UK I believe there is only one alternative left and that has to be driven by government. Currently two 'stewardship' schemes exist an Entry Level Scheme that covers 60% of land in England and a High Level Scheme covering 1%. This needs to be turned on it's head as a matter of urgency. The ELS should be scrapped and a single scheme akin to the current High Level Stewardship be the only form of environmental payments. Savings made from not administering two schemes should be ploughed back into more generous payments to encourage more farmers into joining. In fact government should make joining compulsory, this would ensure that Farmers are encouraged to achieve minimum standards in looking after the environment and it's biodiversity but are adequately rewarded for doing so out of the tax payer's pocket.

Modern agriculture is here to stay, like it or not, so are the big four warehouses masquerading as shops that most of us buy our food from and so is human nature. The challenge we face is getting the best from the first whilst continuing to push the second to improve standards and achieve a healthy ethical position whilst trying to compensate for the latter's tendency toward self-interest.

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